Route 26, local roads widening still in doubt

The fate of a long-anticipated project to widen Route 26 from the Assawoman Canal to unincorporated Clarksville now parallels that of a package of fee and tax increases introduced by Gov. Ruth Ann Minner in her 2008-fiscal-year budget proposal last month, state officials have said recently.

If state legislators approve the proposed toll, documentation fee, vehicle registration fee and gas tax increases, the project will continue as planned. If they shoot down the entire package, the Route 26 widening project will be one of 17 major projects statewide sacrificed to help cover Delaware Department of Transportation’s $1.5 billion shortfall in its six-year capital project plan, DelDOT officials said this week.

“If all of it gets shot down, the Route 26 project would be unfunded indefinitely,” Darrel Cole, director of DelDOT public relations, said on Monday. “We can’t keep up with the amount of work we need to do if we don’t get additional revenue. It’s a simple fact. The growth of this state and the cost of doing business have greatly impacted our ability to fund the transportation system.”

Without securing additional state revenues needed to provide the local match on numerous projects, the state would lose $220 million in federal transportation funding over the next six years, according to the governor’s proposal.

Rep. Gerald Hocker (R-38th) disagreed that the recently proposed package is the only solution to DelDOT’s budgetary problem and said legislators should find ways to cut spending elsewhere before burdening the public with tax and fee increases.

“I’m not in favor of putting a tax burden on the working man that can’t make ends meet now, if there are other ways we can cut the size of our state government. We need to find funding. I’m not so sure we have to find it by raising our taxes.”

A list of the proposed increases:

A 5 cent per gallon motor fuel tax increase to begin in the 2008 fiscal year;
A 1.25 percent documentation fee increase in the 2008 fiscal year and a 50 percent documentation increase in the 2009 fiscal year;
Toll increases of $1 at the Biddles/Dover exit on Route 1, 50 cents at the Boyds/Dennys exit and 25 cents at the Smyrna exit. The proposal would also eliminate all E-Z pass discounts on Route 1 and all 10 p.m. to 6 p.m. commercial E-Z pass discounts on Interstate 95. Increases and elimination of discounts would begin in the 2008 fiscal year.
A 50 percent vehicle registration fee increase in the 2008 fiscal year. For passenger vehicles, the fee would rise from $20 to $30. It would be the first increase of its kind since 1965.
Delaware’s documentation and vehicle registration fees and its motor fuel tax have historically lagged behind those in neighboring states, sometimes drastically, according to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner’s proposal. Delaware’s 2.75 percent documentation fee — applied to the purchase price of a car — is currently lower than the 5 percent in Maryland and 6 percent in Pennsylvania, for instance.

The $20 passenger-vehicle registration fee, paid annually, is $12 cheaper than Maryland’s and $44 cheaper than Pennsylvania’s. And Delaware’s current 23-cent tax on a gallon of gas is 3.5 cents cheaper than the tax in Maryland and more than 8 cents cheaper than Pennsylvania’s 31.2-cent tax. If the legislature only approves a portion of the package, DelDOT will reevaluate its options.

“These fee increases are needed for projects like Route 26,” Cole said. “It’s a decision the public and the legislature will have to make. If they don’t support it, there will be repercussions.”

Cole dismissed suggestions that DelDOT is attempting to transfer ownership of potential future project cancellations to the legislature, claiming simply that “that’s how (the budgetary process) works.”

State officials have been working on plans to widen Route 26 for decades; work dates back to a 1974 plan to build a four-lane highway there that was killed by opposition from a group of property owners.

When, if ever, completed, the most recently-proposed solution to relieve congestion on Route 26 would mirror the road on the Bethany Beach side of the canal, with 11-foot travel lanes, 5-foot shoulders and a 12-foot center left-turn lane. Right-turn lanes and signals would also be added at designated intersections. The project would begin by July 1, 2009, at the earliest.

Officials have budgeted roughly $18 million in state and federal funds over the next two years in the 2008-fiscal-year plan for planning and land purchases, but no funding will be available without approval of additional revenue sources. Worst-case scenario: all increases are shot down, and DelDOT will be unable to match federal funds and will likely lose them.

The side project to widen Route 26 feeder roads — controversial because of a lack of federal funding that was expected to help fund the project until last year — will be completed with or without federal funding, if the package wins approval.

In their 2008 budget proposal, DelDOT officials budgeted more than $3 million to finish land purchases for the project either late this year or next and have set aside $6 million for construction in the 2009 fiscal year.

The remaining $6 million needed to complete the $12 million construction project is expected — with the approval of new revenues — to be available in 2010. Officials plan to release their six-year capital budget to the public this March.

State transportation officials for at least three years have planned to expand to 11-foot travel lanes and add 5-foot shoulders on portions of four roads. Expansion is expected on Burbage Road from Route 17 to Windmill Road; on Windmill from Route 26 to Central Avenue; on Central from Windmill to Beaver Dam; and on Beaver Dam from Central to Muddy Neck Road. The local roads project will begin on July 1, 2008, at the earliest. Drainage improvements are also expected on those roads, which would serve as a detour during the Route 26 mainline project.

“We have said all along that funding has been a big question,” Cole said. “We’re committed to Route 26, but we don’t have the money to move forward if we don’t get more revenues.”