SNOW HILL – The Route 50 bridge could be closed for drawbridge repairs for five weeks this winter, forcing resort traffic north and engendering worry over emergency service access.
The bridge will be closed from Jan. 15, 2008, until Feb. 19, 2008 if the money for the repairs is available.
The Jan. 15 closure of the bridge, the only connection between Ocean City and West Ocean City, is not yet set in stone, with the cost of the project still to be determined. If this year’s funding is not adequate, some repairs will be undertaken and the remaining pursued in winter 2009. The repairs are not structural.
During repairs to the Route 50 drawbridge, traffic, inbound and outbound, will be diverted to the Route 90 bridge.
The lack of bridge access at Route 50 brings up great concerns over emergency services in West Ocean City, services normally supplied by Ocean City fire and ambulance companies.
“The issue for the county is how we’ll handle fire and ambulance service during that time frame,” Worcester County Chief Administrator Gerry Mason said Tuesday.
Commissioner Bud Church, who represents West Ocean City, said a lapse in emergency services is unacceptable.
“The concern I have for folks in West Ocean City is if we have a fire or heart attack,” said Church. “We need to work with city officials to make sure we have 24-hour coverage.”
Commissioner Louise Gulyas pointed out another problem.
“Most of the firemen live in West Ocean City so if there is a huge fire let’s hope they can get into Ocean City to put it out,” Gulyas said.
Ocean City Emergency Services Director assured the commissioners, “There’ll be no loss of service.”
Ocean City already plans to station emergency personnel and equipment at the Keyser Point Rd. substation.
“We are in the preliminary planning stages,” Theobald said. “We will assign personnel to station 5 because Ocean City provides the medical coverage to West Ocean City.”
The addition of personnel to that station will not diminish Ocean City emergency coverage, said Theobald.
“Whatever plan we put in place in West Ocean City would be on top of minimum staffing [requirements] in Ocean City,” he said. “It’ll be a coordinated effort between the volunteers fire company and EMS division.”
The bridge closure will also affect local business people. The inconvenience to commuters and visitors could seriously reduce commerce at businesses in downtown Ocean City and the West Ocean City Route 50 commercial corridor.
The closure could take place over President’s Day and Valentine’s Day, traditionally two of the busier winter weekends for the resort area.
The already busy Route 589, the most direct and closest connection between Routes 90 and 50, will also see increased traffic with motorists being diverted to the northern bridge.
The commissioners wondered whether State Highway Administration (SHA) officials had considered, or would contemplate, leaving one lane open each way to accommodate morning and evening traffic. If all traffic is diverted to the Route 90 bridge, Ocean City residents will see much longer commute times.
“The school buses can take so long,” said Gulyas.
Commissioner Virgil Shockley, a school bus driver in the Snow Hill area, estimated the travel time. “You’re looking at 30 to 40 minutes on those buses,” said Shockley.
Gulyas said, “That’s going to be a real hardship on parents getting their kids to school.”
There will be a bigger problem if the drawbridge goes up and fails, Mason said.
Shockley wondered if the work could be done at night or on weekends. He also suggested that work not begin until 9 a.m.
“I think State Highway is going to do what they want to do, but we can ask,” Shockley said.
The drawbridge must be in the upright position for repairs to be made, said Mason, so leaving a lane open or re-opening the bridge for a period each day is not possible.
The decking, sidewalk and beams will be entirely removed at the beginning of the repairs and the bridge will be impassable to vehicles.
The repair work will replace certain gears, beams and the drawbridge and sidewalk decking.
The gears on the southwest side are deteriorated and the gear teeth are not fully engaged. New gears will re-establish full contact and smooth out bridge operation, according to SHA. The beams, known as purlins, are also deteriorated and must be replaced. The decking is rated in fair condition, but must be removed to reach the purlins, requiring replacement of the decking.
The drawbridge will be closed to marine traffic for 45 days, 10 days longer than the closure for vehicular traffic. The marine closure will begin five days before the traffic closure, and extend five days after traffic is once again permitted, and will only apply to vessels requiring the drawbridge raised to navigate. Other boats may pass under the bridge normally.
Motorists will also see some lane closures beginning five days before the Jan. 15 total closure.
According to SHA documents, the agency considered a staged construction approach, which would allow traffic through, but the repairs would have been lower quality and the work would take much longer.
Whether the repairs will be made in 2008 or 2009 is still in question. The repairs have been estimated to cost about $1 million. If the contractor proposes a much higher price, some of the work would be put off until next year and the bridge would not be closed to traffic this winter.