Reports urge funding action for DelDOT

Delaware roadway congestion will worsen and the condition of the state’s roads and bridges will deteriorate if state legislators don’t find a way to fund needed projects, two independent organizations reported this week.

Reports from the Delaware section of the American Society of Civil Engineers and TRIP, a Washington-based non-profit that researches transportation issues, come roughly a week after Delaware legislators struck a bill that would have raised revenues to help cover a $1.5 billion transportation shortfall.

Among the projects that could be left unfunded without additional revenues would be a $55 million plan to expand Route 26, a portion of which was named the 24th most congested roadway in Delaware during summer months by TRIP.

The strip of Route 1 that runs from Route 26 to York Road in South Bethany — again, during summer months — was named by TRIP as the 22nd most congested roadway in Delaware. The portion of Route 26 identified by TRIP for 24th most congested runs from Route 17 in Clarksville to Route 1 in Bethany.

With a 2008 budget deadline looming, legislators only have eight days left to find a solution to the funding issue, or projects statewide could be left unfunded. A replacement bill to raise revenues to cover projects was expected by today, June 22. The bill that was struck last week included increased vehicle documentation and registration fees, higher tolls and a largely unpopular proposal to add 5 cents to the state’s gas tax.

“I continue to encourage the General Assembly to enact a responsible budget while funding key capital priorities,” Gov. Ruth Ann Minner said this week. “Stabilizing the transportation trust fund is an ongoing priority and the financial leadership committee continues to work through a number of options in order to create viable solutions and a complete financial package by June 30.”

Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) spokesman Darrel Cole said the department asked TRIP to study the state’s transportation issues. The group of civil engineers grades Delaware’s roads every few years, with the next grading report expected in 2010. Cole said that both reports — while independent — echoed many of the state department’s concerns. State transportation officials have studied other options to raise revenues but do not have a “Plan B,” and projects could be left unfunded if the governor’s revenue package is not approved, Cole added. A gas tax increase would have raised roughly $29 million annually, according to DelDOT.

“If we get half of what we asked for, we don’t know how that’s going to impact (the transportation fund),” Cole said Tuesday. “It’s pretty clear even in the reports that the system right now is pretty good. We have a pretty good set of roadways, bridges that are maintained and workable. But if we don’t keep up and put some investments into the road system, there are going to be problems.”

The reports presented in Dover and Wilmington stressed the need to fund projects now to avert rising construction costs, to continue successful economic development efforts statewide and to preserve a quality of life in Delaware that could be threatened by ever-increasing congestion.

“Tremendous” population increases, spurred by astounding development, have taxed the road system and infrastructure statewide, the civil engineers’ report stated. Sussex County’s resident population increased from a Census Bureau-estimated 113,229 in 1990 to more than 180,000 in 2006, according to the Delaware Population Consortium. The consortium expected the county’s population to increase another 40.5 percent by 2030, to 253,226.

“Without additional funding, the ability of the transportation system to meet the state’s needs will be extremely compromised, threatening the quality of life that is such an essential part of being a Delawarean,” the ASCE report stated.

Local residents for years have expressed concern with increasing congestion on east-west roadways, including Route 26, that serve as beach-feeding and evacuation routes. The mainline project, to add shoulders and turn lanes on Route 26 from the Assawoman Canal Bridge to Clarksville, and a $21 million side project to expand local roads, have been anticipated for years but consistently delayed and held in limbo through this period of state financial uncertainty.

Ocean View Mayor Gary Meredith, who lived in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., before moving to the area full-time a decade ago, said the delays have been frustrating. Like many others, he expressed concern that projects like one to study bypass options around U.S. 113 and another to expand Route 1 in Lewes have taken precedence over unfunded projects to relieve congestion on evacuation routes like Route 26 and Route 54.

“This Route 26 seems to go on and on. It certainly needs to be done,” Meredith said. “That is certainly a critical road. It can hardly handle day to day traffic. I think DelDOT needs to look at their priorities and concentrate on east-west improvements rather than north-south. That’s my feeling, anyway.”

Cole and other DelDOT officials have defended the north-south projects, contending that they are needed to relieve future congestion on Route 1 in Lewes and on U.S. 113 in Millsboro, for instance.

Karen McGrath, executive director of the Bethany-Fenwick Chamber of Commerce and thorn in DelDOT’s side, agreed with Meredith. She has persistently lobbied state officials to begin work on Route 26. McGrath worries that any funds available will be spent upstate on roadways such as I-95 — a portion of which was named the most congested road in Delaware — where she said congestion is inevitable.

“It’s always going to be congested,” McGrath said of I-95. “It’s the nature of the beast. But some of the projects down here, like (Route) 26, would have a measurable effect on public safety and quality of living. The legislature needs to look at that trust fund … and develop a solution to get DelDOT out of that hole,” she added. “I don’t know what the solution is.”