OCEAN CITY — The Ocean City Mayor and Council this week approved the final design for a dune-style fence down the center of the median for the first phase of a project that will eventually stretch from one end of the resort to the other.
The Ocean City Transportation Committee met on Tuesday morning with State Highway Administration (SHA) officials to discuss the final design for the proposed Pedestrian Safety and Connectivity Project for the median along Coastal Highway from Convention Center Drive to Route 90. The project includes enhanced lighting, bus lane adjustments and perhaps most importantly, a physical barrier of sorts in the center of the median to deter pedestrians from crossing mid-block and instead encourage them to use the marked intersections. Coastal Highway is officially Maryland Route 528 and the project will be fully funded by the state.
The Transportation Committee approved the design on Tuesday morning and forwarded a favorable recommendation to the full Mayor and Council. On Tuesday afternoon, the Mayor and Council saw the same SHA presentation and unanimously approved the final design.
The transportation committee in December got a first look at the undulating fence that included vertical slats spaced at intervals that mirrored Ocean City’s iconic dune fencing on the beach. Committee members at that time liked the design, but voiced concerns the gaps between the vertical slats would encourage pedestrians to attempt dangerous mid-block crossings.
SHA officials went back to the drawing board and returned this week with a similar design that now includes a horizontal top rail and a bottom rail close to the ground. Also included will be appropriate landscaping around the dune-style median fence that will retain its aesthetic charm while providing a practical solution to the pedestrian safety problem.
“It’s a dune-style fence in the median that would blend in with the landscaping,” said SHA Project Manager John Webster. “The slats extend above the top rail to discourage people from attempting to cross.”
SHA officials presented two alternatives for the median fence, including the custom-designed dune-style fence and a more generic prefabricated fence, each of which had its pros and cons. For example, the prefabricated version would have been cheaper and a little more expeditious, while the custom design comes with a higher price and likely a slower pace for completion. In the end, however, the transportation committee and ultimately the Mayor and Council agreed the slight cost differences and timetable variations did not trump the aesthetic and practical value of the custom-designed fence.
“The pre-fab reminds me of a prison,” said Councilman Tony DeLuca. “The custom fence looks like a classy family resort.”
The approved design includes vertical slats spaced at intervals which are louvered like window blinds at 45-degrees to allow motorists to see across both sides of the highway. The initial design was similar, but gave the impression of a solid wall from certain angles.
Councilman Dennis Dare said the new design accomplished the goals of keeping the vistas along the highway open while presenting an impression of a barrier for pedestrians.
“The last time, the dune-style fence really fit the resort, but as you go down the highway it looked solid,” he said. “This 45-degree change solves that problem. As for the pre-fab, it doesn’t look like a prison, but it does look like a giant bike rack.”
The section from Convention Center Drive to Route 90 was chosen for the initial phase because historically it has seen the most pedestrian-vehicle collisions. Ultimately, the dune-style fence will run down the center of the median for the entire length of the highway.
“This is a city-wide project,” said Mayor Rick Meehan. “Our hope and goal when this is completed is that it sets the standard for the completion of the entire median.”
While the fence has some aesthetic value, Meehan said the main purpose is to continue to improve pedestrian safety along Coastal Highway.
“This is a continuation of our pedestrian safety initiatives and we’re really vested in that campaign,” he said. “This is the first area we’d like to address and deter people from mid-block crossings and direct them to the crosswalks.”
While everyone agreed the dune-style custom fence trumped the generic prefabricated fence in terms of aesthetic value, Councilmember Mary Knight questioned whether the first option could curtail progress on the entire length of the median.
“The custom fence is so much nicer,” she said. “Would it be cost prohibitive and prevent us from doing the next section? If we do this, would we have to wait another four years to do the next section?”
Drewer explained the section from Convention Center Drive to Route 90 would be done first, with future sections likely moving southward because that is typically where the most pedestrian traffic is. He said the overall project could be done in five or six, or even 10 sections, depending on the funding and construction schedule.
“We would want to keep the project moving forward,” he said. “We can get out in front of it with the fence sections and materials because you have to remember the construction windows are pretty tight.”
Dare likened the fence project to the decades old SHA project to create the median in the center of Coastal Highway decades ago in terms of its transformation of the appearance of the resort.
“The median was done in small phases and the reasoning for doing it was different,” he said. “Back then, Coastal Highway was asphalt from curb to curb with a suicide lane down the center. The median project transformed the look of Ocean City more than anything that was ever done. This fence is going to be a focal point and it needs to look great.”
Meehan told a story about the decades-old median project to illustrate the importance of moving the fence project into future phases.
“The median project was a major undertaking and it was very disruptive with a maze of orange barrels for about four or five years,” he said. “People got tired of looking at them, and when we got down to the last section, we asked if there was any way we could skip a year because everybody was tired of looking at those barrels. SHA said ‘sure, you can skip a year,’ but the funding went away for like 10 years. The moral of the story is we need to keep it going once it starts.”
When the Mayor and Council approved the final design later on Tuesday afternoon, it set in motion a timetable that would have the first phase completed in advance of the 2017 season. The next step would be a public meeting this spring, followed by planning and engineering, bidding and a final Notice to Proceed sometime late in 2016. Ocean City Public Works Director Hal Adkins pushed for an expedited timetable with the notice to proceed moved up if possible.
“If you push for October, you could have it ready for early spring 2017,” he said. “That would be ideal.”
SHA officials said completion date prior to the 2017 summer season was ambitious, but Dare agreed pushing for an earlier timetable would expedite the project.
“That’s a target date so the public has some expectations of when it will be completed,” he said. “The purpose of this is public safety, so it’s important to aim for the start of the season. We’re going to learn a lot from this first project and that will make it easier for the second project and beyond.”
DeLuca praised SHA for cooperating with first the transportation committee and later the Mayor and Council on a project that will accomplish the pedestrian safety goals while providing the resort with an attractive focal point.
“I want to publicly commend the SHA,” he said. “By working together this year, with the back and forth discussions, they came up with a really great project and I commend them for that.”