Vacationers to the Delaware/Maryland shore who think they are spending more time on the road and less time relaxing on the beach may be right.
A national report released on June 30 listed the area as the third worst for summertime traffic delays caused by bottlenecks, with the Oregon coast topping the list, followed by the Tidewater region of Virginia.
The American Highway Users Alliance (AHUA), American Automobile Association (AAA) and TRIP conducted the study to bring attention to the need for road improvements in these seasonal hot-spots — especially where travelers are forced to reach their destination via rural two-lane roads.
According to AHUA, Americans will take more than 320 million vacations this summer — 2.3 percent more than last summer. But that news comes as no surprise to local council members, who said they have watched area traffic transform into what can be likened to urban congestion and are searching for ways to prevent it from getting any worse.
However, projects to improve congestion along local roads may have to be held off a few years longer than expected. Of the $393.1 million allocated for road projects throughout the state this year, more than half will be used for work at an intersection near Newark, leaving minimal funding for projects in the coastal area.
In May, engineers at the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) presented their proposal to add a third lane and a series of shared turn lanes along the 20,000 feet of Route 26, a road that has been plagued by frequent and extensive backups.
The project was, at the time, expected to be complete by 2008.
“All projects have now been put on hold indefinitely,” said Project Manager Tom Banez. “We are in the process of evaluating the funding situation. Then we will reprioritize the program and see what we can deliver based on that.”
Banez said the study will not have any affect on which projects receive funding, but the longer they wait to implement project plans, the more expensive it will become.
“We are trying to move forward, but we have hit an obstacle,” Banez said. “As far as we know, we won’t have funding for the next year or so.”
Ocean View Mayor Gary Meredith said the addition of traffic lights at key intersections along Route 26 in recent years has improved the flow of traffic, but with the number of vacationers to the area increasing each year, more needs to be done to curb the congestion.
“It’s kind of like pushing a rope. [DelDOT] says they are doing what they can, but budget constraints and planning time keeping delaying completion of any improvements,” Meredith said.
In Fenwick Island, traffic along Route 54 has been a topic of discussion among town council members, who said the situation has worsened through the years. But as a small town, there is little they alone can do to improve the situation.
“We have traffic backed up in Fenwick all through the summer, and it didn’t use to be that way,” said Council President Peter Frederick. “Traffic has been very heavy because Route 54 is a two-lane road, so it backs up quite frequently, and we just don’t have the authority or funds to make any changes.”
Though it lies outside the town limits, Frederick said Fenwick Island Town Council has opposed any new development along Route 54 because “that would only make the situation worse.”
In Bethany Beach, the town council and planning commission are working on a smaller scale, trying to improve traffic flow through just the town’s own downtown area.
With new developments and a growing number of vacationers going to the area, efforts are being made to limit the number of cars in downtown Bethany Beach. One focus is on making the area more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly, while the addition of a second, larger trolley car this year was targeted at allowing residents and renters to increasingly opt out of driving their individual vehicles to shopping, restaurants and the beach.
“We are really trying to make the place safer and have a much smoother and efficient path of traffic through the town,” said Lew Killmer, a member of both the town council and planning commission.
The second trolley was added after more than 26,000 passengers rode the trolley during last year’s summer season. The new trolley, which has 14 stops throughout the west side of Bethany Beach and the downtown area, holds more than twice the number of commuters than the original trolley. Killmer said the council hopes that alternative will deter people from driving into town.
Despite the local efforts, the area’s larger traffic issues will still require major long-term projects through the state. Many of those projects remain the subject of public debate but now also face a budget crunch that could delay them or potentially eliminate them altogether.
For more information about area road projects, visit the DelDOT Web site at www.deldot.net.