(Sept. 18, 2020) Every year, a quarter of a million people enter and leave the resort via two access points — the Route 50 Bridge and Route 90.
Although he did not include the latter to his white paper, Councilman Dennis Dare said expanding Route 90 is crucial.
“Maryland built half of an expressway in the ’70s, well it’s past time to build the other half,” Dare said.
Dare said Route 90 had come to life during a great period of growth for Ocean City.
The city had just expanded its borders to the Delaware state line, and zoning and development were progressing at great rates.
However, the growth of the city quickly outpaced the two-way expressway.
“… At the time, it only needed two lanes,” Dare said. “The need for capacity was met long ago for four lanes.”
Route 90’s narrow span creates a slew of problems, with the worst being congestion.
“When the Route 90 bridge is closed, that means all of the employees on the island and all of the residents who are employed off the island, everybody has to use Route 50,” Dare said.
This congestion is not just an annoyance, but could prove fatal, Dare said.
“Currently, somebody in midtown to north Ocean City, if they have a medical emergency, the ambulances are out Route 90, down Route 113 and at Atlantic General Hospital in a matter of minutes,” Dare said. “With Route 90 closed, they all have to go down to Route 50 and go out through there.”
While major breakdowns of Route 90 do not occur often — the last being the winter of 2009 — Dare said accidents have caused lane closures, causing major headaches for all involved.
“The first reason [for expanding Route 90] is public safety,” Dare said. “It’s just dangerous. We’ve had spectacular head-on crashes that have claimed lives.”
Evacuation is also a concern.
“We have two lanes on Route 50 that are going to be congested and one lane on Route 90,” Dare said. “Trying to get a quarter of a million people … off here for an evacuation is horrible.”
Additionally, if Route 90 is shut down and flooding occurs on Route 50, the only avenue left is through the Delaware state line.
There are economic implications, as well, as a major shutdown of Route 90 during the summer could crush travel to the resort.
“It’s not like it’s a quick fix,” Dare said. “You can’t just go to Home Depot and pick up a couple of bridge spans. It would be an economic disaster not just for the town, but also Worcester County and the State of Maryland.”
The state has the capacity to begin designing an expansion sooner than later.
“It is shovel-ready,” Dare said. “When they built the two lanes, they got the right of way for the four lanes … they could direct the money to design tomorrow and start in on it.”
There have been financial roadblocks, as state money has been sucked up by construction on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, the Intercounty Connector and most recently the state has been eyeing Interstate 70 and Washington beltways.
The state pays for roadway projects through gasoline tax.
“The counties are fighting this [Interstate 70 and Washington beltway projects], so now might be the perfect time for Maryland to direct some of the revenue to a project that is shovel-ready,” Dare said.
City officials have lobbied to the State Highway Administration to pick up the project.
However, “In order to get on their list, if you will, it has to be endorsed by the Worcester County Commissioners. For years, the only thing Worcester County wanted was Route 113 dualized. Well, that’s coming into fruition now,” Dare said.
On a surface level, the expansion of Route 90 seems to only benefit Ocean City, so of the seven commissioners, naturally only one is concerned with the effort, Dare said.
In reality, the dualization of Route 90 affects everyone, as residents of Ocean Pines, West Ocean City and Berlin work in Ocean City, and congestion at the Route 50 bridge means congestion in that area as a whole.
While the city waits on an endorsement, Route 50 gets pushed back further, which is why Dare said city officials, through the Ocean City Development Corporation (OCDC), needed to start acquiring property surrounding the entryway.
“It takes [roughly] two years to go through that process [acquiring property] because some people are willing to sell and other aren’t,” Dare said.
The Route 50 bridge is a solid structure, Dare said, and is inspected every two years by the State Highway Administration.
Yet, it’s almost 80 years old, and the combination of age, salt-water damage and weather has taken its toll.
Around 10 years ago, the State Highway Administration conducted a study to extend its longevity, and ultimately chose a design that would be tall enough to allow for 80 to 90 percent of vessels to cross under it without raising the draw span.
“It would greatly decrease the impact of the draw span on traffic, both on the water and on the roadway,” Dare said.
The main issue, Dare said, was that the State Highway Administration cannot buy the property needed for the project until it’s funded.
“We don’t know when that’s going to be, so in the interim somebody can invest a lot of money in one of these properties and when State Highway goes to buy it they have to pay the fair market value,” Dare said.
That’s where the development corporation comes into play. The corporation could buy the properties, develop them into temporary revenue-generating structures, such as employee housing or paid parking, and then sell the property to the State Highway Administration.
“The win-win on this is that the state gets the property at a value of the land and not new structures, and if we as a town do a good job in renovating the downtown the land value will go up and the OCDC will reap a profit from the land banking that they can reinvest in other projects,” Dare said
Next week: Exploring summer employee housing and code enforcement.