Flashing Lights A Surprise To OC Officials, Motorists

OCEAN CITY — The few motorists that ventured out into the frozen tundra of Ocean City last weekend perhaps noticed a blinking reminder of winter’s past.

Local residents may have thought that recent blizzard conditions throughout the peninsula had knocked the resort back in time a few years, as traffic signals were flashing and essentially offline throughout last weekend. Up until several years ago, many of the town’s traffic signals went to the blinking yellow signal in the winter months, allowing for a quick commute up and down Coastal Highway. Increased traffic in the winter months led the State Highway Administration (SHA) to abandon that policy.

This time, however, the blinking lights came as a bit of a surprise to town officials and certainly weren’t causing anyone to get up and down Coastal Highway at any great rate of speed.

“At first, we saw a few of the lights go to the blinking yellow, near 59th and 74th streets first, then right near the entrance to the Route 90 bridge,” said Public Works Director Hal Adkins. “We thought it was just a tripped circuit or something like that, but soon enough every light in town was blinking and we knew that there was a problem.”

The town’s traffic lights are the property of SHA, which elected to switch off the town’s lights and let them blink until Monday morning as they needed all manpower to be used for snow removal. It should be noted, however, that the town was not notified that the lights would be essentially switching off.

“What they told us was that if we wanted to send people to each individual light and make sure that they were all working properly, we could get them back online, but they couldn’t do it because they didn’t have the manpower, and quite frankly, neither did we,” said Adkins; “but everything worked out and they were back on Monday morning to my knowledge.”

City Manager Dennis Dare noted that one of the reasons SHA was forced to switch off the lights perhaps had to do with the fact that snow and ice was sticking to the lights, making them practically invisible to motorists.

“Over the course of the last few years, the SHA has gradually switched all of the traffic light bulbs from incandescent lights to the much greener and efficient LED lights,” said Dare. “Those LED lights have a lot of pluses and they basically last forever, but their one drawback is that they don’t release a lot of heat like the other bulbs, so when it snows sideways, the snow and the ice has to be pretty much cleared off by hand.”

Despite the fact that the LED lights shine brighter, longer and are credited with improving public safety, as well as being good for the environment, industry reports do concede that the proverbial Achilles heel for the efficient lighting is heavy snowstorms.

“In places like Minnesota or Maine, where this much snow is much more commonplace, manufacturers of these lights can install a heating element into the lights which would remedy what happened last weekend here, but since this much snow is really out of the ordinary, I don’t think the added expense would make sense to install those heating devices on the LED lights,” Dare said.

All lighting aside, the Public Works Department has been pummeled with the back-to-back weekends of having to dig the town’s 75 miles of streets out of a foot of snow.

Adkins, who said last week that the town “will never be equipped to handle snowstorms of this magnitude” said that last weekend’s snowfall was harder to clean up than the week before.

“We continued to do the best we could with what we had,” said Adkins. “Most of last Saturday, we were pushing slush around, but when it really started coming down, we were glad that we did get rid of all that slush or we would have had several inches of ice under that foot of snow to remove on Sunday if we hadn’t done it that way.”

Adkins did note, however, that the three substantial storms in less than three weeks was leaving him with fewer and fewer options to dump the snow.

“We are flat out running out of places to put the snow, and even though I have permission from the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to dump snow into portions of the bay, I’m trying to avoid that, and will more than likely opt for dumping some of the snow onto the beach or at the Inlet parking lot, which is closed currently. I’ve got enough salt to handle about one more substantial storm in Ocean City.”

Dare said that the town guesstimates how much it will need to spend on salt and overtime for snow removal drivers during the budget process, and hinted that even though this season is sure to go over budget, there is more than enough to cover what happens the rest of the winter.

“In all likelihood, we are going to go over what we had projected, because this is just an immense amount of snow for this area, but we never know what’s going to happen but we have an obligation to keep the streets cleared from whatever amount of snow Mother Nature decides to throw down on us,” Dare said. “So, if we have to spend another seven or eight thousand to get more rock salt, we will do what we have to do.”