Locals check out Route 26 update from DelDOT

Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) officials once again rolled out preliminary plans for Route 26 improvements, from Clarksville to the Assawoman Canal (between Ocean View and Bethany Beach), on March 27.

The department’s made a few changes since the last go-round, and more than 160 people stopped by the Roxana Fire Hall for the update.

According to DelDOT’s Tom Banez (project manager), the two biggest changes were: (1) a more gentle curve at the intersection in Clarksville (Route 26/Omar and Parker House roads), and (2) extra right turn-outs, all along the Clarksville-to-Assawoman stretch.

“We’ve added a significant number of right-turn lanes,” Banez pointed out. “They do take up some extra space, but we asked where they were warranted and where they were warranted. We asked, ‘Can we fit them?’”

There were limitations, Banez pointed out – nearby properties considered possible candidates for the National Register of Historic Places, for instance, might preclude the possibility of an extra right-turn lane.

Only one property is actually listed on the National Register — “Spring Banke,” just east of Irons Lane, on the north side of the road. But another 14 are eligible.

They’re mostly homes, but the list also includes an old general store/home (the Townsend store, next to the Millville Fire Hall), a former car dealership (now housing a pet store, at the corner of Route 26 and Whites Neck Road) and the Lord Baltimore Elementary School.

Historic properties aren’t the only thing some residents were concerned with preserving, though. One Ocean View resident, who wished to remain unnamed, said she disliked the plan because it added so much asphalt, increasing runoff and offering nothing to replace lost greenery.

She said the center left-turn lane would make Route 26 look like Route 1 north of Rehoboth Beach, voicing a preference for a landscaped median instead.

Laura Miller of Century Engineering (DelDOT’s engineering contractors) admitted landscaping, even along the shoulders, isn’t typically part of a road improvement project. But Miller did say there’d be some opportunity for tree replacement, where the department had space (for instance, where DelDOT had to acquire a chunk of property or take a house).

Many local residents had pushed for a continuous center lane, though, arguing against replacing a two-lane road with what would be, essentially, another two-lane road. Early plans showed a center left-turn lane along one-third of the project length — the department has incorporated additional center left-turn lane areas along another third of the project since then.

DelDOT proposed four lanes in the 1980s, but encountered sharp opposition to the idea — and some of that opposition remains today. Many locals have said they don’t want to turn the still-scenic, winding Route 26 into a highway to the beach, just for the convenience of summer visitors.

But people are starting to feel the pinch of traffic woes now, and consensus at the March 27 workshop seemed to be headed in the other direction. As Clarksville resident Richard Hudson pointed out, “They’ve got to do something.”

Hudson and some of his neighbors said summer traffic frequently gridlocks the Route 26/Parker House and Omar Road intersection. They all agreed that cars were often backed up from the next traffic light, at Route 17 — nearly a mile away.

Route 26 will remain a two-lane road west of Clarksville, at least for the foreseeable future, but emergency responders have supported the continuous center lane along the Clarksville-to-Assawoman stretch.

Despite the argument that it would provide relief in case of the threat of a hurricane, the state may never have to reverse the center lane for emergency evacuation — there’s no record of a hurricane landfall in Delaware. But additional room for maneuvering may help jammed motorists clear a path for local firefighters, paramedics or police officers.

All this is still a few years away, though. DelDOT plans to build improvements along Burbage, Windmill and Beaver Dam roads (the Local Roads portion of the project) first.

Unless they’re headed toward a local business or residence, motorists will be able to use those roads to bypass the construction zone, once “SR 26 Mainline improvements” reaches that phase.

Local Roads is slated for construction in 2008; the mainline improvements are slated for 2009. Local Roads is funded through final design and rights-of-way acquisition – SR 26 Mainline is not.

However, Banez said that wasn’t atypical, and he expects the department would manage to program those funds as the project approaches final design. “There’s a new way of thinking at DelDOT,” he said. “It used to be we’d budget well in advance, but where we are now, it’s ‘What do we need this year, and what do we need next year?’”

DelDOT spokesman Darrel Cole said he expects the department to post revised plans on the Web site in another week or so — check www.deldot.gov, then Projects, then SR 26 Mainline, for updates.