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City leaning against pulling road diet trigger

(Dec. 19, 2014) There’s a big difference between the theoretically possible and the practical and it would seem city officials are leaning toward the latter as they discuss the possible reconfiguration of Coastal Highway.

A week after the State Highway Administration’s presentation on the “road diet” proposal, which would reduce the number of lanes on Coastal Highway to make way for bike paths and wider sidewalks, the city’s Transportation Committee held a special meeting Wednesday to discuss whether the city was jumping the gun with that initiative.

The state has $2.4 million earmarked for the design of the highway overhaul. But city officials wondered if that money might be better used on short- to medium-term fixes that were still outstanding.

“The question would be, do we continue with the $2.4 million the SHA has at this point for the road diet design, or do we address these mid-term issues,” City Public Works Director Hal Adkins told the committee.

Its recommendation leaned toward the short-term approach, especially since funding to do the road diet reconstruction – estimated to be between $15 million to $25 million – does not yet exist with no strong indication that it will be.

“I would hate to see us forgo the mid-term improvements and spend money on something that will ultimately go on the shelf,” said Mayor Rick Meehan.

“I think the message I would give State Highway is that further consideration will be given [to the road diet] after the completion of the mid-term goals,” Adkins said.

Those goals, as outlined in a 2012 study would be the installation of additional signalized pedestrian-only intersections, the continued elimination of median curb-cuts not needed by emergency vehicles, and the installation of fencing and better lighting in the median strip.

Critically, these tweaks would be done to the entirety of Coastal Highway, rather than a complete rebuild of the area between the convention center and Route 90 Bridge which the SHA had identified as the primary area of concern for pedestrian safety.

“I don’t like the idea of just doing one section,” Councilman Dennis Dare said.

“I imagine that people, after having to slow down in the two-lane road diet area, would speed back up when it went back to three lanes. That would be dangerous by itself,” Council Secretary Mary Knight said.

Ocean City Police Department Capt. Kevin Kirstein agreed that there was “some science” to indicate that a single section of more controlled traffic would create problems on either end of it.

“It’s the reason we set up radar traps in pairs, with one ‘obvious’ checkpoint and then another behind it to catch the people who speed up as soon as they pass the trap,” Kirstein said.

In short, the idea of a road diet would be to remove one southbound and one northbound lane out of Coastal Highway from the Convention Center to the Route 90 Bridge. This would create extra space needed to widen the sidewalks and build a proper bicycle lane.

The stretch of Coastal Highway being considered for the road diet renovations was chosen because of the high number of pedestrian accidents there. The summer of 2012 raised considerable concern about pedestrian safety in the resort, with several major incidents including two deaths.

From January 2008, when the SHA began collecting data, through the end of August 2012, the stretch of highway between the Convention Center and the Route 90 interchange saw 41 pedestrians hit. According to a SHA survey, 27 percent of pedestrians typically cross mid-block.

But a heavy public awareness campaign, sponsored by the town and the state, has largely allayed the problem. Only three minor pedestrian incidents occurred over the past year, OCPD Lt. Scott Harner said.

The decline is also due in part to changes already made to Coastal Highway’s pedestrian signals. Countdown clocks have been installed, letting pedestrians know how long they have to cross.

Between the hours of 10 p.m. and 3 a.m., sidewalk signal buttons do not even have to be pressed to allow crossing, a measure made for forgetful or inebriated pedestrians coming from bars.

Right turns have been eliminated at some intersections, and left-turn phases have been altered, slowing traffic and making it easier for people on foot to navigate.

A new signal has been installed at 54th Street in front of Macky’s, which stops traffic for pedestrian crossing, even though there is no cross-street for cars at that point on Coastal Highway. A similar signal is planned for 100th Street, near the Clarion.

These recent changes and positive results led Councilman Tony DeLuca to ask if the city and state weren’t working with obsolete information.

“When I say obsolete, I mean making a decision based on these reference points, which have changed completely in the past two years,” DeLuca said.

Besides the question of whether the road diet is really needed, there was also the question of whether it would accomplish what the city wanted.

“You have to realize that [with the road diet] people are going to complain about congestion, and that’s the point,” Adkins said. “It aggravates drivers because it slows them down. That’s what it’s supposed to do.”

Kirstein also noted that drivers in slow traffic tend to use the bus and right turn-only lane as a through lane, creating confusion, potential collisions, and an enforcement conundrum for the OCPD.

Reducing Coastal Highway to two through-car lanes, instead of the current three, would exacerbate this.

“A lot of the stuff we’ve done, there’s been little impact on traffic, other than the pedestrian signal timing,” said City Engineer Terry McGean. “By that, I mean it’s not restrictive for traffic … but the signals began to do that, and the road diet takes it much further.

“The question is if it’s more important to move cars [or to move pedestrians and bicycles]? That’s a philosophical difference you [the city council] have to decide … because now what you’re talking about is making significant impacts on vehicle movement for the benefit of pedestrians and bicycles. The assumption, up until this point, has always been that cars are the primary movers in town.”

The consensus was to prioritize improvements that would not force as much of a compromise, rather than forge ahead with a long-term plan that would.

“If we move forward with the lighting, the signals, the fence, and the mid-term stuff, it doesn’t preclude the road diet in the future,” DeLuca said. “We have to attack what we didn’t do in the mid-term goals first.”

“If we were starting Ocean City from scratch, this would be the way to go,” Meehan said.

But finalizing the road diet “before we exhaust all the other things that need to be done anyway would be a mistake,” he continued.

The committee was particularly interested in some type of lighting in the median that would arch over the left lanes of the roadway, providing better nighttime visibility for drivers.

This would be coupled with some type of median barrier to prevent pedestrians from crossing mid-block. Some type of decorative fencing that did not block line-of-sight, and that would be less difficult to maintain than trees or shrubbery, was preferred.

“You’ll have to pick something you like the look of, because you’re going to see it on its own when it extends to the narrow median strip at the intersections,” McGean said.

Although the SHA had proposed a median barrier as a key part of the road diet project, the barrier work could be done on its own without pulling a lane from Coastal Highway.

This would prevent, however, the widening of sidewalks and the installation of a bike lane.

“You would need to seek easements … and capture some of the property on the private side of the sidewalk,” Meehan said. “I think that’s the only avenue we can look into for wider sidewalks without squeezing the road.”

The OCPD also plans to launch a more intensive bike safety campaign for the summer of 2015, Harner said.

Knight also suggested that the city could publicize ways to tour the resort on a bicycle without using Coastal Highway, which can be done using alleys and back lots for those more interested in the scenery and less interested in going fast.

The opinion toward the road diet was not entirely negative, however.

“I’m a proponent of it, and I think this is the way things ultimately will go,” McGean said. “I’d hate to see the whole idea killed. But I think we need to give [the SHA] the direction that it needs more of a sale to the public. I don’t know that it was ever asked what we wanted accomplished until they came down to the council and said ‘Okay, pick option ‘A’ or option ‘B.’”

“[The SHA] never hit a point of public input until most of it was already laid out,” Meehan agreed.

The committee’s recommendation – to ask for a re-allocation of road diet design funds to shorter-term solutions – will be presented to the full city council at the Jan. 6 session.

Meehan recommended that Adkins and Kirstein also advise the SHA immediately that the city is considering another direction.

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