Slow progress on Route 26 improvements

The Route 26 Mainline Improvements Project has long been a hot topic for locals living and working near the beach, and for visitors to the southern Delaware shore, as it is a main way to get to there.

Perhaps just as popular a topic a subject is the speed in which DelDOT works — which, for many people, is not fast enough. It has, after all, been nearly five years since state transportation officials issued — on Aug. 25, 2004 — a press release titled: “Route 26 Interim Improvements Announced,” with construction of the main project to begin in the spring of 2008. But, to be fair, the work on such a major project can be much more complicated than it might seem from the outside.

A road project such as this has many steps, some of which, by themselves, can take years, not to mention what happens when plans change. For example, DelDOT must adhere to the National Environmental Policy Act, because federal dollars are being used. That is an 11-step process (of which they are currently on Step 8), and they must take into consideration properties that are either listed or eligible for registration with the National Registry of Historic Places (of which one is already registered and 15 more are eligible).

That is in addition to coordinating with municipal water projects, private land development and county sewer projects, such as the current Millville-area sewer expansion project from Sussex County, and the years they might spend on acquiring the roadside property needed for actual construction, notwithstanding rising property values.

“There are hundreds of properties involved,” said DelDOT Public Relations Director Darrel Cole, of rights-of-way acquisition. “It’s not an easy process – it’s a long process where you have to abide by laws and regulations, and there’s lots of negotiating.” Cole said that, for the most part, though, that process has been going fairly smoothly.

The Route 26 mainline project stems from a 1999-2001 DelDOT planning study, recommendations from residents from public workshops and advisory committee meetings. Because of record growth in the area, traffic concerns about safety and congestions will be addressed with the mainline project, which will make improvements from just west of St. George’s Church in Clarksville to the Assawoman Canal in Ocean View.

But, before anything can be done on mainline Route 26, first must come the Local Roads or Detour Routes project that will address the back roads that many people will be using once the mainline project begins. Improvements under that umbrella will be made at Burbage Road from Route 17 to Windmill Road; at Windmill Road from Route 26 to Central Avenue; at Central Avenue from Windmill Road to Beaver Dam Road and at Beaver Dam Road from Central Avenue to Muddy Neck Road.

According to DelDOT, after the detour routes are addressed, the mainline Route 26 project will widen the existing roadway to provide one 11-foot travel lane in each direction with 5-foot shoulder bike lanes. There will be a 12-foot shared center left-turn lane throughout the length of the project. At intersections, there will be separate right-turn lanes and left-turn lanes. Through much of Ocean View and Millville, there will also be sidewalks and closed drainage.

The addition of the continuous center lane throughout the project is an example of DelDOT listening to what the community says it wants and needs. After the original “Local Road and Mainline Route 26” projects were outlined in November of 2004 at a public workshop, the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce, then headed by Chamber Director Karen McGrath, pointed out that what DelDOT was proposing wouldn’t work.

“What DelDOT has proposed, after all these years of study, is basically an upgraded two-lane road,” McGrath pointed out in January of 2005. McGarth emphasized that the everyting in the community had grown and evolved — except the plans for Route 26.

Although DelDOT was originally hesitant to change the plans, as that would set the project back in their timeline, by April of 2005, they met with the community again, with revised plans. It was still basically for a two-lane road, as the proposal of a four-lane road had never been popular with locals and had been suggested — and shot down — in years past. But the new design showed wider lanes and shoulders, a realignment at Central Avenue, center turn lanes at major intersections, (which eventually were added throughout the length of the project) and sidewalks from the canal to White’s Neck Road. The changes added costs to both construction and right-of-way acquisitions.

In February of that same year, DelDOT outlined their plans for improving traffic flow at the light at Route 20 and Route 26 in Dagsboro — a project that has since been completed and earned DelDOT an Outstanding Safety Project Award in 2007.

The Route 26 mainline project was then put on hold because of budget woes in DelDOT’s coffers. In September of 2005, at the annual Capital Transportation Meeting, DelDOT officials tried to explain the $200 million shortfall of that year’s budget – some of which was attributed to the fact that residential property acquisition prices had risen 650 percent since 1990 and commercial property values had increased more than 1,200 percent in the same time period. But by March of 2006, transportation officials scheduled a third public workshop in Roxana and were back on track.

At that point, Cole pointed out that even though not all funds were in place for the mainline project, they could still go ahead with right-of-way acquisitions — one of the more time-consuming aspects of the project.

DelDOT did then, and does currently, have funding secured for the “Local Roads” or “Detour Routes” portion of the project, which has to be completed before the mainline project, so those back roads can handle all of the traffic that will be diverted off of Route 26.

“Local Roads is moving forward, ahead of Mainline 26,” he said. “Plans are finalized, and rights-of-way acquisition has begun,” Cole said back in March of 2006.

As it stands now, for the Detour Routes or Local Roads project, DelDOT is moving ahead with design and continuing the rights-of-way purchasing process. It is a $20 million project, with $6 million going toward rights-of-way acquisition, $12 million for construction and the rest on design. According to Cole, constuction on the Local Roads project could begin later this year or in 2010 and will last about two years.

As for Mainline Route 26, a $75 million project, it is the first project in DelDOT history where rights-of-way axquisiton is a larger portion of the project budget than actual construction. They will spend an estimated $44 million on rights-of-way and about $29 million on construction. Construction of the Mainline project could start by 2012 and take two or more years. That is also still pending funding. Final constrcution plans will be offered to the public at the next publc workshop on the project, scheduled for summer of 2011.

“What’s fascinating is that, if we had had our way, this would have been done 20 years ago,” said Cole, referring to the fact that DelDOT had suggested a four-lane road to the beach in years past. “Each time, we got thrown out. We are at a crisis-point now, so when we came back to the community, they were begging us at that point. We finally got here, and we are going to continue to move forward. It’s funny that people think we are not moving faster.”

He also said that, five years ago, DelDOT was pushing for a north/south corridor, another project aimed to ease congestion on Route 26, but were “thrown out” — and, with time, that idea now appeals to much more people. DelDOT continues to study U.S. Route 113 north and south and will offer a “Recommended Preferred Alternative” for the Millsboro, Dagsboro, Selbyville, Frankford areas by the end of 2009.

To the south, DelDOT is still working on future improvements to help bring people to and from the beach, having in recent years completed major improvements to Route 54 with a causeway along the Little Assawoman Bay and enhancement of the Route 54/Route 20 intersection. Still ahead is the Route 54 Improvement Project, which will provide a center turn lane and operational improvements to tie the Bayside community to the causeway bridge.

Cole predicted that final rights-of-way for that project will be secured by 2010, with construction starting that same year. They are currently secruing rights-of-way acquisitions and have their approved environmental document from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).