OCEAN CITY – According to city officials, the words “road diet” and its $25 million cost were viewed negatively by and large, resulting in the Transportation Commission forwarding a recommendation to dedicate existing funding to a median barrier for now.
Last week the State Highway Administration came before the Mayor and City Council to present the MD 528 (Coastal Highway) Community Safety and Enhancement Project. The project is referred to as the “road diet.”
Currently, Coastal Highway is an eight-lane roadway consisting of three, 11-foot travel lanes and a 14-foot bus/bike lane with a five-foot sidewalk on each side that contain several obstructions such as utility poles, signs, benches, fire hydrants and trash barrels. The median is 14 feet wide consisting of brick pavers and some plantings that do not discourage mid-block crossings. The median allows for a 10-foot left turn lane at intersections.
The project limit, or “target area”, is from Route 90 to Convention Center Drive on Coastal Highway, which is approximately 1.4 miles. Within this section, there are 10 signalized intersections with two pedestrian crossing intersections on 49th Street and 54th Street. There are 59 entrances with 38 on the southbound side and 21 on the northbound side.
The road diet proposes Coastal Highway be a six-lane roadway consisting of two 11.5-foot travel lanes, a 12-foot outside lane and a five-foot bike lane with 10-foot sidewalks on each side, and the median remain at 14 feet with a 10-foot left turn lane at intersections.
A couple options were presented on how the outside lane should be designated starting with a bus/right turn lane, which would restrict the outside lane to buses and right turning vehicles as it does today.
Option two would make the outside lane a through/right turn lane that would open the outside lane to through traffic.
The presentation asked if the bike lane should be placed against the curb or in a pocket lane between the outside lane and travel lanes.
The presentation also asked how the buses should approach the bus stops with a dedicated bus lane against the curb. Options include a bike table, which is a peninsula that requires bus riders to walk across the bike lane to meet the bus in the bus lane, a pocket lane where bikes would not interact with the bus lane or have the bus pull through the bike lane.
Next the presentation explored different options to deter pedestrians from crossing the median mid-block.
The first concept was to install a decorative fence down the median that could be combined with plantings to soften the look as done in Atlantic City, N.J. or with special lighting be more visible at night.
The next option is to have raised planters in the median such as along Route 40 in Harford County.
Another median treatment could be a landscaped swale that would also increase stormwater management credits as well as help with drainage along the highway.
The final option would be dense plantings in the medians. Currently, dense planting in the median exists near 25th Street but pedestrians have created a “ghost path” for crossing.
The project schedule has the final design being completed by December of 2015 with construction starting in fall of 2016. Currently, the design stage is funded with $2.4 million. Construction will cost at least $25 million but is not funded at this time.
At the conclusion of the presentation, the Mayor and City Council voted to forward the project to the Transportation Commission for further discussion and feedback.
On Wednesday, the Transportation Commission reviewed the progress of a SHA Pedestrian Safety Study released in October 2012 that identified a list of near-term, mid-term and long-term improvements along Coastal Highway to enhance pedestrian safety.
Near-term improvements included reducing the speed limit south of Route 90 to 35 mph, relocate all bus stops to upstream of signalized intersections, install pavement marking with advance crosswalk warnings similar to the markings located at 49th Street and adjusting signal timing by shortening mainline cycle lengths to improve pedestrian safety by allowing more frequent pedestrians phases. All of the near-term improvements have been completed.
The mid-term improvements focus on deterring pedestrians from crossing at mid-block and outside of signalized pedestrian crosswalks by installing a median barrier, installing three pedestrian actuated signals warranted due to pedestrian volumes in the areas of 42nd, 49th and 54th streets. Two of those signals have been installed on 49th and 54th streets. Also it was suggested removing all pedestrian and emergency vehicle median turndowns.
Lt. Scott Harner, who works closely with SHA on the Pedestrian Safety Committee, reviewed the results of what has been completed so far.
“Since 2008, there was a total of 41 pedestrian related crashed in that target area, 11 involved bicycles, 22 were alcohol involved, 27 of them occurred at night with one fatality in May of 2012,” Harner said. “After this study was conducted, SHA began immediately implementing many of those recommendations and … moving into 2013 the results are a 100-percent reduction in fatalities and a 100-percent reduction in pedestrian crashes.”
The question on the table for the committee, Public Works Director Hal Adkins said, is does Ocean City want SHA to spend the current funding available of $2.4 million on accomplishing the mid-term improvements or skip ahead to the final design of the road diet.
“I don’t mean to sound sarcastic but it is reality … I don’t know where they are going to come up with $25 million to do two years’ worth of work in the near future. I just don’t see it,” Adkins said. “My personal opinion, I would much rather see them do median enhancements the full length of Coastal Highway before the road diet project.”
However, Adkins pointed out it is unknown how much of the $2.4 million design budget has been spent, or if the design dollars could be transferable to construction dollars.
Councilwoman Mary Knight recognized how much of a difference the lights on the Christmas trees in the medians made a difference in being able to see better while driving at night and would much rather see median enhancements such as lighting than a $25 million pie in the sky project.
“We have to attack the mid-term, and what we didn’t do. We have to attack the median, the esthetics, the lighting, and just improve safety before we get to the road diet. A term that when I say it feels like a bad word,” Councilman Tony DeLuca said.
DeLuca acknowledged several big name hotels being built in Ocean City as the resort continues to grow and trouble picturing Coastal Hwy. being reduced to six lanes of traffic.
“Looking at the big picture, if I thought we haven’t made significant process I would be looking at this [road diet] as the alternative. I remember before we had median strips on Coastal Highway, and the business community thought the establishment of medians would be the end of business in Ocean City. After it was completed, those same businesses came back to us and said it was the right thing to do, and recognized SHA and their engineers come up with things we really do need to do,” Mayor Rick Meehan said. “If we were starting Ocean City from scratch, this [road diet] would be the way to go to create those bike lanes and everything else.”
Elements of the road diet have potential, Councilman Dennis Dare explained, such as wider sidewalks should be moved up as a higher priority instead of a long-term item.
“I don’t like the idea of doing just this one section of Coastal Highway,” Dare said. “That doesn’t make any sense at all. The reason they picked this [target area] was from the statistics in those years [of the study] and they attributed it to the bars. Well now Ropewalk is going into Frescos, so I guess a couple accidents in the next years will qualify that area.”
It is no secret City Engineer Terry McGean is a proponent of the road diet, but he was disappointed in the SHA presentation of the project.
“Ultimately that [road diet] is where we were going to go. It is going to take a lot of selling … but I would hate to see the whole idea just killed. We do need to pursue it to some point. The SHA did a very poor job explaining the benefits of it,” he said. “Through hard work and good luck we haven’t had any [fatalities] but they are going to come again, and we need to do everything we can on the near term to improve but … I think move forward with the mid-term and ask for most of that design money to go towards that project but leave some money so it’s [road diet] not dead.”
As a result of the commission’s discussion, Knight made a motion to recommend to the SHA and full Mayor and City Council for approval to hold off on the road diet and dedicate the design funding towards completing mid-term improvements on all of Coastal Hwy. that include installing a median barrier with lighting, if warranted install the third pedestrian actuated signal at 42nd Street and removal of all pedestrian median turndowns but leave emergency vehicle turndowns. The commission voted unanimously to approve.
Next the commission reviewed the different options of median barriers presented by SHA last week, and favored the example of Atlantic City’s rod iron fence with landscaping
“We need something people can see through. People riding down Coastal Highway they are looking to see where they are going and where places are. Visibility is important for all business owners and everybody,” Meehan said.
The mayor added, if SHA agrees to move forward with a median barrier, additional pedestrian actuated signals should be considered.
“The pedestrian walkways work and there may be other locations where they need to be considered if we are going to proceed with the medians as has been discussed,” he said.
Dare added the entire signal system on Coastal Highway could be re-thought.
“If 27 percent of the pedestrians are crossing not at the intersection, extending the crossing time doesn’t have anything to do with that. They come up and hit the button and expect the seas to part. I don’t think their solution solves it and they need to look at it comprehensively,” he said.
Knight amended the motion to include SHA consider additional pedestrian signals and conduct a comprehensive signal enhancement. The commission voted unanimously to approve.