First responders, SHA talk about Route 404
QUEEN ANNE — In an effort to keep Mid-Shore residents and beach travelers safe during the state Route 404 widening construction project, Maryland State Highway Administration officials met with first responders and town managers on Wednesday, March 22.
About two dozen people attended the 5 p.m. meeting at Queen Anne-Hillsboro Volunteer Fire Department in Queen Anne to share concerns, pore over drawings, offer suggestions and ask questions.
Rolling out drawings of the dualization project for one of the two main Maryland routes to Delaware and Maryland Atlantic beaches, SHA engineers, road construction contractors and design consultants fielded questions from first responders and those who may be affected by diverted traffic in Talbot, Caroline and Queen Anne’s counties.
Fast-tracked by Gov. Larry Hogan, the Route 404 dualization project from U.S. Route 50 to Denton is designed primarily for improving safety, not getting vacationers to the beach quicker, SHA construction manager Fred Valente said.
“What we’re doing is preventing accidents,” Valente said. “Emergency responders are concerned about not being able to make turns. We’re trying to balance that with (creating safe turns and intersections). You can’t please everyone, but we can certainly try.”
Responding quickly to accidents while keeping first responders safe was the main concern of Caroline County Emergency Services director Bryan Ebling, QAHVFC Chief Danny Lister and Chief Engineer David Chaires. Because of its location, QAHVFC responds to accidents in all three counties.
Route 404 from Route 50 at Wye Mills to the Tuckahoe Creek bridge in Queen Anne separates Queen Anne’s and Talbot counties. The stretch of Route 404 from Tuckahoe Creek east to Denton is in Caroline County.
Lister has been a “prime motivator” in generating the meetings between SHA and first responders, SHA spokesman Bob Rager said. Rager, who is based in the District 2 office in Chestertown, is in charge of public outreach. He said this is the third such meeting requested by first responders.
“This is an unusual designbuild project,” Rager said. “The design is going along with construction, and first responders wanted to be part of that process. We’ve got a really, really good, dedicated group of responders who want to make sure they do their job well.”
Concerns voiced by the responders included the maneuverability of J-turns for tower trucks and potential access over medians divided by steel guard rails. Discussion of emergency vehicle wheel-base, turning radiuses and angles, clearances, road dimensions, and dimensions and logistics with hypothetical scenarios at various points on the highway went back and forth across the table.
Jeff Wence, assistant district engineer for traffic, said J-turns on U.S. Route 301 have reduced accidents by 80 percent. Ebling said the J-turns proposed for Route 404 would be sufficient for allowing emergency vehicles to access the highway.
More accidents are anticipated, however, at intersections having traffic lights on Route 404. And the “pinch point” at the turn onto Route 404 from Route 50 will continue to be an area of concern. The entire intersection would have to be shut down because, Chaires said, “I can’t take a chance on my guys getting run over.”
Other concerns of first responders included radio communication when a lane of traffic is closed, dynamic signage and emergency lights, and making sure all signals have working Opticoms, emergency vehicle pre-emption systems that allow first responders to override traffic signals.
Lister said the safety of his emergency personnel as they respond to accidents during the summer construction is paramount.
“I just want to make sure everybody is in agreement, “he said. “We’re not taking a chance of getting our folks killed if only part of the highway is shut down.”
SHA officials said they would continue working if their work did not affect emergency responses.
First responders agreed that compromise between the ideal and the practical would have to be the reality.
“We’ll have to adapt and conquer,” Chaires said.
Acknowledging that many drivers use their GPS navigational systems and apps to find alternative routes, Rager said other routes will be communicated to vacationers on the western shore and beyond.
However, Rager sought feedback on roads that should be avoided to reduce impacts on emergency responses. Suggested roads and areas were Dover Bridge, state Route 662 around Chesapeake College and state Route 309 that backs up at Route 404.
“No truck traffic on Central Avenue through Ridgely (onto) River Road,” Ebling added. “We need to keep them on the state highways, as much as we can.”
Other spring and summer traffic road projects that may affect beach traffic, Rager said, are the work on Route 50 near Trappe “that will drag into April now,” and paving work in three locations: Route 50 west from Queenstown to Kent Narrows (nighttime work beginning in the next couple of weeks), Route 404 business in Denton and state Route 318 in Federalsburg this summer.
Route 404 work will take place six days a week unless it rains, which means work will continue on Sunday.
“We have plenty of places to work off-road,” Valente said. “So we can avoid lane closures on weekends.”
The state has mandated a $22,200 per day penalty “for not getting done on time,” Valente said.
A consensus formed by the attendees was to continue meeting monthly at 5 p.m. on the third Wednesday.
“The only other statement I have is just a big thank you,” Chaires said on behalf of the fire company. “It’s worked since our first meeting. We’ve made great strides, and we’ve kept people pretty darn well safe out there, and I think that’s what we’re all after.”
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Caroline County Emergency Services director Bryan Ebling, left, points to a section of the Route 404 dualization plan map which SHA officials shared with first responders affected by the project’s impact on delivering emergency services in a timely manner.