Declines in state revenue mean fewer improvements

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(Oct. 16, 2020) Once again, the Maryland Department of Transportation’s consolidated transportation program leaves out improvements to State Route 90 and State Route 589. Maryland Deputy Transportation Secretary Sean Powell met with Worcester County Commissioners on Wednesday to discuss the draft FY 2021-26 consolidated transportation program, which details the Maryland Department of Transportation’s six-year capital budget.

The Hogan administration will invest $13.4 billion in Maryland’s transportation network over the next six years.

Officials also discussed the Maryland Transportation Authority’s $2.8 billion in additional investments in Maryland’s toll roads and bridges.

With revenue down because of the covid-19 pandemic and cash flow changes as projects were completed, this draft consolidated transportation program required $1.9 billion in cuts to the capital program.

The Maryland Department of Transportation is also reducing its FY 2021 operating budget by $98 million to respond to the continuing revenue decline.

“What you’re going to feel here on the Eastern Shore is less road maintenance, longer grass with less mowing and impacts to our System Preservation Program in all departments,” Powell said.

Powell then highlighted bikeway grants made possible through Maryland Department of Transportation’s Kim Lamphier Bikeways Network Program. In September, the department announced $3.78 million in FY 2021 grants to support bicycle safety and access across the state, including two grants for Worcester County.

“A $60,000 grant [is] for the town of Snow Hill to conduct a feasibility study to determine possible routes for improved bicycle access. The plan is to connect parks, the commercial district and schools to the Pocomoke River,” Powell said. “Also, a $79,700 grant is for the town of Ocean City to develop a strategic plan and design to complete Ocean City’s bicycle network.”

Tim Smith from the Maryland State Highway Administration said projects were advanced while practicing social distancing and following health protocols.

Smith explained how less traffic on the roadway earlier this year allowed crews to expand hours of lane closures and make more progress on construction projects without affecting Maryland drivers.

In January, the State Highway Administration completed the $73 million fourth phase of U.S. Route 113 dualization, north of Snow Hill. In Ocean Pines, crews completed the $4.5 million intersection improvement project at U.S. Route 50 and State Route 589 in August.

“This summer, we completed a $2.8 million intersection work at Healthway Drive there at [Atlantic General Hospital at U.S. 113 and State Route 346]. I want to thank our community partners at Atlantic General Hospital for their support as we were able to deliver these safety improvements,” Smith said. “This spring in Ocean City, we completed construction of a key $3 million shared use path on U.S. 50 in West Ocean City. That’s really going to help bicyclists and pedestrians travel more safely near the U.S. 50 corridor.”

In addition, the Maryland Transportation Authority Planning and Program Development Director Melissa Williams discussed bay bridge projects underway.

Williams said the Maryland Transportation Authority anticipates publishing a Tier 1 Draft Environmental Impact Statement and identifying the agency’s Recommended Preferred Corridor Alternative this fall, then hold public hearings in early 2021.

“The Tier 1 Final Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision are scheduled for 2021,” she said.

Ongoing and future bay bridge improvements include westbound deck rehabilitation for center and left lanes and the crossover automated lane closure system.

The new bay bridge crossover automated lane closure system “will allow maintenance crews to implement and discontinue two-way traffic operations at the bridge more safely and quickly,” Williams said.

“The automated lane closure system includes in-pavement lighting, automated gates, dynamic message signs and overhead lane-use signals,” she continued. “Project work, such as conduit boring and installation, have already begun on the Eastern Shore.

In the fall of 2022, when two-way or lane closures on either bridge are in place, travelers will begin the transition to using the new lane closure system with gates and dynamic message signs as they get on or off of the bay bridge on the Eastern Shore.”

In 2023, drivers will begin the transition to the new lane closure system on the western shore and the cone and barrel system will no longer be used on either side of the bay bridge. The western shore automated lane closure system will be constructed under a separate contract with notice to proceed expected in summer 2021, Williams added.

Heather Murphy, director of the Maryland Department of Transportation Office of Planning, also discussed $6.5 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds that the Tri-County Council is receiving to support transit operations and/or capital needs for Shore Transit in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As well, the town of Ocean City will receive $2.3 million in federal CARES Act funds to support operations and/or capital needs of The Beach Bus,” Murphy said.

“Due to the sharp decline in transportation revenues, state matching funds for local transit projects are not available in this year’s [Consolidated Transportation Program],” Murphy continued. “Certainly, [the Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Transportation Authority] will be coordinating closely with our local transit operators and discussing the availability of local matching funds and to apply the CARES funds to provide that matching federal funds, so that everybody is able to receive the federal funds that they need.”

Administrator Christine Nizer from the Maryland Department of Transportation Motor Vehicle Administration, who serves as Gov. Larry Hogan’s Highway Safety Representative, discussed the Hogan administration’s recent announcement of more than $48,000 for Worcester County agencies to address highway safety. The recipients are the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office and Health Department, as well as police departments in Ocean City, Ocean Pines and Berlin.

Additionally, Administrator Ricky Smith from the Maryland Department of Transportation Maryland Aviation Administration said that the agency intends to provide $2.35 million to regional airports across Maryland. Ocean City Municipal Airport will receive $369,000 in state aviation grant assistance for land acquisition and obstruction removal. The airport received 100 percent FY 2021 federal grant assistance of $2.6 million for runway safety area improvements as well.

Worcester County Commissioner Anthony “Chip” W. Bertino Jr. called in to ask if construction along the State Route 589 could be limited with additional lights.

“I just ask that if we have construction projects that are going forward, that if there is a way to have singular access off [Route] 589 for multiple projects, it would be tremendously helpful for the flow of traffic and hopefully reduce the number of stoplights that are needed along the corridor,” Bertino said.

Tim Smith agreed to review it and suggested working with the county about the planning.

With the delay of capital projects because of covid-19, Bertino assumed the expansion of State Route 589 and State Route 90 or the Route 50 bridge would be further delayed.

“The Route 90 project not only facilitates traffic in Ocean City under normal circumstances, but under emergency circumstances it’s a vital roadway and it does need to be dualized,” said Mayor Rick Meehan. “In case of emergency evacuation, we are really at risk without the dualization of Route 90.”

Joseph Mitrecic, president of the Worcester County Commissioners, reiterated the mayor’s statements.

“I would like to say that the Worcester County Commissioners [and] the town of Ocean City still remain steadfast that Route 90 dualization must be completed before we talk about putting a new bridge on Route 50,” Mitrecic said. “And [Route] 589, of course, needs to be done at the same time as Route 90.”

Before the meeting adjourned, Meehan expressed his gratitude for the continuation of grants for the Ocean City bus, the airport and the campus project at 65th Street.

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