The start to summer comes early for Potomac’s Bruce Pollekoff, a CPA who heads to his vacation home on Bethany Beach almost every weekend after Tax Day. Since his beach home was completed in June 2013, Pollekoff, 66, and his wife Linda, have counted on a 2 1/2-hour drive each Friday morning and then back Sunday or Monday.
But recently the ride to their seaside retreat has been taking longer. Route 404 — the two-lane road that takes them there — is being widened to a divided four-lane highway. The work, being done mostly during daytime hours, is scheduled to continue until Thanksgiving. For the Pollekoffs, that adds 45 minutes to their drive “just sitting there.”
“It just makes no sense,” Pollekoff said. “I can’t tell you how many cars drive back and forth during the summer on that road. I understand that they want to build it as soon as possible. Well, if it takes another month or two months to have traffic flow, it’s worth it.”
In June 2015, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced $1.97 billion for highways and bridges from western Maryland to the Eastern Shore. That included $845 million for newly-funded top-priority projects–the widening of Route 404 among them. The project spans Queen Anne’s, Talbot and Caroline counties, stretching 11.3 miles from US 50 to east of Holly Road.
Construction along the highway is only allowed between noon Monday and noon Friday, according to Bob Rager, spokesman for the Maryland State Highway Administration. But the bulk of the work — which requires lane closures and flagging operations — has been done during the day, with sporadic nighttime operations only beginning this week. Rager said there will be no lane closures starting Friday for the July 4 weekend, and that crews won’t be back on the road until Wednesday or Thursday of next week.
Rager said that even given efforts to move hard-to-complete tasks, like concrete work, into nighttime shifts, there’s no way to eliminate the weekday flagging operations that inevitably hold back thousands of beachgoers.
“This is a really difficult project to get done in the time frame that we have,” Rager said. “We’re not out there on the weekends, but we know there are people going out during the week.”
Rager said his traditional motto — “travel off peak, go during the middle of the week” — is hard to sell given the project’s schedule. But he still encouraged drivers to travel to the beach late in the day or in the evening between Tuesday and Thursday. And Rager said it is easy to overlook others who depend on the highway on a daily basis, including farmers, local residents and emergency responders.
The push for a four-lane highway with a divider was largely driven by congestion and safety concerns. Nearly 18,000 vehicles travel along Route 404 each day, with 23,000 vehicles using the two-lane road each day during the summer, according to SHA. But historically, the route has had a higher collision rate than the statewide average — 402 crashes and 12 fatalities occurred on the highway between 2005 and 2014.
Rager said many of these accidents were high-speed, head-on collisions. For more than a decade, advocates who have lost loved ones along Route 404 have been pushing for the widening project. Dedicated in 2011, the Route 404 Memorial Garden just west of Denton, includes the names of dozens killed on the highway.
Tom DiFatta, treasurer of the Queen Anne-Hillsboro Volunteer Fire Company, which responds to many crashes on the highway, said even a quick glance at a cell phone while driving 60 or 70 miles an hour can be fatal. He said the widening project “should save a lot of lives,” adding that even Route 50, a potential alternate route, is usually just as congested.
Rager said the State Highway Administration does not endorse any specific alternate route, but encourages drivers to plan ahead when it comes to timing and route.
“The more knowledge you have, the more options you give yourself, the more pleasant your trip will be,” he said.