Just a few finishing touches: Officials celebrate Route 26 improvements

Date Published: 
September 23, 2016

Coastal Point • Laura Walter: State and federal officials cut the ribbon on the Route 26 Mainline Improvements Project, which was designed to improve safety and traffic flow for all.Coastal Point • Laura Walter: State and federal officials cut the ribbon on the Route 26 Mainline Improvements Project, which was designed to improve safety and traffic flow for all.The orange barrels are almost gone.

The Route 26 Mainline Improvements Project is so close to wrapping up that the dignitaries gathered on Sept. 19 to cut the ribbon for the expanded roadway.

Rain moved the Sept. 19 ribbon-cutting off the road and into the Millville fire hall, which DelDOT Secretary Jennifer Cohan joked was perfect for testing the drainage.

Construction officially began in January of 2014, with an aim to improve drainage, traffic flow and safety for drivers, pedestrians and cyclists.

But road crews had started working long before that, since utility lines were moved the preceding winter, and the surrounding side-roads had been renovated to create a smoother alternate route in the preceding years.

Designed by Century Engineering, the project added a center turn lane and bike lanes for the entire 4.1 miles, as well as sidewalks from Millville’s Windmill Drive to the Assawoman Canal in Ocean View.

They also created an enclosed drainage system along the flood-prone roadway. Tidewater Utilities and Sussex County also took advantage of the uprooted road to improve their own water and sewer systems.

After a minor hiccup in road design, the original May 2016 completion date was moved to June 24, 2016. From there, the deadline was pushed back by the 104 weather days since 2014. But the contractors still hit two major milestones successfully. In early 2015, they completed two small bridge replacements ahead of schedule — work that had required actual extended road closures for parts of Route 26. Additionally, all the widening and striping was done by Memorial Day 2016, so drivers could use the final configuration, including those turn lanes and many sidewalks.

Gov. Jack Markell thanked Delaware’s Congressional delegation, which he said had fought for “some sanity when it comes to transportation funding.” Rather than getting caught in a piecemeal funding schedule, which is troublesome for multi-year project, Delaware got dedicated funding for the whole project.

The federal government footed about 80 percent of the approximately $57 million price tag (plus another $17 million for the Alternate Routes project, and possibly more, as some property owners waded into the court system for more compensation for property taken for the project).

Most of the funding comes from user fees, such as gasoline taxes, U.S. Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said, complimenting those with the “political courage” to support such fees.

“I encourage you all to buy gas-guzzling SUVs so we can do more projects like these,” joked state Sen. Gerald Hocker Sr. (R-20th).

“I’m so proud of this highway,” said state Rep. Ron Gray (R-38th), adding that he felt fortunate that the State was investing major funds on Route 26 when budgets were being slashed elsewhere.

“People want to come to Bethany Beach. They want to come to Fenwick Island… And we have to make it possible for them to get here. By the same token, we have to work together to make it possible for them to leave, so somebody else can get here … and so people can leave, like when we have a nor’easter, like we had earlier this year.” Carper said.

“Projects like this are really the key to rebuilding our economy,” providing jobs to construction crews and for tourism, said Mary Ridgeway, U.S. Federal Highway division administrator.

“It’s been a long time, putting up with construction,” said Hocker, who noted that he had grown up along Route 26 when people knew every person on the road. Now, coastal Delaware is a busy tourist hub, and “We thought we were going to get this project to 25 years ago … and then they put it on hold” after the Bethany Beach leg of Route 26 was completed.

That was the biggest mistake in this project, Hocker lamented, as the eventual land acquisition costs rivaled actual construction costs.

The project included 3.5 miles of sidewalk, four stormwater management ponds, five traffic signals, 5.5 linear miles of pipes, 237 entrances, 250 land acquisitions and “endless coordination and outreach,” said Tom Banez, DelDOT project manager. “None of this was easy.”

Working through the restrictions

Nobody likes lane closures, and drivers must pay extra attention during lane shifts. But DelDOT set very strict rules about lane closures that “really led our contractor, George & Lynch, to reconstruct a roadway 800 feet at a time and manage multiple locations simultaneously,” said Sarah (Criswell) Powell, DelDOT area engineer. It might have seemed a patchwork project, but they had many requirements to meet, such as no lane closures on weekends in summer.

DelDOT only decided to allow summertime construction at all because cutting those months would have meant prolonging the project for another couple of years.

The construction team encountered only encountered minor surprises (such as discovering that some pre-existing underground pipes weren’t exactly where they were supposed to be, elevation-wise).

They said they tried to be sensitive to the local businesses, down to the placement of detour signs and changing construction hours to fit restaurants’ dinner rush.

“I was one of those businesses that really got hit by construction,” Hocker said. But when he had issues, like two entrances blocked simultaneously, Hocker spoke with project staff, and things improved. “I can tell you, today business is better than it was three years ago.”

Talking it out

Several years prior to the Route 26 project, Route 54 construction had been a nightmare for many involved. Public meetings were eventually added, but too late in the process for many. And the contractor never participated in those meetings.

DelDOT sometimes learns things the hard way, Cohan admitted. So builders and engineers gave public updates at every bimonthly meeting of the Construction Advisory Group and sent out 160 total weekly emails.

For the past three years, many people have personally thanked Ken Cimino, a project manager whose primary role was community relations.

“This project stands out to me as a posterchild for how important it is to have a strong liaison between the project and the community,” Markell said. “And, Ken, I want to thank you particularly. … People in the community literally told me the difference in this project was having you and folks like you out and about in the community.”

Yes, these projects are disruptive, he said. But “I think people are willing to be understanding” if they’re kept in the loop with what’s going on.”

But nothing is perfect during road construction, and road-rage sometimes got the best of people. Out on the front lines, flagging staff directed traffic for hours at a time. They experienced everything, from people kindly delivering coffee and doughnuts, to drivers angrily calling them racist names.

But, ultimately, traffic control’s mission is to keep drivers and construction workers safe. No major injuries were reported.

So what’s left?

Road construction on the mainline is basically done. Now, builders just have to tie it in to its surroundings.

Some milling and paving will continue outside of project limits, east of the Assawoman Canal and west of Clarksville.

Central Avenue also needs milling and paving near Windmill Drive and Cedar Drive, where temporary traffic lights had been erected during the bridge detours. (DelDOT will install a permanent traffic signal at Cedar and Central, at the Town of Ocean View’s request, but the Windmill Drive light has been removed.)

There will also be “punch list” items to clean up the project area, including landscaping and erosion/sediment control.

The public can expect to see various kinds of work continue until about Thanksgiving, Cimino said.