Citizens oppose one-way streets in Bethany


With guidance and input from the modest crowd that attended a May 10 workshop on pedestrian and bicycle safety measures in Bethany Beach, representatives of the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) and Johnson, Mirmiran & Thompson Engineering (JMT) had recommended the town consider one-way streets for its two main north-south thoroughfares: Atlantic and Pennsylvania avenues.

That so-called Alternative 2 plan now the star of the show, input from those attending the June 17 standing-room-only public workshop the town held on the issue was decidedly different: too much change for too little payoff and the potential to cause more problems than it solved, according to the bulk of those attending the meeting.

Their recommendation? Back to the drawing board. Reconsider the so-called Alternative 1 plan for the north-south roads within the town.

That plan calls for a less drastic change. It essentially means expanding the town’s existing bicycle and pedestrian travel areas to “complete” those routes and provide sidewalks and bicycle lanes in a more contiguous manner. That way, pedestrians would be less tempted to walk in the road, since they would be less likely to be forced to do so by the lack of a continuous sidewalk or pedestrian path.

After the meeting, Council Member Wayne Fuller affirmed his personal opposition to the one-way street idea, saying that it was not needed to address a problem that occurs only three months of the year.

Fuller said his decades of experience as an emergency worker (he is a member of the fire police and the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company) had shown him that directing pedestrian and vehicular traffic onto Atlantic Avenue was itself a real safety concern.

Instead, Fuller said, he favors extensive sidewalks for Atlantic and Pennsylvania avenues, to encourage pedestrians away from the vehicle travel lanes.

Furthermore, as he told his fellow council members and those in attendance at the monthly town council meeting later that evening, he had developed a plan for such a system of sidewalks and would be presenting an informational “white paper” on that plan at a future council meeting.

That may come as welcome news to those in attendance at the workshop.

The strong opposition to the one-way street solution (Alternative 2) seemed to come as a bit of a surprise to JMT representatives and others who had been involved in the process of developing the plans.

“Let’s please not kill the messenger,” Town Manager Cliff Graviet pleaded as townsfolk competed to bombard JMT representatives with questions and negative feedback on Alternative 2. “This is a very long way from being adopted or voted on,” he added.

“We were asked to come in to help with a study, not push a plan on the town,” those in attendance were reminded on behalf of JMT’s engineers, who said their recommendations had been based on feedback from those attending the May 10 workshop at the South Coastal Library and the town workgroup, which had also forwarded those recommendations to the town council.

That initial feedback had significantly favored the one-way street plan of Alternative 2. And JMT engineers had endorsed that recommendation under the logic that separating pedestrian, bicycle and vehicular traffic nets the greatest increase in safety for all concerned.

It is up to the town, they said, to decide which of the plans it prefers, if any.

In the face of the strong reaction to the proposal for one-way streets, from the get-go, Mayor Jack Walsh emphasized that the day’s workshop was part of an information-gathering process, with no vote planned then or for the subsequent town council meeting.

Queried as to their individual positions on the issue toward the end of the workshop, council members declined to offer any.

Graviet reminded those in attendance that an indication of those positions would be a de facto vote and not allowed on that basis, while Walsh underscored his intention to make up his mind based on input such as council members had received that afternoon.

During the workshop, JMT representatives were questioned on any number of issues concerning the recommended one-way street plan, from what information was used to develop it to whether it could be implemented on a temporary basis and later removed if it didn’t work as expected.

The answer to the latter question was mixed. Yes, technically, a one-way street solution could be put into place and later taken out. But JMT engineers emphasized the expense of installing the solution, while DelDOT said it would be difficult to gauge the impact of a one-season temporary installation, as compliance increases as users get used to new travel patterns.

Both parties advised against a “temporary” or trial installation on that basis. And support from those in attendance for even a temporary installation of the one-way street plan was thin. Concerns about the plan were copious and many emerged during the discussion.

As it turned out, one area of particular concern was a street not itself scheduled for physical change under the plan for one-way north-south traffic: Cedarwood Drive.

The road is the southernmost border of the one-way zone that would be established for Atlantic and Pennsylvania. With Pennsylvania Avenue an exclusively southbound route, northbound drivers would be forced to take Jefferson Bridge Road to Route 1 or travel Cedarwood to drive north through the town on Atlantic Avenue.

Residents in the neighborhood said pedestrian traffic on the road was already heavy due to beachgoers heading to and from locations south of Cedarwood and Sea Colony (with its private beach) to Bethany’s public beach. Even existing vehicular traffic often has to wait lengthy periods for breaks between groups of pedestrians, they said.

That sheer volume of pedestrians led residents to ask for a separate study of traffic on Cedarwood. The street was not one of those specifically studied during the August 2004 study by JMT. But the residents noted it as a “unique case” that would not inherently mesh with the figures derived from the study of neighboring east-west streets.

With its potential place as an increasingly used thoroughfare under Alternative 2, the need for information on actual traffic levels on Cedarwood is, of course, further heightened.

One audience member said stridently, “If I lived on Cedarwood, I would not walk but run to a Realtor right now. Cedarwood will become the main thoroughfare into town.” The comment elicited a loud round of applause, while similar problems were noted to be likely on Fifth Street, the northernmost boundary of the one-way section.

Following from the concerns about Cedarwood, some expressed concern about the potential for traffic backup on Jefferson Bridge Road (outside the town limits and not itself studied for traffic solutions) as a result of the plan.

Even more of those present expressed their opposition specifically to routing northbound traffic onto Atlantic Avenue, citing the already high volume of pedestrian traffic from those walking toward the beach and boardwalk.

Planning Commission Chairman Phil Boesch, a member of the town workgroup that served as a liaison with JMT and DelDOT for the process, quoted JMT’s own traffic study numbers in pointing out the potential deficiencies in the northbound Atlantic Avenue plan.

According to Boesch, vehicular traffic on Atlantic Avenue was expected to increase by 36 percent with the one-way designation. Pennsylvania Avenue, as the southbound road, would likely see an 11 percent decrease in vehicular traffic.

In contrast sit the pedestrian traffic figures from that August 2004 study: 29,000 pedestrians walking along Atlantic Avenue, versus 7,000 on Pennsylvania Avenue.

The combined figures suggest Alternative 2 would route both the heaviest vehicular traffic and the heaviest pedestrian traffic onto the same road, Atlantic Avenue. The safety concerns resulting from that idea were plain.

“This seems to me to be the wrong way to go,” Boesch said of the plan.

He further noted the potential loss of some 125 to 130 permit parking spaces and some 15 to 25 metered parking spaces if the associated one-way designations for the town’s east-west streets were implemented. Parking is, of course, at a premium in Bethany Beach.

The east-west one-ways would also make for a circuitous route for those traveling around the town, another point of contention frequently emphasized during the workshop. Boesch had noted his personal concerns about that during the May 10 workshop but wryly admitted some openness to the idea June 17, owing to the resulting reduction the numbers of vehicles parking on his street.

More strident were the notes of objection from those living off the north end of Pennsylvania Avenue, which is prone to incapacitating flooding during periods of even moderate rain or storm. Traditionally, sections of Pennsylvania Avenue are closed when such flooding takes place — sometimes for 24 hours or more.

The impact on local travel with the only in-town southbound road closed for 24 hours was also striking. Some residents said they would be all but trapped, forced to traverse high water, go the wrong way on their newly one-way streets or go far out of their way to get around town.

And the town, while working to improve the flooding situation along Pennsylvania Avenue, has largely reached the conclusion that the ability to alleviate the flooding is very limited, particularly in the short term.

JMT had no solutions to offer to the flooding scenario.

Though some in the town had mistakenly perceived that the plans for Pennsylvania and Atlantic included two lanes each of one-way traffic, the clarification that each road would have but a single, wider (14 feet, compared to 11 feet) traffic lane wasn’t much of a relief for some in the audience.

Traffic studies have shown that wider vehicular travel lanes often result in higher travel speeds for vehicles. While the JMT traffic study hadn’t indicated an existing problem with speeding within the town during the summer season (nor specifically on Atlantic or Pennsylvania), they recognized that the general perception in the town is that traffic does sometimes exceed a safe speed — particularly where pedestrians are present.

DelDOT representatives agreed that combined pedestrian, bicycle and vehicular activity does have a “self-calming” effect on traffic, generally resulting in lower speeds.

That effect could potentially be reduced by simple virtue of widening the vehicle lane and removing pedestrians and cyclists from the immediate vicinity with the resulting 5-foot bicycle lanes and 10-foot pedestrian sidewalks on each road.

But, still, DelDOT representative said the one-way solution was the only way they had found to enhance safety in the town without significantly reducing parking availability.

However, the statistics that might back up that conclusion in black and white are, admittedly lacking.

JMT representatives cited the difficulty of tracking accidents, when so many are not reported to police and traffic officials. And the town’s incidence of injuries in pedestrian-vehicle and bicycle-vehicle accidents is so low as to preclude its use as any real indicator of safety increases or failings.

Some residents even suggested the low rate of accidents indicated there wasn’t a need for the project, or at least an extreme solution like one-way traffic.

Town residents and officials will have to draw their own conclusions in further contemplating the various alternatives presented by JMT and DelDOT. Those with questions are being encouraged to continue to review the DelDOT/JMT presentation online at the town’s Web site (www.townofbethanybeach.com) and to call the town manager’s office.

Ongoing contemplation of the one-way traffic plan aside, the current emphasis appears to be on the milder changes of enhancing sidewalks and pedestrian/bicycle pathways.

Some of the other safety enhancements that were proposed could be implemented separately from other portions of the plan. Those recommendations include Wellington Parkway as a one-way street with a pedestrian walkway and pedestrian enhancements along Kent Avenue, with Collins Avenue widened.

Any moves the town makes would sit alongside plans DelDOT has made for state-controlled Route 1.

Those include elimination of crosswalks at Hollywood and Parkwood streets, reducing the crosswalks on Route 1 from 11 to nine (engineers avoid placing crosswalks at locations other than those with traffic lights) but enhancing those that remain.

Also included are landscaping and lighting enhancements along Route 1 (to emphasize drivers’ arrival at the town limits and increased pedestrian traffic). DelDOT would also add signage along Route 1 to indicate a pedestrian traffic area.

Each of the proposed enhancements for Route 1 would be paid for by DelDOT, with the exception of the lighting.

That project would be done in conjunction with Conectiv power company and the town. The standard for such projects is for Conectiv to pay for the installation, while the town would be responsible for paying for ongoing maintenance and power supply.