DelDOT talks third lane in Millville

Nothing’s final until the steamrollers roll and the road stripers stripe, but it now appears the SR 26 Mainline project, slated for completion in 2010, will include a center turn lane from the Assawoman Canal through Clarksville.

Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) officials met local legislators, residents and Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce representatives in Millville on April 25, to go over the revised plans.

The chamber’s public policy committee has been pushing hard for increased carrying capacity along beleaguered Route 26. Through the latest round of public workshops, DelDOT’s designs showed wider lanes and shoulders, a realignment at Central Avenue, center turn lanes at major intersections and sidewalks from the canal to White’s Neck Road.

However, according to committee members, it’s still basically a two-lane road, same as it ever was. Of course, DelDOT suggested expanding Route 26 into a four-lane road years ago, but that went over like a lead balloon at the time.

According to the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control’s (DNREC’s) “Tributary Times,” population in U.S. Census Tract 512 (coastal from the Indian River Inlet to the Maryland state line) nearly tripled (190.6 percent increase) during the 1990s.

Population in Tract 513 (south shore of the Indian River, Ocean View, Millville, Clarksville) increased by 73.4 percent over that period, and has shown little signs of slowdown in the 2000s.

Need notwithstanding, some locals still say, let traffic get so bad on Route 26 that visitors become unwilling to put up with it, and go look for their “highway to the beach” elsewhere.

Even without facing this holdout attitude, DelDOT is traditionally hampered in its ability to schedule improvements ahead of need. Without hard traffic counts, accident data, etc., the department can’t negotiate for federal funds. Also, better roads would be a selling point for developers, and DelDOT can’t encourage growth — especially as that might indicate bias in favor of a particular area or project.

The federal government is fully involved on the Mainline SR 26 project, offering up 80 percent of the total project costs, so DelDOT has to tread lightly among various Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) conditions. Among them, historic sites eligible for the National Register have to be treated as if they were already registered and DelDOT has to avoid or minimize impact accordingly.

There were 111 potential historic sites along the project route, and 14 of them turned out to be eligible (the Spring Banke property is already registered).

Bethany Beach resident Cheryl Wisbrock asked if homeowners had a choice as to whether they wanted to be protected or not. According to Alan Marteney (Century Engineering, working with DelDOT on the project), they don’t.

“No, they can’t say, ‘I don’t care if you come over, wipe out this barn,’” Marteney said. “If they choose to tear it down themselves, that’s another matter.”

Wisbrock’s husband, Monte, asked about the Millville Service Center. It’s eligible for historic registration, but he said he’d heard rumors that it was going to be redeveloped — did DelDOT take projects like that into account, he asked.

Marteney said they’d already run into one change, after the Robinson family home was moved to Cedar Drive. However, according to project manager Tom Banez, the further along in design, the less they could shift gears. At some point, the project has to proceed based on a “snapshot” in time.

So, with that snapshot and requests for a center lane in hand, Marteney said they’d gone back to the drafting table and come up with five alternatives to pitch to the FHWA.

He said they’d been able to cite population growth statistics, and reduced traffic accidents on the Assawoman-to-Bethany section.

Those factors helped DelDOT justify revisions, and they will unveil the three-lane Route 26 design at a public workshop on May 9 (Roxana Volunteer Fire Hall, 4 to 7 p.m.).

Rep. Gerald Hocker (38th District), in attendance at the meeting on April 25, applauded the change. “I’ve said many times — I feel this is 15 years behind schedule,” Hocker said. He noted how important it would be to have two westbound lanes in the event of an emergency evacuation (a repeat of the Storm of ’62, for instance).

Millville Volunteer Fire Company Chief Eddie Hammond called the center lane a blessing for emergency responders. “A lot of people who come down here from the cities are used to paid fire companies,” he said. Here, the volunteers have to get to the station first, Hammond pointed out.

However, moving from roughly 6,000 to nearly 14,000 feet of center lane will bear costs, Marteney noted. Construction outlays, originally $11.1 million, will increase to $13 million. Rights of way acquisitions, originally $10.7 million, will jump to $14.6 million.

In addition, DelDOT originally anticipated possible relocation of seven properties. The center lane will seriously impact another five.

Chamber Executive Director Karen McGrath once again asked the DelDOT representatives to give those property owners as much advanced warning as possible. She said she didn’t want them walking blindly into the public workshop on May 9 and finding out there.

Millville Council Member Cliff Toomey said he’d run into that shock at a workshop on the Local Roads project (improvements on Burbage, Windmill and Beaver Dam Roads, Central Avenue). “The impact of getting there and seeing the whole front of my property turned into stormwater ponds — I kind of tuned you out that day,” Toomey recalled.

DelDOT officials defended their attempts to forewarn the public — mass mailings, signs along the project route and certified letters to the 12 property owners (but some had come back undeliverable).

Banez said he was still trying to reach them. Meantime, some of the property owners had called back, and DelDOT had set up meetings to show them where the proposed line fell.

However, he said the public workshop was typically the best place for them to get all the information. There, the whole team — everyone from designers to real estate specialists — would be available to answer questions, Banez said.

Sen. George “Howard” Bunting (20th district) recognized getting through to everyone before the public workshop could be tough (miscommunication, property controlled by estate), but he agreed with McGrath and Toomey.

He also said the business community needed as much advanced notice as possible. “I was involved with the project from the Assawoman Canal to Bethany Beach, and believe me, I lost a few hairs on that one,” he said. (That section grew from two to three lanes, too.)

As Bunting pointed out, the state offers fair market value for the rights of way, but that wasn’t the same as business value.

“If you’re a businessperson, and this project knocks down the front of your business, that’s going to shut you down for a while,” he said. “Those who are going to be affected by this — you’re going to hear about it.”

Again, the public workshop on the revised Mainline SR 26 project, now including a center lane, will be held at the Roxana Volunteer Fire Hall on Monday, May 9, 4 to 7 p.m.