Traffic Deaths Rise in Cecil County, as Transportation Plan Pushes Different Priorities

September 22, 2016


Cecil County registered record numbers of traffic fatalities last year—and pedestrian death rates were the worst in Maryland—but the county administration recently shifted transportation project priorities away from road safety improvements, especially along Route 40 where many fatalities have occurred.

Gerry Widdoes, the Chief Deputy for the Cecil County Sheriff’s Department, recently advised the County Council of traffic fatalities data compiled by the agency for 2015, showing 16 traffic fatalities on local roads, up from 14 in 2014. In an interview with Cecil Times, Widdoes, the second-ranking law enforcement official in the department, said that four pedestrian deaths were recorded, resulting in a population-adjusted death rate that was the highest in the state of Maryland. The overall traffic fatalities rate was the 8th worst in the state, on a population-adjusted basis. Cecil County’s traffic fatalities rate was twice the state average, according to Widdoes.

“It’s one of the saddest statistics,” he observed. Many of the incidents occurred in areas with no sidewalks or road shoulders for pedestrians to use and some of the victims were homeless or transient people. Overall, 3 of the total traffic fatalities involved victims who were “alcohol-impaired.”

Concerns over rising traffic fatalities and car crashes prompted Cecil County Sheriff Scott Adams to request five additional deputies on his force to create a new dedicated Traffic Enforcement Unit in his Fiscal 2017 budget and the County Council ratified that request. The Sheriff’s agency handles traffic accident investigations throughout the county, after taking over that responsibility from the State Police several years ago. With the rise in fatalities, accident reconstructions require time-consuming investigations, and traffic stops also play a major role in catching drug traffickers. The Sheriff’s department also recently received a $14,000 grant, using federal funds passed through the state, to aid its traffic safety efforts. (The Elkton Police Department also received a similar grant.)

One recent fatality occurred near the intersection of Route 40 and Route 213, the intersection of the two main highways in the county, from west to east (40) and north to south (213). That major intersection, and its often confusing turn lane arrangements, has for years been at or near the top of the Cecil County government’s transportation project priority list, which is sent every year to the state Department of Transportation in an appeal for state funds. But so far the state has ignored the county government’s request for what would be a major and costly undertaking.

Several months ago, the administration of County Executive Tari Moore surprised the County Council with a sudden shake-up of the county’s transportation priority list to elevate a previously largely unknown plan for a “transit hub” to be built at an unspecified cost in the town of North East. While past transportation priorities discussions have been led by the county’s director of Public Works Scott Flanigan, this time the presentation was made by David Trolio, the director of the newly-renamed Department of Community Services. Trolio’s agency operates the Cecil Transit buses and oversees senior citizens programs.

Trolio, a former social worker with no transportation policy background before assuming his current post in 2011, is a strong advocate of the North East transit hub plan and wants to move most of the Cecil Transit buses, both operations and repair facilities, to North East, while leaving behind a small contingent of buses at their current home at the County Administration Building in Elkton. Cecil Transit operates buses primarily in an east-west direction along Route 40, with loops to service Cecil College in North East and shopping and employment centers in Delaware, during daytime hours.

Trolio told the County Council that, since the state hasn’t provided the money for the county’s past priorities, it was time to try “something new.” What he didn’t say was how much such a project would eventually cost or how wise it was to pin the county’s aid hopes on a project that only recently began a feasibility study that is due to be completed in a few months.

At this point, it seems the initial goal is to build a garage facility and bus shelters. But in fact, the North East transit hub project is a longstanding goal of North East Mayor-For-Life Robert McKnight, who wants to create a hub that would include a commuter rail station at North East. For several years, McKnight has pushed the concept before the WILMAPCO interstate transportation planning agency, which includes Cecil County along with Delaware state and county agencies.

For years, one of the top items on Cecil County’s transportation wish list has been the extension of the MARC commuter rail line, which currently terminates in Perryville, to the county seat in Elkton, and beyond into Delaware. Delaware is currently developing a new major rail transit hub of its own, with substantial federal aid, just over the Cecil County line. But just as that regional transit hub is moving forward aggressively, Trolio suddenly pushed the North East “hub” to the top of Cecil County’s priority list—despite the fact that WILMAPCO has had some pointed caveats about it.

In a report issued in mid-2014, WILMAPCO noted that while the town of North East considered the plan, and a rail component, “crucial” to future economic development, “future rail service to North East is not guaranteed.” Furthermore, “bringing transit to North East is not a top priority for MDOT” (the Maryland Department of Transportation.) The report also noted that North East would have “less potential ridership” than an Elkton rail station and it was unlikely any rail would come to North East until after an extension of rail service to Elkton.

After years of ignoring pleas for extending MARC service to Elkton, state officials have suggested recently they might look more favorably on an Elkton station but only IF the county did not object or try to impede a MARC plan to locate a commuter train washing and storage yard that is under consideration for location in the Perryville area. (Extending MARC service from Perryville to link up with the Delaware hub was included as the second-place priority, behind the new North East proposal, on the county’s latest wish list to Maryland government.)

Meanwhile, the Cecil County Council is scheduled to meet with state Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn and other top state roads officials in Elkton on September 30, as part of an annual presentation on state priorities and projects in the county. State highway officials met privately recently with Moore and handed over a list of the state’s planned road spending in the county during the current Fiscal 2017 budget year. None of the county’s top priorities made the cut, but the SHA list only focused on the current budget year, not future spending plans.

(Rahn recently made a hat-in-hand apology visit to Cecil County officials, after Governor Hogan revealed he had “no idea” that state officials had implemented a plan to allow bicycles on the Hatem Bridge without consulting with local officials in advance. Shortly after that meeting, the state announced it would scale-back the bike/bridge plan to allow riders only on limited weekend hours.)

The State Highway Administration’s new road list includes continued work on three “roundabouts” that are supposed to improve safety, two of which are already under construction. When they were proposed a few years ago by the state, the $8 million projects came as a surprise to county officials and local residents, many of whom opposed the roundabouts. Roundabouts at Appleton/Rising Sun roads and at Muddy Lane/East Main Street are already under construction and another is slated for Telegraph Road at Blue Ball Road. The SHA plan also continues bridge replacement projects on the Route 222 bridge over Rock Run and the Route 272 bridge over Amtrak rail lines.

Councilor Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2) said this week that she wants to bring up the traffic fatality data when Rahn and his aides meet with the Council.

If county and state officials really wanted to address the problem, they might want to investigate some outside-the-box concepts that wouldn’t break the bank and could be implemented rather quickly.

Sections of Route 40 are pitch-black at night with no roadside lighting outside the towns, and intersections and turn-offs obscured in the darkness so drivers cannot readily see turning or road-crossing traffic until the last minute. Would better lighting—perhaps even solar-powered lights in some of the long stretches of undeveloped areas on Route 40—improve safety? What about sidewalks near the Route 40/Route 213 intersection to keep pedestrians off shoulders and auto turn lanes?

The county government has long opposed the potential costly “precedent” of providing sidewalks along county roads. But the intersection of two state roads might draw state support, especially since the SHA plan does include sidewalk and pedestrian safety measures on its bridge replacement projects and for some state roads (Routes 272 and 267).

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