OCEAN CITY – Ocean City’s ever-expanding artificial reef system off the coast could be getting a major addition in the future if the effort to obtain as many as 600 retired New York City “Redbird” subway cars can be worked out.
The Ocean City Reef Foundation, in conjunction with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), is considering making a bid for a portion of the 1,600 subway cars dating back to the early 1960s made available for artificial reef systems in coastal states throughout the mid-Atlantic. New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority last week approved a $6.3 million contract to farm out the subway cars to any takers along the east coast and several states including Maryland are in the running for the retired cars.
The latest effort to obtain retired New York City subway cars comes about eight years after Ocean City rejected a similar proposal for as many as 3,000 of the cars, citing environmental concerns including the presence of asbestos in the retired rail cars. However, several states including Delaware, Virginia and New Jersey accepted the subway cars after Maryland balked and the artificial reef systems in those states have flourished with the additions.
This time around, the retired subway cars, which have been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), have been completely stripped of any potential dangerous materials, essentially becoming stainless steel shells of their former selves. If accepted, they would quickly become encrusted with natural coral and other marine growth, expanding habitat and attracting and retaining several species of fish.
For the last decade, the Ocean City Reef Foundation has been steadily expanding the artificial reef system with eight sites ranging from as close as one mile to as far as 20 miles. In that span, the foundation has submerged tons of pieces of material, from old boats to retired military equipment to discarded construction material, enhancing habitat for fish and other sea creatures, which, in turn, has improved offshore fishing for recreational anglers and created new opportunities for diving enthusiasts.
If the proposal to accept the retired subway cars is approved, and there are a lot of hurdles to overcome, the artificial reef system off the coast of Ocean City could be doubled in size in one fell swoop. The roughly 600 cars could be used to fill out existing permitted artificial reef sites and create reefs on sites already approved that are just waiting for material.
However, Reef Foundation officials are cautiously optimistic accepting the cars will be approved despite the considerable hurdles to overcome. The DNR appears to be on board this time around, but the Reef Foundation would still need to secure the approval of the Ocean City Mayor and Council, which holds the permits for the reef sites.
The Reef Foundation’s Greg Hall, said this week he is waiting for the DNR to sign off on the proposal and is carefully preparing a presentation for the Mayor and Council.
“We would love to have them, but there are a lot of things to work out before we jump right in,” he said. “Before I go to the council with this, I want to have all my ducks in a row. There are a lot of questions: who is going to pay for them? How are they going to get here? When are they going to get here? Those are the types of things I have to work out before I present anything to the council.”
Funding could be a major issue, although the potential benefit appears to outweigh the cost. Hall said the cars would cost about $300 each, which with 600 cars could put the initial start-up cost around $18,000. However, that does not include the cost of transporting them and ultimately submerging them on the reef sites.
Hall said he in confident this time around the retired subway cars are environmentally safe for the reef systems. Eight years ago when Ocean City was in line for 3,000 of the cars, there were too many questions and not enough answers about their potential dangers. Since then, the subway cars turned artificial reefs have thrived in the states that have accepted them.
“The asbestos thing is no longer an issue,” he said. “You have to remember, when we went through this the first time, we were going to be the very first. New York and New Jersey had turned them down and we wanted to err on the side of caution.”
Captain Monty Hawkins, who pilots his head boat the “Morning Star,” knows every inch of Ocean City’s artificial reef system and has been instrumental in the success of the program. Hawkins led the charge to derail the proposal eight years ago because of the uncertainties, but is now a major supporter of obtaining the new batch.
“I hope we get hundreds of them,” he said this week. “Major reef projects don’t come our way very often. Every time they do, though, the fishing gets a little better.”
Hawkins said the current effort represents a great opportunity for the artificial reef system off the coast of the resort.
“This project is it,” he said. “This is a chance to double our region’s artificial reef habitat footprint in the space of a few months. The positive effects to Maryland’s coastal fisheries will last for many generations and within a few years, I would anticipate a fantastic improvement in the fishing for boats that stay within 10 miles of the shore.”