OCEAN CITY — During a fall update with State Highway Administration (SHA) officials on Tuesday, resort officials continued to press for the eventual dualization of Route 90, but it doesn’t appear the state is prepared to take action any time soon.
On Tuesday, SHA officials briefed the Mayor and Council on a variety of projects in various stages of the planning or completion in and around the resort area. Topping the list of discussion points was the proposed 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.
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 acknowledged the town’s position on Route 90, but made no promises for getting it into the planning pipeline.
“State Highway acknowledges your concerns,” said SHA District Engineer Jay Meredith. “We recognize that, but it’s a very large project. A project of that magnitude has to go through the state queue for approval.”
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.
Meredith said the approval and funding process for major highway projects in Maryland is complicated and urged the Mayor and Council to continue to make their concerns known about the priority for the Route 90 project.
“You just have to keep it on your priority list,” he said. “You have to keep it on your radar and keep pushing for it. I don’t know that there is anything else you all can do to expedite that.”
Councilman Matt James said while dualizing Route 90 is certainly the top project for Ocean City, it should be higher up on the state’s priority list for highway projects in Maryland. James pointed out the ongoing work in repairing failing concrete on the Route 50 Bridge to illustrate his point.
“This should be a high priority for the state,” he said. “With the Route 50 Bridge, the concrete is chipping away on the entire length. If that bridge were to close for any reason, it would be devastating for not only Ocean City but the entire state to have just one lane into Ocean City.”
Public Works Director Hal Adkins said because the state already owned the right-of-way along the Route 90 corridor, there wouldn’t be complicated and expensive land acquisitions, which could expedite the project. Adkins did acknowledge an expensive environmental assessment would need to be completed prior to any major improvements to Route 90 but said that obstacle could be overcome with some creative financing.
“You have a unique situation here,” he said. “The right-of-way was purchased back in the 1960s, so it might be able to proceed on a different tract. What would it take for someone to do the environmental study from Coastal Highway to Route 589? Would it be $300,000? More than that or less? What would it take? That’s what I think might expedite this.”
Council Secretary Mary Knight questioned how state highway projects were prioritized, pointing out Route 90 is one of two major access points for Maryland’s second largest city during the summer months.
“What’s the criteria?” she said. “Is it 300,000 people in and out every week? Is it that it’s just one of two ways on and off this island? I think we need to figure out what the criteria is.”
Meredith agreed the state owns the right-of-way along the Route 90 corridor that could ease the approval process, but said the project was just too large to be leapfrogged over other projects on the state’s priority list at this time.
“Even though we own the right-of-way, there are huge environmental obstacles to overcome,” he said. “It’s just a huge project. For a project with that dollar amount, we have to take a broader view of it.”
Nonetheless, Knight continued to push for moving Route 90 up the state’s priority list.
“Look at this project compared to other state projects, maybe somewhere in western Maryland,” she said. “This could be life-threatening if we had to evacuate for a hurricane. Two years ago, Route 50 was closed for four-and-a-half hours in the summer and nobody could go anywhere.”
Councilman Dennis Dare pointed out it appeared Route 90 was on the fast track just a short time ago, but now it appears to have fallen further down the state’s priority list. Dare evoked a unique analogy to illustrate his point.
“The way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time,” he said. “I thought we had taken that first bite, but now it seems like we’re taking a step back.”
Meredith did his best to assure Ocean City officials the Route 90 project was not dropping down the list. However, he did say the city’s view of the importance of Route 90 was somewhat myopic in terms of the larger scheme of things.
“I don’t think it has taken a step back,” he said. “I just think you have to manage your expectations of what we can accomplish. Right now, zero bridges in Maryland are structurally deficient. The governor has a very aggressive bridge inspection program. I assure you every bridge in the state is inspected constantly.”
However, Dare pointed out there were structural issues with at least one of the Route 90 spans in recent years that resulted in closing the bridge for a time.
“The Assawoman span had tendons that were failing,” he said. “The roadway had to be closed, thankfully during the offseason. It is just critical that it needs to be addressed and not kicked down the road.”
After considerable debate, Mayor Rick Meehan said Ocean City would have to stay the course and continue hammering home the importance of improving Route 90.
“The thing what’s discouraging is a year-and-a-half ago, we asked what the next step was,” he said. “We were told we had to get the county to move it up the priority list. That has happened, but we’re back to square one. We are going to have to take the lead on this and keep hammering home the message.”