DelDOT has turned its sights on Route 26, but this time, they gave plenty of notice.
Community leaders filled the South Coastal Library meeting room Sept. 24 to discuss the State Route 26 Mainline Improvements Project, slated to begin construction in the fall of 2013.
Before even hiring a construction company, the Delaware Department of Transportation formed a working group of local and state legislators, businesspeople, emergency responders and tourism officials, who collectively represent the thousands of people who use Route 26 daily and will be affected by the multi-year roadwork project.
Rather than hosting large public hearings, DelDOT selects working group members who are considered central community members who can answer questions, share project information, bring public concerns to DelDOT and be champions of the project.
Route 26 problems and solutions
Route 26 suffers higher-than-average accident rates, while traffic volumes have increased immensely from 1990 to 2011 (growing from 9,000 to 11,700 vehicles regularly, and from 15,700 to 19,600 in summer). The gateway to the beach is also an evacuation and emergency route.
To reduce congestion, DelDOT will expand the road width and add a shared center turn lane for more than 4 miles. Roadwork will run from Clarksville, where Vines Creek Road turns onto Atlantic Avenue, to the existing three-lane road east of the Assawoman Canal in Bethany Beach.
“On Route 26, if someone wants to turn left … that just stops everybody on Route 26,” said Tom Banez, DelDOT project manager. Turn lanes, he said, will “keep traffic moving and enhance safety.”
For instance, traffic stoppages occur whenever a westbound car must turn to enter the Ocean View/Millville Post Office. Cars don’t have enough room on the shoulder to squeeze around.
The road will become 64 feet wide along its entire length — about its current width at the intersection with Old Mill Drive, adjacent to the Food Lion and the Millville Town Center shopping center.
Many Route 26 parking lots have open, undefined entrances and exits that can be tricky to navigate in heavy traffic. Examples include Charlie K’s BBQ in Ocean View and St. George’s United Methodist Church in Clarksville, where cars can enter at any point. DelDOT has met with every impacted business owner to discuss new parking arrangements, while planning to build more than 230 entrances and exits, averaging one per 100 feet.
Bicycle and pedestrian safety should improve as shoulders are expanded and new sidewalks are installed in most of the project boundaries. Sidewalks will be ADA-compliant, which many of them are not now.
Finally, utility poles will take a step backward. Many are hazardously close to, if not directly in, the planned roadway.
DelDOT plans timeline
Currently, Century Engineering of Baltimore County, Md., is designing the project. Delaware will seek construction company bids in spring of 2013. Construction could begin in fall of 2013 and last several years.
Since summer increases traffic by 67 percent, DelDOT wants to finish work fast, even working on different sections of road at the same time.
All regular construction will be done with traffic flowing, but motorists can choose to drive an alternate route and avoid the traffic. Improvements to the detour routes were made as part of a separate project leading up to the Mainline project. Traffic will only be rerouted to the detours during bridge replacements near Lord Baltimore Elementary School and Millville Town Hall. Pedestrians and cyclists will have local access throughout construction.
During peak summer seasons (May 16 to Sept. 30), roadwork will only occur if two lanes can remain open at all times. Lane restrictions are allowed during the daytime, and no roadwork is allowed on summer weekends, from Friday to Monday.
During off-peak seasons (Oct. 1 to May 15), lane restrictions are allowed seven days per week.
If night work is allowed, the project could finish in the spring of 2016. If not, roadwork will extend until the fall of 2017, and no construction would be allowed during summer. Night work would mean less impact on area businesses, but more noise and light for nearby residents.
“The phone calls stopped” to state Rep. Gerald Hocker’s office in 2011 when night work began on the lingering Route 54 revamp, he said, with residents and business owners apparently satisfied that the pace of the project would pick up. Complaints ended when public meetings began, he said.
Long-term construction is “not entirely painless,” but it is extremely important, said Natalie Barnhart, DelDOT chief engineer.
Residents can get involved in the decision-making process about the possible night roadwork. State law requires DelDOT to survey residents immediately adjacent to the project limits, asking if they approve of night work.
Support of the majority of the residents surveyed is required to approve night work. Not responding to the survey is considered a statement of approval, and officials said they may expand the questionnaire to include some residents near Route 26, as well as those directly on the roadway.
All schedules depend on weather. However, the entire 4-mile span will not be a construction zone for four years. Roadwork is split into four sections, from east to west: the Assawoman Canal to Woodland Avenue; Woodland to Windmill Road; Windmill to just east of Route 17; and Route 17 to Clarksville.
The long road to construction
Improving Route 26 is a juggling act for the Towns of Bethany Beach, Ocean View and Millville and unincorporated Sussex County, three police agencies, two volunteer fire companies and an elementary school.
The State officially began examining the road in 1999 and made minor improvements in 2001, 2005 and 2008, with several public workshops sprinkled throughout that period.
DelDOT needs additional land to widen the road. Right-of-way acquisitions began after the final environmental documents were approved in 2008, although the acquisitions of 10 to 15 properties remain to be settled. Banez noted that DelDOT must follow “a legal process” to acquire the last few. DelDOT needed at least some land from 250 parcels out of 272 adjacent to roadway.
The cost of acquisition has declined with real estate values, from an estimated $44 million to $30 million. In this “fairly unprecedented” situation, Banez said, the property could cost more than the actual project (an estimated $35 million).
DelDOT learned many lessons with Route 54 improvements in 2011, officials said. They created a working group early, to update the public. They analyzed traffic to determine appropriate work hours. They will post informational signs a long way before construction zones, highlighting alternate routes with plenty of time for motorists to select one. Summer makes or breaks small businesses, so signs saying “Businesses open” will also be posted.
Motorists using Route 26 are fortunate in that alternate routes exist, while Route 54 had few alternatives that didn’t take them far out of their way. The SR 26 Detour Routes project began in 2010 to update the southern back roads for future ease of access.
All utility work is the responsibility of those companies, for electricity, Internet, cable and so forth, although DelDOT works with them. Water and sewer work are performed under state contract. This fall, Route 26 utilities will begin relocation.
More information available
DelDOT aims to manage public expectation by discussing the project impacts on residents, businesses and tourism. The working group meets again in the spring of 2013. The project Web site and blog will provide updated information at www.SR26.deldot.gov. People can also call DelDOT Public Relations at (302) 760-2080.