Local legislators argue for alternatives to Blue

Delawareans may never fully approve of plans to alleviate congestion on Route 113, acknowledged Secretary Shailen Bhatt of Delaware Department of Transportation at a Dec. 2 meeting. But Millsboro desperately needs a bypass from Route 113 to Route 24.

The Dec. 2 roundtable discussion between Bhatt, Sussex legislators and other agency leaders in Georgetown also included several concerned citizens, with more than 30 people in all attending in an effort to find a workable solution that would just impact Millsboro. That solution could be found in a nearby nature preserve.

“If they had just sat down with us [in the beginning], we could have worked it out,” said State Sen. Gerald Hocker, citing the many people who hadn’t been consulted in developing the proposed “Blue Alternative” design.

DelDOT is currently writing a proposal for federal highway funding. They’ll incorporate public comments from September regarding the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which included five proposed routes, including the “preferred alternative” Blue Route.

The Blue Route creates a 16.5-mile bypass east of Route 113, connecting to the existing highway just north of Millsboro and south of Frankford. Federal officials would need to evaluate the proposal, comments, cost and impact of the project. Then they would select the best route, possibly by the end of 2014.

South of Millsboro, many people are frustrated at the vast expanse of land and farms sliced up by the route. In Millsboro itself, some don’t like the total of five water crossings.

“Building a road is going to involve taking property. It’s going to have to go somewhere,” whether a 16-mile bypass or widening of existing highway, said Bhatt.

“I think the public doesn’t feel there is any response to their concerns,” said State Rep. Ruth Briggs King. “The public feels there are other options but we have blinders on.”

“We, as legislators, have designed our preferred route, which we were told we couldn’t have because of [environmental concerns],” Hocker emphasized. Even Routes 1 and 95 couldn’t have been built under such regulation, he said.

“We don’t build highways the way we did in ’50s and ’60s, ’70s and ’80s,” said Bhatt, a former employee of the Federal Highway Administration, which is governed by many agencies, so neighborhoods, historical areas, environments, protected species and more are strongly considered in route alternatives.

The Blue Route cuts around Doe Bridge Nature Preserve in Millsboro. Home to several rare species, the land is so sensitive that public access is limited.

“We have lands protected for future generations,” said Secretary Collin O’Mara of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC). “Even if we did have approval here, once you lose them, they’re gone.”

“That’s the disconnect. … Once you lose a farm, you lose it forever. Once you lose a house, you lose it forever,” said State Rep. John Atkins. “My job is not to build highways. My job is to protect my constituents. I’m hearing that they don’t want it over Millsboro pond. … We’re not all in agreement on the current path.”

“I’ll build a road where … there is an opportunity to build” and in a less impactful way, Bhatt said.

“I care more about these people and their jobs than 180 acres of wilderness,” Atkins said.

Briggs King asked why pristine State land is off-limits but, next door, a generationally-owned farm is vulnerable to seizure for a highway.

Former state Sen. George Bunting agreed, suggesting that the bypass use more State land and impact less private property.

“I still think this bypass route has merit,” he said of the legislators’ proposal. “I realize it will impact some preserved areas, but … that would not even be a fraction of what that would have done,” Bunting said.

Once they start cutting the land, O’Mara reminded the group, species have less chance of surviving.

Atkins offered a bargaining chip.

“If we build 12 acres, how about we set 20 acres aside somewhere nearby?” Atkins asked, referencing Soil Conservation’s policy of replacing natural resources. “Every acre you destroy, you build two. Can you see if [the federal agencies] would entertain that?”

Bhatt agreed to pass the message along and to even invite actual federal officials to explain the process in person.

“We’ll speak again with whoever we need to get the permits from here,” Bhatt said. “We will say, ‘We have two routes here — the Blue Route and the other. … What’s it going to take?’”

He said he will follow up on the existing proposal across Millsboro pond or more northerly road through the nature preserve.

At the end of two hours, that was generally agreed upon.

But, “We still have north-south issues” — which was the purpose of Bunting’s original request for a study, as well as the subsequent working group meetings and public hearings — said Tim Hodges, Millsboro Town Council member. “The public was allowed comment at every one of those. … That is how the Blue Route came about.”

He said he was concerned with losing all that work — especially since the Blue Route itself would be 15 years away, if chosen. “DelDOT says traffic will double in the town of Millsboro. The number of homes in town limits will double.”

While he said he appreciated the opinion of the 300 people who opposed the Blue Route at September meetings, “There are a lot more people in the town of Millsboro … If we continue looking at routes, changing routes for the next three years, when will Millsboro get relief?”

Bhatt noted that people in favor of projects rarely speak out at meetings.

“The Blue Route is derivative of the public process. I don’t have any preference. I want to build a route to improve the transportation process,” Bhatt said.

Bhatt noted a past meeting between Gov. Jack Markell and the Sussex legislators: “Unless there’s consensus, we’re not spending any more money. DelDOT has spent $12 million studying this issue,” said Bhatt. “To my mind, we have a clear need, we have a clear purpose and … an environmental impact statement. I think we should take this to the federal government and see what they have to say about it. We have a path forward.”

“I think when the Sussex delegation met with the governor, the resolve was to go on-alignment,” Bunting corrected. “There was consensus. We have taken care of some intersections.”

“Give us a third lane,” like in Salisbury, Md., said Atkins, reminding Bhatt that there is “no political will” to construct a bypass through Dagsboro, Frankford and Selbyville.

But downtown Salisbury and Dover flow better because both cities have bypasses, Hodges argued. “Millsboro is similar. Millsboro is growing. … Millsboro has become a destination with our big-box stores. Adding a third lane doesn’t solve that.”

Hodges said the Blue Route would offer a truck route to Routes 24, 26 and 20, so people and delivery trucks won’t get bogged down on Route 113.

Millsboro Councilman Greg Hastings also asked about the eight to 10 years already dedicated to studying Route 113. No one wants the project in their back yard, he said.

“Following federal guidelines brings us here today. If we’re here today to discuss options, what happens to that environmental study? What happens to everything we’ve done the last few years?”

The proposed bypass is part of a larger study, running from Milford to Selbyville. DelDOT studied Route 113 in four sections: Milford, where political pressure halted the project entirely, Ellendale and Georgetown, where on-alignment improvements were chosen, and Millsboro-South, where there is both support for DelDOT’s preferred route and strong opposition.

Delaware will submit a Final Environmental Impact Statement for all of Route 113 to the federal government. It’s all connected. Either everything proposed is approved or it is all rejected.

“We’re trying to get a Record of Decision for 113 from Milford to the state line. … We’re trying to get a federal document that will allow us to start building south of Milford. That’s on the 10- to 15-year timeframe,” said Bhatt.

Years down the road, other people will discuss the project sections, he said, but if they decide construction is needed, they’ll have approval to begin. If not, they can try again further in the future.

State Sen. Robert Venables Sr. suggested the State sell bonds for the nearly-$1 billion project. By borrowing money instead of using federal dollars, he argued, Delaware wouldn’t be subject to the same restrictions.

“If we can’t use federal money, we can’t build anything. There’s not the state dollars to do this,” Bhatt said. “I am happy to borrow money, but I think it’s better to spend it.”

Because federal money already went into the studies, Delaware must move forward with the permitting process anyway, just like with any project, including Routes 54 and 26.

Meanwhile, the Millsboro Town Council has considered restricting truck traffic downtown. They planned to revisit the issue in January, after the DelDOT meeting. However, DelDOT won’t necessarily approve such restrictions on a state-maintained road.

“We’re trying to find some way to find relief,” said Millsboro Mayor Robert Bryan, noting that council members could be voted out for apparent inaction.

“People would love to take trucks out of Route 71 or 299, because it’s historic downtown,” Bhatt said of his home, Middletown. “But it’s part of national highway system. It is what it is. Twenty and 30 years ago, we didn’t build for the future. [Now, old roads] are dealing with 21st-century traffic.”

Briggs King warned against “transferring the problem” out of downtown, since Alternate Route 24 is already overloaded and has no shoulders. Plus, she said, it potentially “sends a bad message that we can’t solve problems” and don’t welcome business.

“We wanted to do something to eliminate some traffic,” said Bryan, lamenting truck routes that would increase from 2 to 24 miles in length and calling Mountaire, which is a significant user of those routes, a friend. “We just have to do something to alleviate that traffic.”

Hocker initiated an east-west traffic study years ago, which is leading to expansions and center turn lanes on the area’s major east-west roads. Today, improvements to Route 54 have been completed, Route 26’s improvements are beginning and Route 24’s improvements are in planning stages. However, downtown Millsboro cannot fit in extra lanes.

“Route 113 is No. 4 on my top 1,000 things to deal with,” said Bhatt, adding that he believes Markell wants to build something to address the problem. “I think everybody agrees something needs to be done. There’s just a difference of opinion.”