Sussex Co., DelDOT partner on loan project to accelerate roadwork

GEORGETOWN — A pioneering county/state loan partnership that banks on payback assurance is geared to accelerate prioritized road improvements in southern Delaware.

By a 4-1 vote, Sussex County Council on Tuesday approved the Funding Accelerating Safety in Transportation Track Program — a first-of-its-kind initiative that will utilize set-aside of county funds to accelerate road improvements planned, but not imminent, on the Delaware Department of Transportation’s six-year capital projects list.

The initiative could jump-start projects in DelDOT’s Capital Transportation Program pipeline by several years, providing up to $5 million to accelerate those plans.

Todd Lawson

“The FAST Track Program is a creative initiative that gives the county a voice in the decision-making process when it comes to our road system and allows the county and DelDOT to join together to deliver meaningful results for the public we serve,” said Sussex County Administrator Todd F. Lawson, who first pitched the concept with DelDOT leadership during the county’s comprehensive plan update process more than two years ago.

“Traffic is the single largest concern we hear from the public, almost on a daily basis. By working together with DelDOT, providing upfront money for critical improvement projects, we can put our road system on the fast track to one that is safer and more efficient,” he added.

Designated county funding would be earmarked for design work, right-of-way acquisition and construction costs. In turn, DelDOT would fully administer any project. At the completion of a project, DelDOT would reimburse Sussex County the full amount of funds provided.

County officials are hopeful that by contributing local dollars, giving DelDOT an immediate infusion of cash, projects planned but awaiting state and federal funding would move up on DelDOT’s priority list more quickly, reducing completion by as much as five years.

“We partner with DelDOT to form this agreement and expedite construction of projects here in Sussex County. We do that in a manner where the county loans the funding to DelDOT, and this fast-forwards the project though the DelDOT CTP pipeline … and accelerates projects that are in need of construction here in Sussex County,” said Mr. Lawson. “It’s a really simple idea. In return for that acceleration, DelDOT will manage the project, construct the project, deal with the contract award and, in the end, refund the county all its money back. So we loan the money, and we get our money back. We front the money, and then, DelDOT pays us back along the way, based on the schedule that the CTP shows in the CTP pipeline.”

Shanté Hastings, chief engineer for DelDOT, offered the department’s perspective at Tuesday’s meeting.

“When we look at our next year’s budget, we take out all of our operating costs first. Then, we look at any commitments related to agreements that we have … with county or other partners,” said Ms. Hastings.

County Councilman John Rieley asked about assurances and protection of the county’s money.

“There is a (memorandum of understanding) that we created that both DelDOT and the county would sign,” said Ms. Hastings. “That would be the legal, binding document, requiring us to repay the funding.”

FAST Track’s intended jump-start is evidenced in County Council’s selection of the first project under the new initiative: the intersection of Cave Neck Road, Hudson Road and Sweetbriar Road, west of Lewes, which was highlighted in an October presentation on the FAST Track Program proposal.

Preliminary engineering for that project was set to begin in 2025. However, with the county’s FAST Track funding, that work could now begin in 60 days, as soon as early 2021, Mr. Lawson said.

“We are looking at a long-range plan, where a project may not get started for five, six or seven years. We select that project, and it fast-forwards by almost five years,” Mr. Lawson said. “Once we’ve selected that, (and) once council ratifies that through a motion, DelDOT commences work within 60 days, which, in the DelDOT world, is very fast.”

Projects to be advanced under the FAST Track Program would be selected based on a number of criteria, with emphasis on safety, development pressure, other infrastructure investments and ancillary services’ needs (for example, schools, medical facilities, etc.) in the area, said Mr. Lawson, adding that the project selected “has to be in the CTP on DelDOT’s radar.”

Mr. Lawson said the funding amounts dedicated to the program are solely at the discretion of County Council.

“The key to understand that is that you ultimately have the discretion on approving the next, if there is such a next project,” said Mr. Lawson. “I don’t think that we are going to be knocking down $10 (million to) $20 million projects. That probably is not the scope of this. We want to do the smaller projects that get done quicker.”

The FAST Track Program would not circumvent or replace the public’s ability to review and comment on project proposals. Rather, the program is intended to be a mechanism for funding projects already developed through and commented on by the public as part of the annual CTP process.
Ultimately, quicker project turnaround times will lead to a higher level of satisfaction among the motoring public, said County Council Vice President Irwin “I.G.” Burton III.

“Drivers want to see these upgrades and improvements yesterday,” Councilman Burton said. “I believe this will go a long way to relieve some of the congestion that we see out there and make our roads better and safer.”

Council’s 4-1 vote included support from Councilmen Burton, Rieley, Michael Vincent and Douglas Hudson. Councilman Samuel Wilson Jr. opposed.

“To me, this is very exciting and a very innovative approach to get those done in a more timely fashion,” Councilman Rieley said. “Since we have the resources to be able to do it, it’s a good use of our money.”

County and state officials peg the program as another example of the strengthening partnership between the two levels of government. Earlier this fall, Sussex County and the state of Delaware signed off on a new memorandum of understanding to improve planning coordination, as well as adopted the Henlopen Transportation Improvement District in the Del. 24 corridor.

“As we work to address the growing infrastructure needs in Sussex County, this collaborative effort will allow for projects deemed to be high priority by the county to be expedited through advanced funding provided by the county and reimbursed by the department upon completion,” DelDOT Acting Secretary Nicole Majeski said.

Councilman Burton agreed.

“This really shows the change of relationship between the county and DelDOT. It’s a partnership that is needed at various places,” he said. “I hope it goes further as years go on.”

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