Coastal Highway Lighting Decision Divides City Council

Coastal Highway Lighting Decision Divides City Council
File photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY — More lighting is better along a notoriously dangerous stretch of Coastal Highway, resort officials decided this week, but it certainly wasn’t easy.

The Mayor and Council had before them on Tuesday a presentation of the lighting recommendations for the stretch of Coastal Highway from the convention center to 62nd Street, or the area in which the median fence was installed last year. The section was chosen for the first phase of the median fence project because it has traditionally seen the most serious vehicle-pedestrian collisions.

As part of the median fence project, the State Highway Adminstration (SHA) installed a new overhead LED lighting system on the center median that vastly improves the brightness along the dangerous corridor and casts a wide swath of light from sidewalk to sidewalk. The plan all along was once the median lighting system was installed, the outdated existing high-pressure sodium lights mounted on utility poles along the sidewalks could go away because the new system would more than adequately light the section of highway and its sidewalks.

However, once the project was completed, staff was instructed to analyze a variety of options including the new median lighting system only, the new median system with the old lights remaining in place at signalized intersections or removing the old sidewalk lighting altogether.

On Tuesday, City Engineer Terry McGean presented the findings after taking readings under each of the scenarios and examining the cost alternatives.

The existing perimeter lighting system includes 88 outdated high-pressure sodium bulbs along the stretch of Coastal Highway, including 19 at signalized intersections. The current cost of operating the existing perimeter lighting system is around $45,000 per year. Switching the existing high-pressure sodium bulbs with LED lights, as has been part of the plan all along, would reduce that cost to around $17,000, or about $28,000 less than what the city is already paying.

Removing all perimeter lights and using only the center median lights installed by SHA would reduce the cost even further to around $4,000. McGean’s recommendation was to remove all existing perimeter lights except for the one at the signalized intersections and replacing those with LED lights. The net cost difference for that option comes in at around $13,000.

Essentially, the council was left with the decision to spend the $13,000 per year to keep all existing perimeter lighting along with the new center median lighting. McGean explained even with removing some or all existing perimeter lighting, the brightness in that section of Coastal Highway has been enhanced greatly.

“The light level has doubled in that project area,” he said. “SHA did a great job with that. The light uniformity is increased substantially as well. You want it bright and you want it uniform. Without uniformity, you get shadows.”

McGean said the difference between using only the center median lighting or keeping the existing perimeter lighting was negligible.

“There is very little difference between the project as designed and with the perimeter lights left on,” he said. “Even with the perimeter lights turned off, the light levels have still doubled in that area.”

However, Councilman Tony DeLuca made a motion to spend the extra $13,000 to keep all 88 perimeter lights in addition to the center median system, pointing out the cost was rather low for the potential lighting improvement it could provide. DeLuca recalled a former meeting when Mayor Rick Meehan said more lighting should be installed around town whenever practical and not cost-prohibitive.

“Some mayor of a coastal town around here said lighting is our friend,” he said. “Even with leaving all of the lights on, we’re still saving $27,000. If you look at our comprehensive plan, all throughout it is safety, safety and more safety. This stretch of Ocean City is the most intense. If there is anywhere we need as much light as possible, it’s right here.”

Councilman Matt James seconded the motion, pointing out the goal of the median fence and the associated new lighting system.

“The fence was put in place as a safety measure and it has done its job for the most part,” he said. “Taking away any lights now would be a step backward.”

Councilman John Gehrig did not disagree with the potential for adding more light in that area, but said the rather small benefit in terms of increased lighting did not offset the proposed expense.

“I don’t think you guys are wrong, but I wouldn’t vote for that,” he said. “There is a difference, but it’s such a small difference. With the perimeter lights out, there is still plenty of light in that area.”

Council President Lloyd Martin agreed.

“To leave all 88 lit up would be overkill in my opinion,” he said. “We can keep the lights at the signalized intersections with LED and that should be sufficient. If we find out there are dark spots, we can always go back and add more lights in those areas.”

However, James scoffed at the idea of removing the perimeter lighting, only to find out it was needed after all.

“I definitely don’t think it would be wise to take lights down and then put them back up,” he said. “That would be a major waste. For me, this is a no-brainer.”

Councilman Dennis Dare said the existing perimeter lighting alone created dangerous glares especially during rainy conditions. Dare said the new LED system would eliminate those problems and said spending the $13,000 per year for such a small benefit did not support the cost.

“I just don’t see it being worth it from a safety standpoint,” he said. “I’d just as soon have the $13,000 every year.”

However, James took exception to the notion putting less light on that section of highway, no matter how small, wasn’t worth the continued investment in safety.

“I would imagine the families of those who have been hit by a car on Coastal Highway would disagree,” he said. “State Highway studied it and they like to over-study everything and they have identified that area as one in which we had a major safety issue.”

McGean pointed out it was the council’s decision to make on the lighting in that section of highway, a decision made easier by the relative low cost of keeping the perimeter lighting.

“If it was $45,000 a year, you might not be having this discussion,” he said. “At $13,000, that’s a decision you all have to make. I could light it up like Ravens stadium for another million dollars if that’s what you all desired, but again, that’s your call.”

Martin reiterated he did not believe keeping the existing perimeter lighting warranted the $13,000 per year expenditure.

“The sidewalks are brighter in that area than they have ever been,” he said. “I wish the whole city was like that and maybe that’s something we need to work on.”

James hammered home one more time the point about improving the lighting in that dangerous corridor and the relative low cost.

“The staff is not elected to make those decisions,” he said. “I appreciate your input and we often use your advice, but this is our decision to make. We’ve never had anyone hit and killed by a vehicle on the Boardwalk, I believe, but we’re getting ready to spend $2 million on safety improvements up there. We’ve had a lot of people hit and killed on Coastal Highway. If $13,000 makes it even a little bit safer, I think it’s worth it. We’re not in a bad spot with the lighting as designed, but with a little bit more, we could be in the best spot.”

Councilman Mark Paddack agreed, evoking memories as a long-time resort police officer. Throughout the discussion, it appeared Paddack was not in favor of keeping the existing perimeter lighting, but in the end, he turned out to be the decisive swing vote.

“You’re absolutely correct,” he said. “The carnage I’ve seen on that highway, especially in that corridor, I wouldn’t wish that on anybody to see what I’ve seen. Of course, I’d like to save the $13,000, but if it saves just one life, it will be worth it.”

Gehrig made one last ditch effort to convince the majority of his colleagues the new median lighting system was more than adequate and sway the vote on spending the $13,000.

“The difference is so miniscule, is it worth $13,000 a year?” he said. “That’s $130,000 over 10 years. Is that worth it? With that line of thinking, we could spend millions of dollars. Where does it end?”

The council voted 4-3 with DeLuca, James, Paddack and Mary Knight in favor of keeping all of the perimeter lighting at an annual cost of $13,000 and replacing the outdated sodium bulbs with new LED lighting.

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.