OCEAN CITY — During a spring update with the State Highway Administration (SHA) on Tuesday, Ocean City continued to press for the dualization of Route 90 to be pushed ahead of other highway projects on the priority list.
On Tuesday, SHA officials briefed the Mayor and Council on a variety of projects in various stages of planning or completion in and around the resort area and inevitably the discussion came around to the proposed future dualization of Route 90. For years, Ocean City officials have expressed their desire to see Route 90 improvements, including expanding the highway and its bridges from the current two lanes to four to ease access in and out of the resort for the public, and perhaps more importantly emergency services including fire apparatus and ambulances, for example.
Formal letters have been sent expressing the town’s desire to have the proposed Route 90 dualization moved up the priority list for Worcester County and at least twice a year the Mayor and Council make a face-to-face plea for the improvements. SHA officials this week continued to acknowledge the town’s position on Route 90, but made no promises for getting it into the planning pipeline.
“It’s something that’s always on our radar,” said SHA District Engineer Jay Meredith. “It’s certainly a critical road in and out of Ocean City.”
Aside from the land-based access point to the resort at the Delaware line, much of the traffic in and out of Ocean City relies on the two bridges at Route 50 in the south end and Route 90 at midtown. Ocean City officials for years have said dualizing Route 90 would improve traffic flow, particularly in the summer months, and improve public safety at times of emergencies or evacuations. Mayor Rick Meehan pointed out the Route 50 Bridge has seen its share of problems, including a mechanical failure of the drawbridge on a Saturday afternoon in the height of the summer season a few years back.
“The other entrance at Route 50 is basically at the mercy of that drawbridge and we have found occasionally at the most inappropriate times that drawbridge doesn’t function properly,” he said. “That tremendously affects the flow of traffic in and out of Ocean City.”
Beyond summer traffic jams inconveniencing visitors and residents, Meehan said potential tie-ups at the Route 90 bridge seriously compromise public safety.
“That also limits the ability of our emergency services to get out of town, but also to get back into town,” he said. “It’s significant to the future of Ocean City that Route 90 gets on and stays on the drawing board. I hope that it does. If, in fact, the day comes when the Route 50 Bridge will be replaced, then Route 90 becomes even more essential. There are a number of reasons that it becomes a very important project.”
Councilman Dennis Dare pointed out the Route 50 Bridge has not been without problems of its own, exacerbating the need for an improved Route 90 corridor. Dare said decades ago Route 90 was designed as a four-lane highway and the state still owns the right-of-way necessary to make that happen.
“A new occurrence has been the flooding at the foot of the Route 50 Bridge and it has become impassible at times,” he said. “So you’re putting 300,000 people across a two-lane road at Route 90. Route 90 was designed to be a four-lane road when Ocean City was just one third developed compared to what it is now. It’s time to do the other half of that roadway.”
Dare pointed to the ongoing rehabilitation of the bridges along the Salisbury bypass as an example of what is likely coming for Route 90.
“You’re rebuilding the bridges on the Salisbury bypass and the same thing is going to have to be done with the Route 90 bridges,” he said. “Personally, I don’t think that’s going to be that far in the future. One span on Route 90 has already failed and needed to be rebuilt.”
Dare said if Route 50 becomes impassible for any number of reasons and the existing two-lane Route 90 cannot handle the traffic loads, Ocean City could literally become an island.
“The point is we could be an island with no bridges,” he said. “It’s hard enough in the offseason to reroute emergency vehicles in and out of town. If something like that happens in the summer, it becomes a man-made disaster. We need to be planning for that. It has to have a higher priority than what it seems to be getting.”
Of course, getting Route 90 further up the priority list for highway projects in Worcester County has proven to be challenging. For years, the ongoing dualization of Route 113 has dominated much of the state funding for highway projects in Worcester, and while that project is nearing the finish line, there are others on the priority list including Route 589 through Ocean Pines and the Route 50 Bridge replacement. Meredith said he understood Ocean City’s concerns and urged resort officials to work closely with its partners in the county to get Route 90 moved up the priority list.
“I will take that message back,” he said. “I would stress the importance for this council, the town and the county to emphasize that this is a high priority for you. The more support you have throughout the county, the better your chances are.”
In another issue related to Route 90, Councilman Tony DeLuca pressed SHA officials on the deteriorating condition of the concrete barriers, or parapets, along one of the main access points to the resort.
“The concrete guardrails are unsightly, deteriorating and really look terrible at the entrance to Ocean City,” he said. “Has any thought been given to painting them, sandblasting them or something I don’t even know about that will make them look great at the entrance to Ocean City?”
Meredith explained SHA has stopped a policy of painting, power-washing or otherwise cleaning concrete barriers for a variety of reasons including continual maintenance and environmental issues.
“We do not paint concrete parapet walls on bridges any longer,” he said. “A few years ago, there was a request made and SHA kind of went against its policy and did something, but now the policy is being strictly enforced not to paint or clean concrete parapet walls.”
Meredith said the alternative is to simply be patient as the old paint wears away and the barriers are restored to their natural concrete condition.
“It’s a constant maintenance nightmare for us,” he said. “It’s an environmental issue because if we repaint them or power-blast them, all of that would need to be prevented from going into the bay. Right now, our plan is to let those walls continue to wear naturally and hope they get back to the original concrete and not paint them. I know that’s not what you want to hear.”