Under the boardwalk

Our view: Wood, concrete or plastic? Ocean City should think twice before messing with the look of its signature boardwalk

December 21, 2010

More than a century ago, hoteliers in Ocean City would place wooden boards on the beach during the summer for the convenience of their patrons. Today, the resort town's boardwalk is in danger of making direct contact with the sand again — if the failing substructure isn't replaced.

The problem isn't the pounding of the surf but, in a peculiar twist, the lack of it. For decades, Ocean City's boardwalk was so frequently destroyed by hurricanes and other severe weather that it was regularly replaced. Since 1991, a concrete and steel seawall erected as part of an ambitious beach replenishment program has protected it from the most severe weather.

The result? While the 2-by-6 decking has still been replaced regularly, the underlying structure hasn't. Now those aging parts are rotting away. Many haven't been replaced since the early 1960s (aside from what was destroyed by Hurricane Gloria in 1985).

But that's raised a difficult question for town leaders: Replace it with what? Earlier this month, the Ocean City council began deliberating the options, which boil down to three: Replace it as is, replace the substructure with sturdier concrete but leave all visible areas in wood, or replace it with concrete and wood or perhaps alternative decking material using concrete to create a center lane for use by the boardwalk tram.

The cheapest and most durable alternative would be the last — and that has some appropriately worried that Ocean City will risk the pleasing look and old-timey feel of its most important landmark, the 2.5-mile-long boardwalk running from the inlet to 27th Street.

We share those concerns. Already, Ocean City officials have been testing alternative decking materials at 14th Street near Phillips Beach Plaza Hotel, and comments have been scathing. One letter-writer warned that he'd stop coming to Ocean City if they install "plastic" boards instead of the treated Southern Yellow Pine that's always been used in the past.

And while a concrete lane would be practical for the tram, which officials say is responsible for far more destruction of the boardwalk decking than any gaggle of summer tourists on foot, no amount of tinting or molding is going to make it look like wood. So much for 19th century aesthetics.

The savings might also prove modest anyway. Estimates are that replacing the boardwalk substructure will cost between $5 million and $10 million. The town would likely have to issue bonds to cover the cost and perhaps look for help from the General Assembly.

Even in financially-challenging times, this is not a huge sum, particularly when Ocean City's highly-lucrative tourist trade is at stake. The resort already spends about $70,000 each off-season making repairs to the boardwalk.

The council has wisely chosen to hold a public hearing on the matter in February. But a decision will have to be made soon as officials hope to begin the project next fall — long before the walkway deteriorates to the point it could become hazardous.

We recommend they tread lightly. For many Marylanders, summers in Ocean City are about traditions, from eating crabs at Phillips Crab House to riding Trimper's carousel, that are passed down from one generation to the next. Efficiency and practicality have little to do with summertime going "downy ayshin," and that's how people like it.

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