By Donald Wittkowski
During the summer, the narrow corridor linking Sea Isle City with the Strathmere section of Upper Township becomes a congested strip of cars, bicycles, pedestrians and beachgoers all vying for the same space – sometimes with deadly consequences.
“It’s very hectic in the summer. It’s total chaos,” Upper Township Committeeman John Coggins bluntly said.
In recent years, one bicyclist was killed and two pedestrians were injured when they were struck by cars, according to accident statistics.
Hoping to improve safety along the roadway, Cape May County officials are studying plans to restripe this stretch of Ocean Drive to create more room for pedestrians and bikers to keep them out of harm’s way.
The plan may also include more radical measures, such as eliminating parking along one side of the road or reducing the speed limit, but first the county wants to collect public feedback before making a final decision.
“We’ll see what we can do to make it safer as quickly as we can,” said County Engineer Dale Foster, who estimated it will cost about $250,000 to make the improvements.
Foster joined with other county officials Friday afternoon to discuss the project with local officials and residents during a public forum at the Sea Isle Community Lodge.
“Ultimately, I do see it as a partnership between the county, Sea Isle and Upper Township,” Cape May County Freeholder Will Morey said.
Morey explained that the restriping of the road may be done before the start of the bustling summer tourism season. Other parts of the project are likely to unfold in phases over the next two years, he noted.
Some of the measures under consideration include eliminating parking on the west side of the road, building an off-street parking lot in the northern end of Sea Isle and reducing the 40 mph speed limit.
Although the speed limit may be reduced, the county does not plan to cut it all the way down to 15 mph, Foster said. Some people at the public forum suggested dropping the speed limit to a snail-like 15 mph to improve safety.
A pedestrian walkway is also being discussed. Landscaping may also be added to improve the aesthetics of the roadway.
Morey stressed that he wants to hear suggestions from local officials and residents before he makes up his mind about the full scope of the project.
“It’s really a collaboration,” he said.
The county controls the roadway, which is variously known as Ocean Drive and Route 619. The part that runs through Sea Isle is called Landis Avenue. In Upper Township, the road is known as Commonwealth Avenue.
Its beachside location makes it a popular route for cars, bicyclists and pedestrians during the summer vacation season. However, all that activity squeezed into the narrow lanes creates hazards. A lack of sidewalks makes it even trickier for bikers and walkers.
Michael Dannemiller, principal engineer for NV5, a consulting firm that is studying the project for the county, said there were 16 motor vehicle accidents on this stretch of road between 2012 and 2016. In 2016, a bicyclist was killed by a car in Upper Township. Two pedestrians were injured when they were hit by cars, Dannemiller said.
Coggins, the Upper Township committeeman, said the roadway has always been busy during the summer ever since he was a child. The 61-year-old Coggins has lived in Upper since 1992 and spent his summer vacations as a youth in neighboring Ocean City.
Coggins, whose family formerly owned a waste-hauling firm, recalled that the company’s trash trucks were involved in a lot of close calls when bikers and children would dart out into traffic or cars would slam on their brakes.
“For as long as I can remember, it’s been hectic,” he said.
Coggins wants the county to consider reducing the speed limit to 15 mph for traffic coming off the Corsons Inlet Bridge in Strathmere, the northern tip of the corridor between Upper Township and Sea Isle.
However, he does not want to see parking eliminated along the road in Strathmere because that would discourage vacationers from using the local beaches, he said.
“We don’t want to deny people the opportunity to go to the beach,” Coggins said.
Councilman Jack Gibson, one of the Sea Isle representatives who attended the public forum, pointed out that the Landis Avenue corridor is a key artery for the beach town. Periodic shutdowns with the aged Townsends Inlet Bridge and ongoing construction with Sea Isle Boulevard sometimes leave Landis Avenue as the only way on and off the barrier island, he noted.
“It’s very important for our access,” Gibson said.
Gibson said he will study the proposed options for making the Landis Avenue corridor safer before he supports any particular plan.
In the meantime, Gibson believes that the roadway will continue to be a popular route because it provides easy access to the Strathmere beaches, which are free to the public during summer.
“It’s a stretch of beach where visitors enjoy the beaches without beach tags,” he said.