Shorter than expected, Route 54 sidewalks still an improvement

Route 54 isn’t very pedestrian-friendly. Near Fenwick Island, the two-lane road is narrow, with shoulders, but lacking sidewalks or a center turn lane. Joggers and cyclists must share the road shoulders with regular traffic travelling at least 35 mph.

But the Delaware Department of Transportation has now revealed plans to add sidewalks and street lighting along a short stretch of the north side of Route 54, from Route 1 (Coastal Highway) to the Route 54 Walgreens (officially, Beacon Drive).

“This project has been needed for a long time,” said State Sen. Gerald Hocker Sr. (R-Ocean View), saying he started working toward it 10 years ago.

The project is being sponsored through the state legislature by Hocker and state Rep. Ron Gray (R-Selbyville) on behalf of local residents, but it is being administered by DelDOT for professional and technical support.

Sidewalks already exist directly in front of that shopping center. The new 5-foot-wide sidewalk will be 0.28 miles long, running from the shopping center to Viking Golf & Water Park, where a sidewalk already takes pedestrians to the Route 1 intersection.

But at the June 6 public information session, some residents said they felt that the most dangerous aspect of Route 54 still isn’t being addressed. Although the sidewalk project will allow people to walk safely inland from the highway, people still run across Route 54, north or south, presumably from the neighboring developments to the drug store and restaurant.

In 2013, two men crossing Route 54 at night were fatally hit by a Jeep just east of Dukes Avenue. But the sidewalk won’t extend that far.

Also, DelDOT officials don’t want to build a crosswalk there on Route 54 for other safety reasons. They only want a crosswalk where vehicles expect to stop, such as at a traffic signal. Additionally, there’s nothing really to connect a crosswalk to, as the south side of Route 54 has no sidewalks there.

“It’s a great first phase,” said Gray, adding that he was “delighted” with the plans but looks forward to an expansion in the future.

Projects like this have a $1 million price limit, and the funds available were basically depleted with 1,500 feet of sidewalk because of the engineering required.

“This seems like a very simple construction project, but underneath there’s a very complex drainage system,” said Sonia Marichic-Goudy, highway engineer for design contractor McCormick Taylor Inc.

To minimize land acquisition costs, sidewalks are to be built as close to the roadway as possible. But the drainage ditches they’ll cover are important to stormwater management for this flood-prone strip of land between the Atlantic Ocean and Little Assawoman Bay.

In a more environmentally-friendly design, underground pipes will replace the ditches and then be covered with sidewalk. The pipes will be perforated and surrounded by gravel, so stormwater will seep into the earth, rather than washing straight out to the canals. Like a rain garden, the system will allow soil to naturally filter harmful nutrients out of the water. The pipes will still connect to two existing canal drainage pipes.

Some folks want even more safety improvements but, for now, “People haven’t had issues with [the project] because it’s adding safety and traffic improvements,” said Stefan Rukowicz, of McCormick Taylor Inc.

The price estimate for the project was $920,000, but that will likely increase, due to some drainage design changes. The project falls under the Transportation Alternatives Program, a federal initiative to improve roadway safety and accessibility. The feds pay the majority of the 80/20 cost-share. The remaining funds are a mix of Delaware Community Transportation Funds (special funds each legislator can access for local road projects) and DelDOT’s own TAP contribution fund.

“The price to get this project done is well worth it when you’ve seen deaths and many close calls,” Hocker said. “It’s a very dangerous place; it’s very dark. There’s loss of bicycle traffic, a lot of foot traffic.”

Because it’s a community-driven project, the easements must be donated. DelDOT is still confirming a few more needed rights-of-way.

“This is prime real estate, and we could not really expect people to donate readily,” which is another reason to build the sidewalks near the road, said Marichic-Goudy.

There is no particular change to bicycle access, as cyclists will continue using a shared roadway shoulder. There will also be no change to the intersection of Routes 1 and 54.

DelDOT contracted McCormick Taylor Inc. to design the plans, but a low-bidding contractor will build the project.

Design of the project began about two years ago, but the designers had to regroup when state stormwater regulations changed. They’re expected to be done by early fall, with a project construction timeline of four to six months during the off-season — either this winter or next winter.

Sometimes the canal’s tide gate is closed, so water can’t escape the ditches. With that hindrance, the construction team will aim to find ways to make up the lost time.

Construction will eventually require lane closures, with flaggers directing traffic, although they’ll use two 10-foot lanes when possible.