Route 113 project to move forward in the north

Route 113 will get some improvements after all, according to the Delaware Department of Transportation. That announcement came this week, after Sussex County legislators and DelDOT Secretary Shailen Bhatt met recently to discuss future improvements to the U.S. Route 113 corridor.

The group – which included state Sens. Joseph Booth and George Bunting, and Reps. Harvey Kenton, David Wilson, John Atkins and Gerald Hocker – agreed between them that DelDOT should “immediately resume planning work on two sections while continuing to discuss the southern portion of the previously planned project.”

As it stands now, DelDOT will:

• Proceed with applying for federal funding for the design of the planned limited-access portion of U.S. Route 113 in the Ellendale area (between Deer Forest Road/East Redden Road and Hudson Pond Road), with construction anticipated to begin within three to five years.

• Proceed with applying for federal environmental approval for the planned limited-access portion of the highway in the Georgetown area (from just north of East Redden Road to north of Route 20/Hardscrabble Road).

• Reconvene with legislators in early September to review alternative alignment options to be submitted by the legislators for the Millsboro-area bypass north of Route 24.

• Conduct further discussion with the legislators regarding the future of Route 113 south of Route 24.

• Continue to design and implement safety improvements along the existing corridor, including intersection improvements identified through an annual review of crash data.

Bhatt said, “Gov. Markell asked DelDOT to hold off on further planning until we began to see consensus among lawmakers for moving forward on 113. The meeting with legislators today was very positive and productive, and we now have a path forward.

“DelDOT will resume planning work on the Ellendale and Georgetown portions and continue discussions regarding Millsboro and south. This project has the potential to reshape economic development, traffic management and highway safety in southern Delaware, and I look forward to working with Sussex County lawmakers to achieve a successful implementation for the people of the state.”

Earlier this year, Markell suspended the project – which runs in three sections from Ellendale to the Maryland line – in its entirely, after heavy media coverage of concerns about the project and questions about some of the project’s “reservation agreements” and DelDOT’s authority to enter into such agreements, leading to a highly critical report by his chief of staff and the subsequent resignations and firings of some DelDOT officials.

The agreements have the state paying developers to not develop land that might be used for a portion of the route, both in the Georgetown and Millsboro-south portion of the routes, some of which had already been eliminated from the proposed path for the project.

Two DelDOT employees who were instrumental in the reservation deals, as well as Secretary Carolann Wicks, left the department this winter in the wake of the scrutiny.

The governor had also questioned Sussex County lawmakers’ ability to come to a consensus after several questioned the need for any major changes south of Route 24 in Millsboro. They also questioned why the “Blue alternative” bypass route had been selected as a “preferred” path.

Lawmakers and property owners potentially impacted by the “Blue” route had also questioned the fact that three years had passed since any public hearings were held by DelDOT, which had led some to believe it truly was a far-future project.

In response to media inquiries and constituent outrage over the reservation deals, Sussex County legislators began to vocally oppose going forward with the Blue alternative in the near future.

The Blue alternative – which is the longest eastern bypass option and has the highest price tag, at an estimated $687 million to $839 million for construction and right-of-way purchases – was identified by DelDOT officials in May of 2007, and again in May of 2010, as the “preliminary” recommended preferred alternative for the Millsboro-south portion of the project.

The coverage of the land deals, the shake-up of the state agency, the plans for the project in general and its potential effect on southeastern Sussex County forced the legislators – some of whom had been involved in the project since the notion of major changes to Route 113 had been generated, and some of whom were new to the project – to consider what is actually needed.

Besides the obvious objections to taxpayer money being spent to rent land that might or might not be used for a long-range project – in the case of the Georgetown section, DelDOT paid out $402,632.15 to the developers of The Fountains of Georgetown alone, before it was determined that that particular land would not be needed – legislators overwhelmingly objected to any new route south of Route 24.

All agreed that some sort of improvement was needed to address current and future congestion in Millsboro, but none were openly supporting anything south of Route 24. Many were for “on-alignment” changes, which would mean improving the existing Route 113, but were not as supportive of disrupting generational farms for the sake of a “bypass to nowhere,” as one legislator called it.

Over the past few months, several ideas were presented, but this was the first time legislators and DelDOT officials have moved to iron out what the “next steps” will be.

Hocker (R-38th) said it was a “very good meeting” and that the project was “back on track.”

He added that they were surprised to learn that the project, which was initially projected to be 25 to 30 years out, could actually begin the construction phase in Ellendale in three to five years.

“We’ll start with the financial approvals for the Ellendale section and then the permits for the Georgetown section. And we had a good debate about Millsboro and south. We are putting it all together and will meet again in a couple of weeks,” he said.

Bunting, whose resolution in 1999 started the ball rolling on a Route 113 North/South study, added that he was “very impressed” with Bhatt and the responsiveness of DelDOT as a whole. He added that he also appreciated the quick response of the Secretary and others to the need to change the Route 54 improvements project – which has been under way most of this summer – to a nighttime project and regarding the opening of the Indian River Inlet Bridge.

As for the Route 113 project, he said the Secretary “took the lead” and they got a lot “aired out.” He said it was important that the state not lose any federal funds that could go toward the project, and added that they talked about some alternative ideas for the Millsboro-south portion of the route.

Both legislators agreed that the meeting was beneficial, overall, to the relationship between the legislators, DelDOT and the State.

“All the misunderstandings between the Sussex County legislators and the governor have been worked out. I felt good about the meeting, and about the new leadership of our secretary,” Hocker said of Bhatt, who had previously served as an associate administrator for the Federal Highway Administration.