OCEAN CITY – Preparations for the closure of the Route 50 bridge began as expected yesterday, creating at least a month’s worth of headaches and complications for numerous local residents, including school-age children who live just across the span from their schools but will have to take a tour of Ocean City and northern Worcester County each day to reach them.
Early yesterday morning, State Highway Administration (SHA) crews were busy putting out the familiar orange barrels and dragging barricades across the west end of the Harry Kelley Memorial Bridge as a handful of cars scooted across for the last time. However, absent from the last of the bridge traffic were school buses, as school officials moved forward with a plan to detour the routes from the downtown area across Route 90 to reach the north-end schools.
SHA officials announced last fall the bridge would have to be closed for roughly 35 days beginning in mid-January and ending in mid-February, with a target date of the Friday before the typically busy President’s Day weekend. The rehabilitation project includes replacing the deck and gears on the drawbridge portion of the span among other repairs and renovations.
The bridge closure will obviously affect residents and businesses on either side of the span, but one segment of the population particularly impacted will be school children.
Worcester County Public Schools Director of Maintenance and Operations Steve Price told school board members on Tuesday a plan was in place to transport students who live on the island to their schools in a safe and timely manner.
“We met with the north-end principals and the bus contractors to come up with a plan,” he said. “The plan goes into affect on Thursday morning whether they close the bridge that day or not. We don’t have a choice.”
Price explained the plan included adding an additional bus to serve the students in the south end of town. The existing buses and the extra bus will transport students north through Ocean City and across the bridge to Route 113, then deliver the children to their respective schools. Price explained the buses would utilize Route 113 instead of Route 589 because of traffic concerns on the already congested Route 589 corridor.
It remains uncertain just how much time the extended distance will add to the morning and afternoon commute for students, which will depend largely on traffic.
School board member Bob Rothermel, who lives downtown and has children in the West Ocean City schools, said he got a flyer recently that said the changes would add about 10 minutes to the trip, although he appeared skeptical.
Assistant Superintendent for Administration Ed Barber agreed traffic volume, and not the distance, will dictate how long the changed route will take and adjustments would be made accordingly.
“The distances of the routes are easy to calculate,” he said. “What we can’t count on is the traffic.”
With the bridge closed for a month, Route 90 becomes the main access point for Ocean City and it will be critical to keep the lifeline open. For example, an accident on the Route 90 bridge could bring traffic throughout the area to a standstill, possibility local emergency crews are well aware of. Price, who is also the public information officer for the Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company, said emergency crews are aware of the situation.
“That’s very important,” he said. “If we have a fender-bender out there, usually we’d send five of six different pieces of apparatus, but they’ve been told to do what they have to get people the help they need and get in and out of there.”