Farewell to the Blue Route: DelDOT offers new solution to Millsboro traffic woes
From Millsboro to Selbyville, residents worried about plans for the future of Route 113 can breathe a sigh of relief. The Delaware Department of Transportation is scrapping the proposed 16.5-mile Route 113 bypass in favor of smaller road projects.
DelDOT officials and state Sen. Gerald Hocker announced the new plans at an April 6 Millsboro Town Council meeting.
After strong opposition to previous plans, DelDOT is proposing a 2.75-mile-long “connector” that would link Route 113, north of Millsboro, to Route 24, just east of town limits. Beach traffic would swing around downtown Millsboro, rather than filter through it — a process that can be achingly slow.
After redoing the official traffic counts this summer, DelDOT also decided the bypass only needs two lanes, instead of four. That significantly reduces its impact, from the intersections to the actual footprint of the roadway.
The rest of Route 113 would get “spot improvements,” including a third lane built inside the wide medians. DelDOT would also improve intersections and close a few un-signaled crossovers in the “on-alignment” projects.
“People did not want a limited-access highway. This is not limited-access,” said George Spadafino, DelDOT engineer. “Route 113 will be the way it is.”
Those areas of Route 113 would be upgraded or expanded in sections, based in order of importance.
“Better connectivity” is the whole goal of these projects. Between the smaller bypass and on-alignment improvements, Millsboro could get the traffic relief it needs.
More than 30 alternatives were considered in the Millsboro-South highway zone, including the preferred Blue Route, which would have moved the entire stretch of highway from Millsboro to Selbyville to the east, impacting farms, residences, wildlife areas and businesses.
The estimated cost of the improvements to Route 113 plummets to perhaps $60 million for the bypass (not including Route 113 on-alignment improvements).
Singing the Blue Route blues
A U.S. 113 North/South Study was begun in 2003, to examine the highway from Milford to the Maryland line. Legislators have said they believe the idea of a traffic study was blown out of proportion when, in 2013, DelDOT presented its preferred “Blue Route” — a four-lane, limited-access highway east of Millsboro, Dagsboro and Frankford. The most complex of the proposed routes, it would have affected 1,084 acres of land and cost around $800 million.
“I do not know anybody that was happy with that proposal, except Millsboro Town Council … only to get the traffic away from town,” Hocker said.
Sussex County legislators told Gov. Jack Markell and DelDOT officials that, even if approved on the federal level, the Blue Route would never get funding from the Delaware state legislature, due to the strong public opposition.
South of Millsboro, people were upset at the many farms and properties sliced up by the Blue Route. In Millsboro itself, people didn’t like the total of five water crossings.
Following public hearings in 2013, state legislators, state agencies and other stakeholders met in December of 2013 to discuss the obviously unpopular route.
“I think the public doesn’t feel there is any response to their concerns,” State Rep. Ruth Briggs King had said in 2013. “The public feels there are other options but we have blinders on.”
Listening to the public
“We were asked to go back and take another look and see if there was another alternative,” said Shanté Hastings, DelDOT engineer and deputy director of transportation solutions.
“There was [once] an institutional belief at DelDOT that, unless we did full-blown off-alignment … that we would not qualify for [federal funding],” Sundstrom said. But federal highway officials are “amenable” to this new idea.
“And a whole lot less people will have to relocate with this,” Hocker said.
Spadafino estimated that 60 properties are affected in some way, with six relocations. The Blue Route included 71 relocations and 353 property impacts.
For now, the revised project map is just a concept. DelDOT has room to work with landowners and tweak the roads as needed.
“Everything is still on the table, but … this seems most logical,” Spadafino said.
“When I saw this, I was very happy, because that’s what the people asked for,” Hocker said, identifying “95 percent of the changes that we asked for back in 2013.”
North of Millsboro, the connector bypass would begin just north of the Route 20 intersection, between Betts Pond and Sheep Pen Ditch.
Two new bridges would cross Millsboro Pond, still cutting the nose off Sweetwater Pointe, and cut closer to Millsboro, then meet Hollyville Road and Route 24 as a four-way intersection.
The Route 30 intersection would be just that, instead of a cloverleaf off-ramp.
“I think DelDOT listened to the public,” Hocker told those at the packed town council meeting. “Hopefully, you will all be satisfied about it.”
Residents were already examining the maps before the council meeting.
“After it ties in at [Route] 24 here, the rest is scrap,” Hocker said.
“Thank you,” a woman muttered from the audience.
“I’m a happy man,” Millsboro Mayor Robert “Bob” Bryan said the next morning. “The east-west bypass that they’re proposing is what we have wanted all along.”
The Millsboro Town Council had favored the Blue Route out of desperation.
“[DelDOT] told us that was the only way there would be any funding, and we need help in Millsboro. I don’t want anything done in Dagsboro and Frankford that they don’t want done,” Bryan emphasized.
“We need relief in Millsboro. What they showed us last night, it won’t solve our problem, but it is such a big help,” Bryan said.
Although he has some concerns, the mayor said he must learn more about the proposal.
The town council could not discuss the topic officially on Monday because Hocker’s presentation was added to the agenda too late to constitute official notice. As soon as Hocker had heard the news about the revised proposal, he had requested 10 minutes of the town council’s time, so the Town wouldn’t be “blindsided.” The presentation was deemed important enough to allow, even though the agenda had been officially published, but, as a result, the public and council could not ask questions.
Millsboro will submit an official opinion when the time comes.
More public hearings
DelDOT will likely host public hearings this summer, since Route 24 is a State-owned road.
“Property owners affected will get letters, and it’ll be in the papers and radio, and we’ll make sure everybody will have [proper notice],” Spadafino said.
“If anyone is upset, don’t listen to rumors. Listen to facts. There’s going to be very few property owners affected, because the State is already leasing [or] owns some of the land that is involved,” Bryan noted.
DelDOT is currently leasing land at Patriots Landing, which will eventually be applied toward the purchase of that property north of Millsboro.
“There were two lease agreements that DelDOT entered into,” Sundstrom said regarding Pepper’s Creek and Patriots Landing. “Both of those transactions became somewhat controversial … and some said the agency overpaid for those properties — particularly when you think we were nowhere close to having the project [federally approved].”
If everything went perfectly smoothly for the revised project, design could begin in 2021. But that’s only if Delaware was ready to pay its 20-percent share of the cost.
Now, DelDOT must get approval from state and federal environmental agencies. Public workshops could be scheduled this summer, with more detailed information available. DelDOT would compile all the feedback into a Final Environmental Impact Statement, submitted to Federal Highway Administration. (That is where the process paused in 2013.)
FHWA could give a record of decision in 2016, which would make the project eligible for 80 percent federal funding.
Then the project would enter DelDOT’s six-year plan. Road design and acquisitions could take another five to six years.
Based on existing congestion and traffic safety issues, Hastings said the project should rank highly on the State’s priority list.