Federal Officials Approve Route 50 Bridge Alternative, But Project Likely Decades Away
OCEAN CITY — While construction could be nearly two decades away, federal transportation officials last week formally approved one of several alternatives for a new Route 50 Bridge into Ocean City, setting in motion a likely lengthy timetable for the replacement of the existing span.
After reviewing numerous impact studies for the multiple alternatives proposed, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) last week formally approved Alternative 5A for the future replacement of the aging Harry Kelley Memorial Bridge.
The FHWA formally entered its approval of Alternative 5A in the Federal Register. That step is the first of many in the long process, which includes final design, right-of-way acquisition of properties in the area and finally construction, which is targeted for the mid- to late 2020s if not later.
Alternative 5A calls for a new bridge just north of and parallel to the existing bridge that would tie into the current eastern terminus at North Division Street. The new bridge would have a higher draw span to reduce the number of bridge openings. Further studies would be needed to decide whether to retain or remove any portion of the existing bridge after the construction of the new span.
Alternative 5A was the State Highway Administration’s (SHA) preferred alternative and has been endorsed by the Ocean City Mayor and Council and the Worcester County Commissioners. The new bridge will have a 30-foot high draw span and carry eastbound and westbound traffic on four lanes. The new span will have a seven-foot shoulder and a five-foot sidewalk on each side with a six-foot median down the middle. The bridge is designed to improve safety for all users on the Route 50 crossing in and out of Ocean City including bicyclists and pedestrians.
“The FHWA approves the selection of Alternative 5A, the north parallel bridge, and documents the selected alternative best serves the purpose and need for this project, minimizes environmental impacts and is in the best overall public interest,” the Federal Register entry reads.
SHA Deputy Director of Project Management Bruce Grey said this week the FHWA final approval of Alternative 5A and its listing in the Federal Register is a formality, but sets in motion a long-range planning and development timetable for the Route 50 bridge replacement.
“Basically, the Federal Highway Administration is required when they grant approval for an alternative, in this case Alternative 5A, for a project to publish a notice of that approval in the Federal Register,” he said. “This means that now the project can be funded for its subsequent phases of design, right-of-way acquisition and construction. However, there is no funding for these phases at this time.”
Grey said a recent bridge deck replacement project allows the serviceability life of the bridge to be extended for 15 to 20 years. SHA has also developed a preventative maintenance plan to extend the life of the Route 50 bridge until such time as a replacement would be necessary. The timetable for the eventual replacement is several years out with the final design and right-of-way acquisition likely to occur between 2022 and 2027, with construction anticipated during the 2027-2032 time period.
“We did planning early because it’s an older draw span structure,” he said. “If operations and any needed repairs become challenging, we will be able to react much quicker with a permanent solution with this approval in hand.”
With Alternative 5A, St. Louis Ave. would have to be relocated under Route 50 to continue its north-south connection. Alternative 5A would require three acres of right-of-way acquisition in and around the new span including one acre of residential property and two acres of commercial property, resulting in six residential displacements and two commercial displacements.
In total, six residential properties and 10 commercial properties will be impacted for right-of-way needs. However, the existing properties targeted for right-of-way acquisition were not identified in the impact studies for Alternative 5A.
‘The SHA preferred alternative would convert commercial land use to transportation land use,” the final Environmental Impact Study (EIS) for Alternative 5A reads. “Because Ocean City has nearly reached build-out, this type of conversion would be required for almost any transportation improvement that must occur outside the existing transportation corridors. The SHA preferred alternative is consistent with local land-use plans.”
Alternative 5A was chosen from among eight different alternatives from a no-build, no replacement option to an elaborate Alternative 6, which would have included a new alignment for Route beginning at Route 611 and traveling behind the existing White Marlin Mall and tying into a connection in Ocean City at 9th Street. That alternative was dropped from consideration early on due to public opposition, substantial impacts to the bay and tidal wetlands, extreme changes to traffic patterns, significant property displacements and cost.