The Fire Marshal might have frowned at the number of people squeezed into Roxana Fire Hall on Sept. 19. But Route 54 residents hovered just under the 274 occupancy limit, showing just how concerned they are about traffic issues in their corner of Sussex County.
It began with public demand for a traffic signal. Across from Keenwick Sound development, a new Royal Farms gas station and about 86 townhouses are approved to be built on Route 54, slightly east of Old Mill Bridge Road.
So State Sen. Gerald Hocker Sr. (R-20) and Rep. Ron Gray (R-38) invited Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) staff to discuss entrance plans for the proposed Royal Farms site, plus nearby Route 54 traffic issues.
People want a traffic signal at the intersection, but traffic engineer Peter Haag said a Royal Farms signal is not warranted at this time, based on traffic volumes and past reported accidents. (In fact, traffic crashes often increase when traffic signals are installed, according to officials, so DelDOT is monitoring whether a traffic light is really the best way to mitigate traffic problems.)
Instead, DelDOT approved two entrances along Route 54. On the east side of the parking lot, westbound cars may enter with an easy right turn. They are only allowed to exit there with a left turn to head eastbound again. They’d have to rely on Route 54’s center acceleration lane, but a small island would help block them from traffic as they wait to merge. Here, they cannot exit by turning right.
The second entrance is beside the housing development’s entrance. From there, people could only turn right and continue westbound on Route 54. From there, they could also drive a short distance then making a U-turn at the Route 54/Route 20 light, which is already congested.
The audience scorned both of these suggestions, citing the near-impossibility of merging into traffic on a busy day.
“With it being a resort area, people have to expect delays,” said engineer Todd Sammons, who also lives in a resort area.
The challenge is to balance people’s desire to live there with the need to build a four-lane highway.
But some of the traffic studies were done during arguably the quietest time of year, February.
Harry Chambers of Keenwick Sound scolded the traffic staff for not considering the summer traffic volumes, otherwise known as the “10 weeks that we go through hell.”
During his time as a traffic engineer in Maryland, he said traffic studies were done “at peak hours, not in February.”
Although the presenters kept things moving during those two hours, the crowd often showed animosity. People laughed bitterly, booed and flat-out shouted, “You’re stupid.”
Sussex approves projects
People applauded the idea of a moratorium, but that’s not in Hocker or Gray’s realm. Sussex County decides what to approve.
Typically, when a project is proposed along state-owned roads, the developer hires a state engineer to study the traffic impact and design an entrance.
So, once Sussex County approves this project, DelDOT’s traffic section has to make it work.
But what makes it work for the government makes it a nightmare for the residents, the people said. Residents stay at home on Saturdays to avoid beach traffic — or because they can barely access Route 54, which is backed up from Route 1 to Food Lion, at least 3 miles away.
“DelDOT is not a land-use agency,” Sammons said. “Once they get approval [from the county], which this did, we have to make the best of the situation, and that’s what we are doing. This project is moving forward. That’s not to say somethings can’t be tweaked, but right now this is the configuration.”
Based on all their internal and submitted analysis, this is the best traffic configuration. But, “We wanna be helpful. If you have suggestions, if we missed something, we are willing to take a look at it,” Sammons said.
Just because the project is designed doesn’t mean that the roadway will never change.
“We monitor traffic on every single roadway,” Sammons said. “In our section — it’s a battle — developers are there to make money, but … we’re there to make sure they do these things. If something’s not right after it’s completed,” DelDOT will still be watching.
As a traffic studies engineer, Haag works specifically to public and legislator complaints. He’s adding Route 54 to his to-do list.
“My job is to work for the people,” Haag said. “You bring it to me, I try to find a low-cost counter measure,” whether that be traffic signals or road striping.
Neither the government nor the developer is typically required to notify neighbors of such projects, so, like anything else, the county posts agendas for public meetings online. It’s up to the people to pay attention.
Since they’re unaware of projects beforehand, people often complain about projects when they see shovels in the ground, after all the approvals.
“We encourage you to go to those public meetings before the fact,” Haag said.
In fact, Royal Farms went through the Board of Adjustment with no public comment, to allow some encroachment into the setback.
“I wish you were all at the public meeting when they rezoned this corridor,” Hocker said.
It’s possible the Route 54 wave of displeasure is aiming next for the county.
Although state legislators organized this meeting, the Sussex County representative wasn’t there to hear any of it. Councilman Rob Arlett (R-5th) and county Administrator Todd Lawson were in another council meeting that day. (Several county personnel did observe, but not speak.)
Royal Farms is just a “symptom” of a bigger disease, said resident Jeanette Akhter. Luckily, now is the perfect time to address the problem, as Sussex County writes its long-term land use Comprehensive Plan.
“The disease is how much development is occurring rapidly and without adequate planning in this whole portion of the county. Planning and Zoning has been laboring for years on the Comprehensive Plan. It’s up to us to have input. We have the ability as county residents,” Akhter said. “Attend Planning and Zoning meetings and let people know how many more symptoms you want to be facing.”
Information is online at www.sussexplan.com. People may submit comments and read other public input.
The Planning Commission’s next Comprehensive Plan workshop is Sept. 27 at 9 a.m. in Georgetown.
What about evacuation routes during major storms?
“If we can’t get out, there will be loss of life, unquestionably,” said resident Barbara Shamp of Swann Keys.
Another resident suggested the people be willing to dig into their pockets, so local governments be less reliant on development and realty transfer taxes.
People suggested longer turn lanes or turn times at intersections.
Although the traffic signals have been adjusted to meet traffic demands, “over capacity, a traffic signal is not going to help that. All I can do then is manage delay,” said DelDOT’s Gene Donaldson, who lives along Route 54. “You have one of the most advanced systems in the United States … you gotta understand its’ a single lane roadway from Route 20 to Route 1,” capable of comfortably processing 1,500 vehicles per hour, maximum.
Discussion of this problem will likely continue in October, as Hocker and Gray are organizing another public meeting with Arlett and Lawson. For updates, citizens can join Hocker and Gray’s email lists.