St. Louis Ave. Overhaul Details Discussed

OCEAN CITY – Resort officials this week reviewed plans for a
complete overhaul of the St. Louis
Avenue corridor including a round-about at the
dysfunctional 1st Street intersection, improved traffic patterns,
increased lighting and landscaping and better draining.

For years, St. Louis Avenue
has been a local shortcut of sorts, used by residents and visitors to avoid
traffic back-ups along southbound Philadelphia
Avenue and northbound Baltimore Avenue, but increased traffic
and more activity along the corridor in recent years has necessitated a major
redesign of the roadway. The Mayor and Council got a look at conceptual design
for the reconstruction project and while they were generally pleased with its
components, there was considerable debate about the need for a dedicated bike
lane at the expense of wider sidewalks.

The conceptual plan
presented on Tuesday called for a single lane in each direction for vehicular
traffic along with a separate lane in each direction dedicated to bicycle
traffic. However, under that plan, the sidewalks on either side of the street
would come in at just five feet wide, or considerably less than what the city
has adopted as the new standard for sidewalks in the pedestrian-dense downtown

Under the conceptual
plan, the vehicle lanes would be about 12 feet wide with the bike lane five
feet wide. The alternative is to have a shared vehicle and bicycle lane in both
directions at about 15 feet wide, which would allow the sidewalks on both sides
to be expanded to as much as eight feet in most areas.

George, Miles and Buhr
Engineering (GMB) has produced the conceptual plans for the reconstruction of
St. Louis Ave. and GMB Vice President and Civil/Municipal Division leader
Amanda Pollack outlined the proposal for the Mayor and Council on Tuesday.
Pollack explained one major issue to resolve is the shared versus separate
bicycle lanes and the width of the sidewalks.

According to Pollack,
most citizens surveyed favored a separate, dedicated bike lane, which is why
the conceptual design appears as it does at this point, but the final design is
still subject to debate based on the desires of the elected officials.

“We presented a variety
of options and got a lot of good feedback,” she said. “What we found is that
the 15-foot shared lane was not popular. It would probably take a lot of public
education to get the word out about how to use a shared lane.”

However, the council was
not convinced the dedicated bicycle lane was the best idea because it would
come at the expense of wider sidewalks. Councilman Jay Hancock explained wider
lanes shared by both vehicles and bicycles have become widely accepted and are
the norm in most areas.

“I’m a little concerned
the shared bike lane concept has been dismissed too quickly,” he said. “I think
most people who ride bikes on the streets are used to it already. Almost
everywhere you go in this county, the bikes share a lane with traffic and I
haven’t heard about a lot of accidents.”

In a perfect world,
there would be room enough for traffic lanes, a bike lane, parking and wide
sidewalks, but the St. Louis
Avenue reconstruction designers are working within
the constraints of the existing corridor. City Engineer Terry McGean told the
mayor and council his office would need their blessing on the sidewalk issue
before moving forward with the redesign.

“I think we need a
little more direction with the width of the sidewalks,” he said. “You’re going
to have to make a decision – either wider sidewalks with a shared bike lane or
a designated bike lane and a five-foot sidewalk.”

For most, the decision
was an easy one, but others clearly preferred the dedicated bike lane. In a
separate motion, the council voted 4-3 to widen the sidewalks at the expense of
the dedicated bike lane with Howard, Pillas and Knight in opposition.

“We’re trying to move
forward with wider sidewalks wherever we can,” said Mayor Rick Meehan. “You’ve
got families walking with kids and holding hands and carrying their things and
five feet gets pretty narrow in a hurry, especially when you put signs and
lights in the sidewalk. It really makes it pedestrian unfriendly and is the
opposite of what were trying to accomplish.”

One of the most dramatic
changes in the conceptual redesign of St.
Louis Avenue is a round-about, or circle, at the
intersection with 1st Street, which has created some problems for years
because the four legs of the intersection don’t match up. The plan calls for a
landscaped island in the middle of the intersection with traffic going around
it in a circle.

“The concept is to
better align the four legs of the intersection around a central point,” said
Pollack. “It’s practical from a traffic standpoint and could create an
attractive entry way to that area of Ocean

Pollack explained the
curbs would be low and curved to allow emergency vehicles to pass through the
intersection easily or even ride over it in extreme cases. She said the fire
department has reviewed the plans and has signed off on it. While most were
pleased with the aesthetics of the round-about, others voiced concern about the
confusion they can create for motorists.

“I think a round-about
could be a problem there,” said Councilwoman Margaret Pillas. “I have trouble
navigating those and we have a lot of visitors who might get confused by that
and end up going the wrong way.”

Other components of the
design plan are directed at improving traffic flow along the corridor. For
example, the plan calls for dedicated right-turn lanes on the northbound side
at 12th Street
and 15th Street
to direct traffic back to the signaled intersections on Philadelphia Ave. The idea is to ease the
burden on 17th Street
where traffic waiting for the light there often backs up around the corner
during the summer.

At most other
intersections, the plan calls for “bump outs,” or sections of curbing that jut
out into the intersection to calm traffic and reduce speeding. The bump-outs
would include landscaping, lighted bollards and other pedestrian-friendly
amenities designed to improve safety and aesthetics.

Improving safety along
the corridor while enhancing aesthetics are the two basic pillars of the
reconstruction plan and most of the features in the proposal attempt to
accomplish both. For example, the plan calls for new street lights, lighted
bollards at the intersections, well-lit, clearly marked pedestrian crossings,
landscaping and better signage.

In the end, the council
voted unanimously to approve the concept plan with the changes related to the
shared bike and the wider sidewalks. The timetable for the project calls for a
final design next spring with bids going out next summer. If the schedule is
adhered to, construction could begin next fall. There is no price tag attached
to the project at this point.