OC Council Backs Public Works Campus Expansion

OCEAN CITY — Resort officials this week approved the fiscal year 2018 annual transportation plan, but not before defending many elements of the proposed upgrades at the public works campus on 65th Street.

Each year, Ocean City submits its annual transportation plan requests to the Maryland Transit Authority for state and federal funding for a variety of transportation-related projects in the resort. On Monday, the Mayor and Council held a public hearing on the fiscal year 2018 transportation plan, which includes various projects totaling over $29 million.

The big ticket item on the annual list is the proposed major expansion of the city’s public works facilities at 65th Street that is expected to cost around $25 million when it is completed. The request in the 2018 transportation plan for the public works campus expansion comes in at $15.2 million. Other significant requests on the annual list to the MTA include a request for 20 new heavy duty bus replacements at $9.3 million, two new 60-foot articulating buses at $1.4 million.

Public Works Director Hal Adkins presented the plan and explained it was merely a wish list of sorts for state and federal funding for a variety of transportation-related projects in the resort. Each year, the town submits the plan and the MTA funds what it can through state and federal funding pass-throughs. In most cases, the projects on the list come with a local cost-sharing requirement, typically around 10 percent for projects specific to the town’s transportation needs. In other cases, the local share is higher if a particular project is not entirely transportation-related.

“Is it realistic this wish list will be approved in its entirety? Probably not,” said Adkins. “They request that we submit this list every year in case the funding becomes available. We have to submit it to the city manager and the budget manager outlining what we think we will get so they know what our matches might be at budget time.”

It was the proposed public works campus expansion that created the most heartburn for a handful of speakers at the public hearing on Monday, including former Councilman and fiscal watchdog Vince Gisriel. The public works campus includes, but is not limited to, administrative offices, bus and transit equipment storage and fueling, solid waste, maintenance and a myriad of other services. It was last upgraded in 1983 and the department has outgrown the aging facilities.

“In a perfect economic world, I could support the public works campus plan and transit upgrades,” Gisriel said. “It’s been planned well, but my first thought is do we need it. The reality is we don’t live in a perfect economic world and we have to prioritize things. For the past few years, we’ve been talking about replacing the Route 50 Bridge, widening Route 90 and beach replenishment. We need to prioritize what we really need. … There is a tendency in local government to look at money coming from the federal or state governments as gifts,” he said. “The problem with that is the federal, state, county and local funding is all our tax money. There is no such thing as a gracious gift from government.”

Gisriel and others who spoke on Monday specifically addresses certain elements of the proposed public works campus expansion including a covered garage for the municipal bus fleet, a five-story, 500-spot parking garage for employees.

In terms of the covered facility to store the municipal buses, the plan is to extend the life of the fleet exposed to salt air and damp conditions. Adkins said most municipal buses reach 12 years or 500,000 miles before they are eligible for replacement. Because of the seasonal nature of Ocean City, its municipal buses are typically 15 years old or older, but only have 240,000, or about 16,000 per year.

“My hope is by going to a covered facility we will be able to extend the life of our buses,” he said. “When you look back at all of the figures for mileage and age and useful life, it becomes pretty easy to understand the need for an enclosed facility.”

However, Gisriel questioned the need for a covered facility for bus storage when for years the resort has kept its buses outside and they typically outlast prescribed expiration dates.

“We’re already keeping our buses without a storage building,” he said. “Why do we need bus storage if the buses are already outliving their usefulness? Most people I know don’t have garages and those that do don’t keep their vehicles in them, but the town wants one for its buses.”

In terms of replacing the 30-year old public works administration building, some of the speakers on Monday questioned the need for a replacement when some of their own homes were 30 years old or older. Adkins explained the growth of the department, and not the age of the building, confirmed the need.

“Yes, the current administration building is 30 years old, but if your families grew like my family has, my public works family, you would recognize the need for an expanded facility,” he said. “You would recognize that 30 years ago we ran a municipal bus system with 12 short school buses and the staff to support them. Now, we have 65 buses at any one time and we’ll hire anywhere from 155 to 170 drivers, along with bus cleaners, bus technicians and money room processors. This is the monster we now run. You don’t realize you need a new administration building until your family grows that large.”

Adkins also addressed concerns over the five-story parking garage. He explained there are as many as 300 employees changing shifts at the same time on a given summer day and there was already limited parking in the area of 65th Street. He said his staff even dug into zip code records for employees to determine if and how many might be able to ride public transportation to work and the end result was a need for an elevated parking garage on site.

“We analyzed every single parking spot from 64th Street to 67th Street,” he said. “Land has become such a premium in the area of 65th Street that we came to the realization we had no choice but to go vertical.”

Mayor Rick Meehan said the requested transportation plan, including the $15 million-plus for the public works campus, had been in the planning pipeline since 2008.

“This is in our capital improvement plan,” he said. “This is not something that was sprung on everybody tonight. We’ve been working on this for 10 years. Just a month ago, the public works campus plan was presented publicly and it has been discussed on several occasions.”

Meehan attempted to explain the items on the list in general, and some of the elements of the public works campus plan specifically, were not frivolous and had been arrived at after careful study and deliberation.

“This is infrastructure,” he said. “It’s an investment in our infrastructure and our future. I appreciate all of the comments tonight because this is a significant amount of dollars being spent. If this passes tonight, it doesn’t mean this project is built. It only means it could be done if the funding is available.”

Councilman Dennis Dare explained the funding requests in the annual transportation plan were not from the state or federal government’s general coffers.

“It all comes from the gas tax,” he said. “That money is specifically for capital projects for transportation infrastructure. This money is returned to the users to improve transportation infrastructure.”

While the requested list was hefty at around $29 million, Adkins said the current economic climate pointed to the right time to embrace capital projects for infrastructure and transportation needs.

“When faced with historically low interest rates, one should be looking at their infrastructure needs,” he said. “You noticed I used the word needs and not wants because there is a big difference. We should be looking at our long-term infrastructure needs and that’s what we’re doing with this project.”

The council unanimously approved the proposed fiscal year 2018 annual transportation plan.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.