Markell talks water, transportation with Chamber

Gov. Jack Markell spoke to members of the Greater Millsboro Chamber of Commerce last week about his proposals to improve the state’s transportation and water.

“We got some issues in the state that we’ve got to deal with,” he said.

During the March 20 meeting at Blue Water Grill, Markell said Delaware must invest in its roads and bridges.

“We have to do so for reasons of public Safety, congestion, and for reasons of economic development. The places that invest in their transportation system are going to do better than those that don’t,” he said. “The question is whether we are prepared to meet the state that doesn’t while our competitors do.”

The proposal was first announced in January, and Markell said the state currently funds transportation through the gas tax, document fees and tolls. He noted that the last time the gas tax was raised was in 1995.

If his proposal is passed, the per-gallon tax on gas will increase 10 cents, from 23 cents to 33 cents.

“I am proposing that we invest an additional $100 million a year for the next five years — $500 million, in our roads and bridges,” he said. “I propose we do so in two ways. One is a 10-cent increase in the gas tax, which generates $50 million per year, and I propose that we borrow $50 million a year.”

Markell said that according to the Federal Highway Administration, for every $1 billion invested in roads, 13,000 jobs are created. He said that with this proposed $500 million investment, 6,500 additional jobs could be created.

Sussex County councilman Vance Phillips vocalized his concern about how affordable such an increase would be.

“I do believe a 10-cent tax increase on gas is unrealistic in today’s economy. It hits the working man, it hits the people who can least afford it.”

Phillips also said that the General Assembly and the government has been “stealing” from the Transportation Trust Fund to balance the state’s budget.

“Nobody in my position wants to ask people to pay more,” responded Markell. “Nothing would make me happier, frankly, than if the Transportation Trust Fund had been well funded over the years, and we didn’t have to do this. The math is the math.”

Markell said the state has choices, and one choice is to not do anything. However, he stated, the problems won’t go away.

“If people don’t want to pay for it, the capital projects won’t get done, the roads won’t get fixed. By the way, if a road deteriorates it’s five times more expensive to rebuild that road, than it is to maintain it as you go along.”

Markell added that just as the state has an issue with its roads, it has issues with its water.

“The condition of our water in Delaware is embarrassing and it’s unacceptable.”

He noted that in last few years people in Millsboro, Selbyville and other surrounding areas have not been able to drink their water.

“We have waterways in Delaware where the limit of how many fish you’re allowed to eat is one a year. Not one a week, not one a month — the health limit is one a year.”

He noted that at a similar meeting he had in the western part of the county a number of citizens noted the decrease in clean water, stating they used to be able to swim in Records Pond and Trap Pond, but can no longer do so.

“Is that acceptable? I don’t think it is. Because we know what the problem is and we know how to fix it,” Markell stated.

Markell noted that Mirror Lake in Dover is currently undergoing a massive cleanup of its water, that includes polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB). The lake will be cleaned up using a new technology, involving carbon pellets that bind to the PCBs.

“We couldn’t have done this two years ago. Instead of taking 40 years to clean up Mirror Lake, which is what it would’ve taken… it’s going to be cleaned up in three years.”

He added that Millsboro will be spending approximately $1 million to improve its water quality, including pump station rehabilitation, line replacement, inflow and infiltration work, sewer line and manhole replacement.

According to Markell, his proposal will generate $30 million annually from a household clean water fee of less than $1 a week and a proportionate fee for larger users. The fee, which will be indexed to inflation and collected through county property taxes, will leverage more than $120 million in total financing annually for clean water investments and support more than 1,000 jobs per year in science, engineering and construction.

“It would not be based on water usage… The fee as we have intended would be based on the parcel,” said Markell. He added that they would work diligently to not do anything that would be prejudicial to farmers.

Phillips asked Markell if the state will be having the county collect those fees, to which he said yes.

“Will the county get an administrative fee?” asked Phillips.

“‘That’s not part of the proposal, but we expect to work with a lot of stakeholders to figure out how our proposal can be as strong as possible.”

“This is a science, not an art,” he said. “We know what we have to do, but it’s going to cost us.”

Markell added that the money generated within each county will be spent within that county.

He added that the reason he was elected, was to represent constituents and to make Delaware the best it can possibly be.

“This is not about a popularity contest,” he said. “I think unless we make these investments in roadways and bridges, unless we clean up the water, we’re not going to be the best place we can be.”