Carper on Route 26 project: Federal funding is key

Cars and trucks crawled through Millville on Aug. 28, an appropriate backdrop to U.S. Sen. Tom Carper’s visit to the Route 26 Mainline construction project. Carper toured the state Thursday to talk federal transportation funding in regard to Route 26, Milford’s new Route 1 overpass and Wilmington’s Christina River Bridge.

These major projects and their like are some that he said could face roadblocks unless Congress approves a long-term transportation bill by year’s end. Previously, Congress approved a measure extending transportation authorization and funding through May 2015.

“Federal funding doesn’t flow unless there’s a State match,” Carper explained. Once Delaware agrees to contribute, the feds must find funding.

“Imagine three glasses,” Carper said: the Federal Transportation Trust Fund, the U.S. General Fund and foreign funding.

Once the transportation fund and regular government coffers have been emptied, the United States must borrow money. The U.S. loses leverage by borrowing money because it could scold China for various reasons, but China holds the trump card by responding, “I thought you wanted to borrow money,” Carper said.

“Things worth having are worth paying for,” Carper said. “This is worth paying for now. The federal government, we need to do our part.”

In Millville, the Route 26 Mainline improvements project is now fully funded, but it has stalled in the past due to federal funding.

State Sen. Gerald Hocker has often lamented the money and time Delaware might have saved if Route 26 construction had continued after the Bethany Beach leg was completed in 2001.

“One day makes a big difference to us if something goes from residential or undeveloped to a Wawa or Royal Farms,” said Jim Satterfield, DelDOT engineer.

Construction on the next four miles inland didn’t officially begin until 2014, although that was preceded by a unique project: the Route 26 Detour Routes project.

It’s rare for construction projects to get their own traffic mitigation project, but the Route 26 back roads were specifically improved ahead of the mainline construction to accommodate the traffic that might be displaced by roadwork.

“We’re not looking to close 26. We’re trying to balance the impacts and still get something done,” Satterfield said.

Hocker praised the alternate routes project, which was not a luxury afforded during the recent improvements to Route 54.

Because only a handful of Sussex County corridors move east-to-west, congestion and safety are even more critical, said Mike Simmons, DelDOT director of project development in southern Delaware.

So DelDOT is trying to improve operations for each road. Route 54 widening was completed without a major detour route, so traffic frequently stagnated, and planning is now under way for improvements to Routes 9 and 24.

“We want to make this corridor work better, more efficiently, and reduce accidents,” Simmons said — especially for left turns on and off the road.

One car turning left off Route 26 into Millville/Ocean View Post Office can seemingly back up traffic for a half-mile, said Satterfield.

“Being a business owner on 26, the project has gone quite smooth,” said Hocker, who has experienced the 30-minute commute over four miles on the road.

These routes are considered so important because of Delaware’s high-quality beaches, which attract visitors and are a major source of revenue.

“We want to make sure people have a great experience,” Carper said. “They say getting there is half the fun. We want to make sure getting there is fun and leaving doesn’t leave a bad taste in the mouth.”

Carper is chairman of the Senate Environment & Public Works subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

“This project really encourages people to get out of their cars, trucks and vans,” said Carper, touching on the new sidewalks and bike lanes that encourage people to transport themselves without motorized vehicles.

“I would not let any of my family ride bikes on Route 26 in summer,” Hocker said, although he regularly cycled five miles to the beach as a boy.

Meanwhile, when traffic flows, less oil burns and fewer engines idle.

Currently, roadwork is permitted in the Route 26 Mainline project area around the clock, but daytime lane closures remain forbidden until Oct. 1. The night work schedule was recently adjusted for the start of Indian River School District bus traffic. Drivers can expect lane closures overnight from Monday night to Thursday night, 7 p.m. to 6 a.m., and Sunday nights, 9:30 p.m. to 6 a.m.