Delaware Department of Transportation officials, community leaders and state legislators gathered in Millville on Jan. 29 for the second Route 26 Working Group meeting ahead of construction of the Route 26 Mainline Improvements project. Even DelDOT Secretary Shailen Bhatt attended.
Having just navigated snowy Kent County roads and icy Sussex County highways to get to the meeting, the group got to work, planning the details of a three-year project that may impact every facet of local life.
DelDOT plans to advertise for bids on the project in the summer, choose a contractor and begin roadwork in the fall to widen the road, adding turn lanes, shoulders and sidewalks.
But preparatory work actually began several years ago, with the Route 26 Detour Routes project to prepare back roads to take the resulting detour traffic now nearly at an end. Route 17, Burbage Road, Windmill Drive, Central Avenue and Beaver Dam Road all got facelifts in anticipation of forming the Route 26 alternate routes. Traffic will almost always continue to flow on Route 26, officials said, but drivers will have an alternative way. The remaining construction on the detour routes is being expedited, so detour and mainline construction will not occur simultaneously.
Traffic has slowed a bit on Route 26 recently, as utility companies are setting new poles in Clarksville and near Millville. Delmarva Power, Verizon and Mediacom all have cables to move. A Verizon representative said the lines are simply being moved back onto new poles, so there is no anticipated disruption in service. After these early action areas, utility work will begin at the Assawoman Canal and move westward until May. After a limited summer presence, they’ll continue in autumn.
Although “DelDOT takes some slings and arrows” from citizens regarding utility companies’ work, Bhatt said, “We’ve just had fantastic coordination” with the companies so far.
Residents approved night work for the Route 26 Mainline project, which means round-the-clock construction that could take three years, instead of six years without night work.
DelDOT cannot have lane restrictions (including lane shifts and lane or shoulder closures) during peak traveling hours, although they may continue side work. From May 16 to Sept. 30, off-peak hours are limited (7 p.m. Monday to 6 a.m. Friday). During winter, they’ll work nonstop, with one restriction — daily morning commutes, 6 to 9 a.m.
While DelDOT plans to have work ongoing on multiple sections of the project simultaneously, they will limit the number and length of lane closures. One mile of road must separate two lane closures at different parts of Route 26.
Message boards will warn motorists on Routes 1 and 113 about the project before they hit Route 26. “Businesses open” signs will be along the entire length of project. Another batch of signage will direct drivers on the alternate routes.
While 270 parcels of land abut the Route 26 project, DelDOT has acquired more than 200 small pieces of land needed to widen the roadway. Another 10 pieces of property remain in various stages of negotiation with five owners.
Residents along Route 26 were compensated for their relinquished land, though not without some resistance from some of the property owners. Jill Frey of Century Engineering (DelDOT’s engineering contractors) said DelDOT is now concerned with removing features from these front yards. Property owners are being asked to move the fences, lights, irrigation and small signs they want to keep, before construction begins. Mailboxes may remain in place.
“We recommend you move them now — sooner rather than later — so when the contractor comes out there, there’s no question about what is there,” Frey said.
Residents were also compensated for trees they’ll lose, which Tom Banez — Route 26 project manager for DelDOT — called a “sensitive issue for property owners.” Currently, trunks marked with a green ribbon will be removed from the future roadway. Red ribbons mark trees that are “off-limits.” Banez said many residents were pleased to hear that Ocean View’s “oldest resident” a white oak tree located near Route 26, at Central Avenue, has a red ribbon and will continue standing. State Sen. Gerald Hocker (R-20th) said he already received several concerned calls on that subject.
In February, DelDOT will begin accepting bids for an advanced clearing contract to remove the trees from the project area, from the Assawoman Canal to Railway Road in Millville. That means utility workers will get more room to work, and the construction contractor will remove the rest of the green-tagged trees when the project begins in earnest.
In news from the Route 26 project:
• Frey said the Route 26 project will have little impact on the planned Assawoman Canal Trail, although DNREC is coordinating with the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.
• DelDOT will also work closely with Delaware State Police, Millville Volunteer Fire Company and other emergency responders.
• There will be no lane restrictions when and if Route 26 is used for evacuations.
Public and working group meetings will continue before and during mainline construction. Bhatt said DelDOT learned much from the difficult Route 54 Mainline project in 2012, which stopped traffic and frustrated business owners at the height of the summer season. After public meetings began, Hocker said the complaints to his office stopped. State Rep. Ron Gray (R-38th) asked that the Route 26 contractor be required to attend public meetings, as the Route 54 contractor, he said, showed less “consideration for the public.”
DelDOT will also hire a project resident engineer to answer on-site resident questions throughout the project.
More information on the project is available online at www.deldot.gov/information/projects/sr26, where people may learn about the project, find Working Group notes and maps or register for the email list. People can also contact DelDOT public relations at (302) 760-2080.