Differences remain over Route 26 sewer project

Discussion of the planned sewer expansion project on Route 26 continued at a second meeting between area business owners and county officials on Wednesday, but the various parties still appear to be a long way from a plan that would satisfy everyone, or even most.

One bit of consensus among the business owners during the meeting netted both a positive response and the promise of more discussions before a final plan will be nailed down, despite initial plans to begin construction in September of 2007.

Russell Banks — owner of Banks Wines & Spirits, at the edge of the construction zone — suggested that one way to avoid many of the traffic headaches that could potentially drive away customers was to shift the county’s proposed one-lane closure of Route 26 during the work week from an alternating east-west directional shutdown of 7 to 10 minutes, with use of voluntary “alternate routes,” to a mandatory detour for one direction of traffic.

“You could have the eastbound traffic run on the alternate routes and repair any damage done by the trucks later,” Banks suggested, acknowledging stated concerns from state officials that the existing side roads that would be make up the alternate routes or detours are simply not up to regular truck traffic.

Trucks would be kept on Route 26 under the current proposal for alternating directional shut-downs and optional alternative routes for other types of vehicles.

Many of the business owners have expressed concerns specifically about the potential impact of the planned traffic switching on the single open lane during the year and a half construction period that was originally proposed to run from Labor Day of 2007 through to Memorial Day of 2008 and from Labor Day of 2008 until completion in approximately April of 2009.

“People don’t like that,” Banks said of the alternating traffic flow and the estimated 7- to 10-minute wait for vehicles on Route 26 that would stopped by flaggers while those coming from the opposite direction use the open lane of the road.

Gallery owner Ellen Rice, whose nearby business would be affected by the routing of at least half of the traffic around her business during what she said is her busiest time of the year, was in agreement.

“These small businesses can’t handle the impact,” Rice said of the loss of traffic and headaches for would-be customers from the alternative routes and switching directional flow on Route 26 itself. She suggested the county look at longer periods of flow than 7 to 10 minutes — perhaps making the use of the alternative routes mandatory and switching between east- and westbound traffic daily, weekly or monthly.

Rice said she was particularly concerned that some of patrons would try to reach her gallery, which is between one Central Avenue-based alternative route and the construction zone, have to wait the 7- to 10-minute period for their direction of traffic to flow and then get caught up again when the flow was reversed, essentially unable to ever reach the business.

Like many of the other businesses that would be impacted, Rice said she was fearful that many of her customers would stop patronizing her shop during the construction and might become permanently accustomed to shopping at businesses outside the work area.

“I lost $50,000 both years,” Rice said of the previous period of sewer construction on Route 26 in Ocean View, where her gallery is located. “It will kill me.” She said that, contrary to the intention of prohibitions on summer construction on Route 26, her business sees more than half of its customers between September and December, with November her top month of the year.

“If we can just get through Christmas,” Rice suggested, pushing for a January start of construction instead of the originally proposed September date.

Timetable shifted back slightly

On that, most business owners got good news on June 13, with County Engineer Mike Izzo and project designer Will Hintz saying that — on the basis of previous business-owner input — they’d retooled the original project timeline to address some adjoining areas to Route 26 in September, in a change that would push back construction starting on Route 26 itself until the first of the year. Old Mill Road would see work between Nov. 15 and Dec. 30.

A later timetable won’t necessarily help Lord’s Landscaping, which does most of its business in the early spring, but the new schedule and detailed maps of the project still show work in front of that business completed in February of 2008, minimizing its impact on their big season.

However, the plan to shift traffic stoppages between east- and westbound traffic still had many concerned about the extended impact on their customers, employees and bottom lines for all involved.

Delaware Department of Transportation officials said they traditionally like to keep traffic stoppages on one-lane roads to just 3 to 4 minutes, about half that planned for the Route 26 sewer project. But local Realtor Vicki York — whose business is located in the construction zone — noted much more extensive tie-ups during the nearly-complete revamp of the Route 26 intersection in downtown Dagsboro.

Saying she had waited in excess of a half-hour at that intersection at times, York asked, “How long will my clients be waiting on Route 26 to get to my business? Will I need to meet them at Route 1?”

York said she might be able to accommodate such a need, but she acknowledged that the problem would be much bigger for restaurants and businesses such as Lord’s Landscaping, which can’t travel to their clients. “Bill Lord can’t just deliver his plants to residents,” she pointed out.

Izzo said the intention of the plan had been to have drivers wait 7 to 10 minutes with flaggers at each side of the functioning construction zone, but he acknowledged that resulting back-up could lengthen that wait time for those farther back from the flaggers — likely as happened in Dagsboro. He couldn’t offer an exact time for transit from Cedar Neck Road to Route 17, as York had requested, but he said he would work on some calculations that would reflect that number.

Detour concept to be considered

Much of the concern on Wednesday focused on the plan to alternate traffic flow and not create a mandatory detour with local access for business owners, employees and customers, as well as homeowners.

When asked by Izzo for a show of hands as to who would support Banks’ notion of a mandatory detour for one direction of traffic, at least eight hands rose into the air, with little opposition to the idea expressed.

“It makes sense for access,” said Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Karen McGrath, who coordinated the meeting. “There would be less frustration.”

Izzo noted that such a change in plan wouldn’t be a simple thing. First, he said, it would require a plan to upgrade some of the local roads that would serve as the detour route, so that they could handle the anticipated truck traffic.

Mike McCarthy of Mike McCarthy Stone noted that many construction trucks already use side roads to avoid Route 26. The stopping and switching of traffic, he said, “at best, it creates road rage.”

With somewhat of a consensus in the room on the possibility of a eastbound or westbound detour instead of alternating traffic flow and alternate routes, Izzo said he would look into the idea.

“Unfortunately, that means we will have to come back and talk to you again,” he noted, with Wednesday’s meeting already one more than the county officials had hoped to need to find accommodations for local businesses.

Night construction a ‘tooth-and-nail’ battle

“We realized we could be here in the fall,” Izzo had explained of the initial concept of such a meeting. “We said, ‘Let’s see how these businesses could be impacted.”

Some business owners had complained that the May 30 meeting at Millville Town Hall hadn’t been well publicized, with town staff receiving late notice and working with the Chamber to help get the word out to the businesses just prior to the meeting. With more notice this week, both new faces and familiar ones had the chance for input with the county officials.

Beyond the issue of the traffic flow patterns that have been proposed during the construction period for the sewer expansion, many of those present on June 13 joined with those who had on May 30 sought a way to complete the project with minimal interruption to daytime business — namely through night construction.

Izzo and engineer Brad Hawkes — who will oversee the construction on a day-to-day basis for the county — had both soundly rejected the idea, noting its increased risk to workers and major complaints about noise and interrupted sleep from residents who had gone through previous projects that used night construction.

Izzo said they would be willing to look at shifting a low-risk sub-project, such as lateral construction, to night work, but the cold, deep trenches required for sewer work made it much more dangerous at night than something like paving.

That answer didn’t satisfy Steve Parrill of the Fat Tuna Grill, who hosted Wednesday’s meeting and stands to lose significant business to the project. He has emphasized its potential impact on his 100 peak-time employees and 60 year-round workers.

“Almost all of these concerns would be addressed by night construction,” Parrill told Izzo. “And I’m not sure the county has fully taken that into consideration.”

Parrill noted the almost total lack of overnight traffic on Route 26 and emphasized that a significant number of area homeowners leave for the winter, reducing the number of property owners who might complain about nighttime construction noise.

“I want to know this has been looked at and discounted for a number of reasons,” Parrill said, adding that early county focus on the idea of closing Route 26 to all but local traffic during the duration of the project and relying on mandatory detours might indicate that county officials hadn’t really looked into an alternative like night construction.

Parrill pointed to likely increased costs for night construction but said he felt significantly reduced impact on businesses, as well as customers and employees, might more than offset some increased costs and a little bit of inconvenience for year-round residents in or near the construction zone.

“If I lived on Route 26, I would be willing to put up with some nighttime construction just to know that I’m going to have access to my driveway during the day,” Parrill posited. He said that would be willing to gather a list of those supporting night construction to show it has solid support in the community.

McCarthy also supported the idea, saying he believed that the increased risks of night construction were at least partially offset by a reduced risk to workers from traffic dangers posed during daytime construction.

DelDOT’s Tom Banez, who is managing the planned Route 26 Mainline and Detour Roads (formerly Local Roads) projects, plotted out the route for proceeding with night construction.

“You’ll have to poll the public first,” he said. Then, assuming a majority of the area residents agrees, municipal officials — namely the Millville Town Council — would have to approve of the plan for night work. From there, DelDOT approval would also be needed.

“Will the county entertain the idea,” asked Parrill, “or will we have to fight tooth-and-nail for it?”

Izzo agreed that nighttime construction would be a tooth-or-nail battle for those who support it. He said the county remained opposed to it because of the risks to workers.

“And people living off Route 26 will scream bloody murder,” Izzo warned. “You’re not talking about a week or so. You’re talking about a year and a half.”

Delay until 2013 takes back seat

Given minimal attention on Wednesday was the previously championed option to ask for a delay on the sewer project until just prior to the Route 26 Mainline work, to combine the two road-disturbing projects into one single period that would both give business owners more time to plan for ways to offset the impact of construction and slightly reduce the time now planned to be taken for road repairs in between.

McCarthy — who, with restaurateur Al Casapulla, has already been polling affected businesses for their position on alternate construction plans — had championed as recently as Tuesday night a delay until a possible 2014 start date for the still-unfunded Route 26 Mainline project. Supporters of the delay appealed for support from the Millville Town Council at their regular meeting.

Izzo had said in May that the only way the sewer project would be delayed was with a letter dictating that preference from the town council.

Casapulla, while acknowledging that he hadn’t been able to reach all business owners and residents along the affected section of Route 26, told council members that 70 percent of those he had reached had supported the delay.

He said the key issue for many of them was the short notice — just four months before construction was originally set to begin, though most knew the project would be coming, eventually.

“I don’t think any of us were prepared that it was just going to be dropped in our laps four months beforehand,” Casapulla said, noting that the full closure of Route 26 that county officials would prefer “would probably have put some of us out of business.” Now, he told the council, businesses had just a few months to make plans to protect the livelihoods of their families and, particularly, their employees’ families.

“This is not about the dollars in our pockets,” McCarthy emphasized Tuesday night. “I have 14 to 16 year-round, full-time employees. These people rely on me to make very good, sound judgments.”

Casapulla acknowledged that it was possible that people would go out of business during a delayed construction of the sewer project in conjunction with the Route 26 Mainline project, but a delay, he said “gives us more time to prepare.”

Even with the delay of a project start until January, he said, most businesses could salvage some of their valuable shoulder season. That, at least, was a wish that county officials appeared willing to grant as of Wednesday.

It may be a compromise between Casapulla’s wish for a combined project that could tie up the roads for a longer period at one time and the urgent wishes of some area residents and business owners for central sewer service. Some have noted that they have delayed installation of new septic systems or that their existing holding tanks are swiftly reaching capacity or the ends of their lifespans.

“I don’t understand why we don’t have it already,” said Margaret Justice of the Millville Town Peddler on Tuesday. She said she was confident of her customers’ loyalty and patience with the construction.

“If they want to buy stuff from us, they will do it,” Justice said. “We were told about this some time ago. We all knew that at some point in time it would be dumped in our laps.”

Millville council members on Tuesday acknowledged the concerns expressed on both sides and sent Town Manager Linda Collins and Councilwoman Joan Bennett to Wednesday’s meeting. “We’ll take your comments under advisement,” Mayor Don Minyon said.

Izzo noted on Wednesday that concerns over impacts on traffic for a 2007 start would likely be dwarfed with a delay until 2013 or 2014, when Route 26 would undoubtedly host even more vehicles and even more year-round residents. Along with increased delays, he said, the project would also see much higher costs, as labor and materials costs continue to skyrocket.

“This project is already funded,” Izzo emphasized, seeming comfortable with a delay of the start until Nov. 15, when work would be on Old Mill Road, with work on Route 26 itself likely not starting until January of 2008.

Further complicating any major delay are the state’s plans, which Banez said don’t currently include adding the Route 26 sewer expansion in the period prior to the Mainline project. DelDOT approval of the inclusion of the project would be required, he said.

That puts up major hurdles for such a major delay of the sewer project. Those concerned about business impacts appeared more inclined on Wednesday, toward other alternatives, focusing on the idea of a full-time directional detour or on the unlikely notion of nighttime construction.

Izzo promised the business owners he would look into the former, while promising Parrill he would get some formal objections to night construction in writing to solidify the county’s stance on the issue, “so you’ll know it’s not just me talking.” A third meeting, dealing with those issues, has yet to be set.