DelDOT offers explanations and apology

Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) representatives described the converging factors that created this year’s $200 million budget shortfall, and subsequent placement of myriad Sussex road projects in “deep freeze,” at the annual Capital Transportation Program meeting on Sept. 8.

And DelDOT Secretary Nathan Hayward Hayward apologized for the situation — not necessarily because he felt DelDOT was responsible to any particular degree, but because he said there was little to nothing he could do about it. At least, not until the legislative branch loosed the purse strings a little, or raised fees or taxes, or privatized a road, or something.

Bob Carver, DelDOT finance, elaborated. Yes, the department had $764.7 million to work with this year (57 percent of that going toward capital projects), but DelDOT had experienced skyrocketing costs across the board, Carver pointed out.

• Payroll — laborers’ wages were up 33 percent, equipment operators up 12 percent, since 2000.

• Steel — prices had doubled since 2000.

• Hot mix — up 28 percent over the past five years, it was going for $45 a ton in March 2005, and had burst to $75 a ton since then.

• Fuel — was up 56 percent over five years, and again, that was in March.

• Property acquisition — prices for residential had increased 650 percent since 1990, with cost of commercial land acquisition increasing nearly twice as fast (1,233 percent) over that same period.

As Carver pointed out, the state’s General Fund had increased by more than 73 percent over the last 10 years, but DelDOT’s Transportation Trust Fund had experienced a much slower 29-percent growth rate over that period.

While DelDOT had received more support from the General Fund over the years, the General Assembly had also saddled the department with additional operational responsibilities, Carver said, and those operations were not self-sufficient.

Hayward said the annual Capital Transportation Project meetings were primarily to take input on projects people thought DelDOT should pursue — but he said the department was truly facing an unusual situation this year. “When I was taking with legislators in Dover, in May and June, right up to the ‘closing bell,’ we thought we had a difficult problem,” he said. “We had all of that construction inflation … one of the development issues that we’ve faced in addition to that, particularly here in Sussex County — we have so much private growth going on … that the available supply of labor is so scares, that contractors, who frankly can make so much more money on private jobs, are all bidding those private jobs.

“We’re facing a huge shortage in available labor — people who are skilled at doing curbing, at putting down crush and run and paving materials and things,” Hayward continued. “And you’ve all experienced the frustration and the problem, where we put out a project for bid — and we get nobody to bid at all. Or, we get one bid, and it’s twice what we expected it was going to cost.”

Gas prices weren’t helping that labor availability, either, he said, since many employees commuted from Dover or Wilmington population centers to work road projects in Sussex County.]

“How can we run our business,” he asked. “How can we do the job for you all, and for your constituents, when we’re faced with this kind of a problem.”

Hayward said the Sussex delegation had expressed frustration as long ago as last year, regarding over-budget bids and delays — and they were trying again, building bids based on time and materials instead.

But he expected some people would still be disappointed by the results. Another possible solution might be to bring more road-building materials to Sussex County, Hayward pointed out. He referenced the Thoro-Good’s Concrete plant, near Dagsboro, and the adjacent H & K Group (excavators, paving materials, stone).

If the state or county could somehow encourage H & K to bring in additional rail shipments of stone (both plants are located next to the rail spur that supplies the Delmarva Power plant), perhaps partnering in a new hot mix plant, they could save a tremendous amount of money, Hayward suggested.

In the meantime, he said he was hopeful for some possible funding solutions from Gov. Ruth Ann Minner’s taskforce, and commiserated with everyone who was feeling frustrated by DelDOT budgetary shortfalls this year.

“And as we talk about frustration, I want you to know — I’m probably more frustrated than anybody in the entire state,” Hayward concluded. He called on all present to stay focused on DelDOT’s Transportation Trust Fund problems.

County Administrator Bob Stickels presented the Sussex priority list, as he does every year, but later expressed doubts the department would tackle more than a scant handful of projects over the next few years.

A new, pier-less Indian River Inlet Bridge once again topped Stickels’ list, and DelDOT does plan to forge ahead with that project (although the timeline has slipped slightly). Elsewhere, he noted the North-South Limited Access Highway (Route 113) project, East-West Improvements (Routes 24, 26 and 54, among others) and various delayed local road projects. Alternate Route 26 (Burbage Road) made the list as well.

(Ocean View Town Manager Kathy Roth touched on that last project, reminding the gathered DelDOT representatives it would be impossible to tackle Route 26 without completing the Local Roads project first.)

Stickels chastised state legislators’ lack of fortitude in raising fees to generate the revenues necessary for keeping road projects moving.

He said he hadn’t really prepared to speak about finances — he said that fell outside the county Capital Transportation Improvement Program’s area of responsibility. “We prioritize projects for DelDOT’s Capital Transportation Program,” Stickels asserted. “It’s the General Assembly’s responsibility to provide the funding, which they haven’t been doing.”

From his closing remarks: “I will be the first to acknowledge that Sussex County is growing at an unprecedented rate. However, the improvements that Sussex County is requesting, in many instances, are the same roads we have highlighted for the last 10 years.”

Everyone was facing the same economic pressures, Stickels pointed out — the difference was, the county had raised fees to cover expenses, and so hadn’t been forced to stop short on pending projects.

Sen. George Howard Bunting (20th District) and Reps. Joe Booth and Gerald Hocker and Joe Booth (37th and 38th Districts, respectively) offered their take on the situation.

Bunting expected the taskforce members would have some tough calls to make, touching on the unpopular topic of car registration fee increases. Hocker recognized many people had moved to Sussex County to escape high tax rates, but suggested some property tax increase might prove inevitable.

Booth recognized there were problems in the funding cycle, and in retrospect admitted legislators may have backed out of a search for solutions too soon, last session. He expected the General Assembly would indeed hold a special session to focus specifically on the Transportation Trust Fund in the coming year.