A bridge too far: Western Sussex coping with waves of bridge closures

Residents, workers and travelers are encountering a wave of roundabout detours and alternate route options to simultaneous bridge closures in western Sussex County.

State Rep. Tim Dukes of the 40th District experiences it first-hand.
“From my house this morning, six miles from my house, I have five waterways that are closed down,” Rep. Dukes said Wednesday.

Three major spans – the Central Avenue bridge in Laurel, the Market Street bridge over the Nanticoke River linking Seaford and Blades and the bridge in Bethel – are currently closed and will remain closed well into the summer, according to Delaware’s Department of Transportation.

Rep. Timothy Dukes

Also closed: Trussum Pond bridge, which is on target to reopen soon, and the Woodland Ferry, which offers vehicle/pedestrian transportation across the Nanticoke River linking Laurel/Bethel and Seaford/Blades. The ferry is out of commission indefinitely.
Closures impact travel, businesses and emergency response time.

“I mean it’s pretty obvious, it slows our response,” said Laurel Fire Department spokesman Mike Lowe. “There isn’t much more I can add to it than that.”

On June 21, DelDOT announced that Laurel’s historic Central Avenue bridge that spans Broad Creek on the major north-south artery (Alternate 13A) through town will remain closed several additional months, well beyond its scheduled late June completion target date.

The bridge will remain closed until later this summer as a result of the ongoing rehabilitation project.

“We share the community’s frustration that this project has taken much longer than anticipated,” said Secretary of Transportation Jennifer Cohan.

“It is often easier and faster to build a new bridge than rehabilitate an old one, as it is a more complex project where more work can be required than initially planned. We have seen that happen here as the work on this historic structure has encountered numerous issues that has slowed progress and prevented the contractor, Eastern Highway Specialists, from meeting the latest expected completion date of June 28, 2019.”

Several Laurel businesses are feeling direct impact, says Laurel Mayor John Shwed, noting the location of A & K Enterprises, Shore Stop convenience store and Pizza King restaurant to the Central Avenue Bridge.
Rep. Dukes, who met recently with the head engineer of the company, DelDOT and town officials. “It has been a fiasco,” he said. “I just expressed my frustration when you have a business like A & K (Enterprises) Tackle, Pizza King and Shore Stop. I won’t quote them on how much money they are down. But it is astronomical. I don’t know how they are even staying in business.”

“It has a tremendous impact on all businesses in a small town like that,” said Mayor Shwed. “It also creates a problem for the fire company.”
To respond to calls north of Broad Creek, the Laurel Fire Department utilizes the Delaware Avenue bridge, which includes several very sharp turns – at 4th Street and Delaware Avenue.

“The fire company has some larger trucks and for them they have to work their way around the intersection where the library is and go over the Delaware Avenue Bridge when they have to go north. It slows them down a little bit on their way to try to react to an emergency,” said Mayor Shwed. “It has a significant impact.”

Because the completion date for the Central Avenue Bridge project will not be met, DelDOT will begin to assess a penalty to the contractor in the amount of $1,060 each day until the bridge reopens.
The bridge, which was last rehabilitated in 1992, closed on May 15, 2018. Work was originally projected to be completed in January 2019.

However, the project was delayed by three months due to a restriction on any work occurring in the water during sturgeon migration and additional time needed to complete the pier foundation in the river to support the nearly 100 year-old bridge structure.

The Central Avenue bridge, one of the last two surviving Scherzer rolling lift bridges in the state. is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing resource to the Laurel Historic District. Remaining work includes final painting of the steel bridge structure, pouring the concrete road deck and completing the pedestrian pathway, and paving the approaches to the bridge. DelDOT will continue to keep the community updated as this work is completed, and a definitive reopening date is determined.

“The thing everybody needs to understand that the timeline is really in the hands of the state government. The state Department of Transportation Bridge Division is the one that does all these bridge upgrades, repairs and replacement,” Mayor Shwed said. “Local jurisdictions really don’t have a lot of control over that. We just hope that the state with the companies that they have contracted will have some good luck here in the next couple of weeks and maybe speed up the final work.”

“After Friday, there will be a fine assessed of $1,060 per day that the contractor is not done,” said Rep. Dukes. “DelDOT is going to work with the town to hopefully repave some roads for some of the damage done to the roads because of people having to detour the Central Avenue Bridge, with all the wear and tear. DelDOT is willing to kind of help with that with the fines being assessed. There is no excuse for it. You can blame the sturgeon; you blame this and that. And it is an old bridge. They would have to sometimes stop and order parts and have them made out of Pennsylvania because the bridge 100 years old. Still, there is no reason that bridge should be closed down for a year and half.”

“There is no excuse for it. It’s poor management,” said Rep. Dukes. “On the other hand, I am thankful that the state is investing into western Sussex.”
Recently, DelDOT announced the bridge over the Nanticoke River linking Seaford and Blades will be closed from June 17 until Aug. 24, pending weather, along with Bethel Road between 1st Street and South Shell Bridge Road for maintenance and repairs to the bridge over Broad Creek. The Bethel closure is scheduled from June 17 through Aug. 25, weather permitting.

Rep. Dukes said the contractor for the Bethel and Seaford/Blades bridge projects, Mumford Miller, was the contractor for the Phillips Landing project.
“The fortunate thing about the Bethel bridge and the Blades bridge is it is the same contractor who did Phillips Landing,” said Rep. Dukes. “They did a tremendous job. So that’s a good thing.”

Rep. Dukes noted that Eastern Highway Specialists is also the contractor for the Trussum Pond bridge work, which needed spillway repair due to damage caused during a storm two Septembers ago.

“The spillway had to be repaired. So, they had to close the bridge,” Rep. Dukes said. “The latest is the work is completed at Trussum Pond. It was supposed to open this week, actually a couple weeks ago. The deadline was this week. They have a wooden guardrail that has been ordered from Ohio.

Whether it was ordered wrong or sent wrong … they are waiting for a new piece to come in. Once they get that guardrail in then everything is done and the bridge will be open.”

The Seaford/Blades and Bethel bridge projects were both scheduled during the summer to not conflict with buses during the school year.
“It becomes a tremendous cost to school district. That is why it is being done in the summer,” Rep. Dukes said.

“So, the good part of it is, the state is finally investing in the infrastructure of western Sussex. The bad part of it is, there are three waterways that are still closed when they closed two more. It is poor timing,” said Rep. Dukes. “And I’ve got to be honest. A part of me, I feel a little bad for DelDOT because they get the brunt of this. You know when they are dealing with a contractor, there is only so much they can do. They (DelDOT) fully acknowledge and have been extremely apologetic of what is taking place. I think we are all on the same page that we want to make sure that incidents like this never, ever happen again.”

Rep. Dukes plans to take the issue up with Delaware’s General Assembly.
“Here is the problem we have: The way that our state bidding is set up – and I’m going to look into this over the offseason to see if there is any way this can be changed – but DelDOT basically has to take the lowest bid. The lowest bid doesn’t always mean you’re the best,” said Rep. Dukes. “We are going to take a look at that. We are going to talk to some of the people in DelDOT and see if we can address some of those issues in the offseason and maybe run legislation in September.”

“I just want to say to constituents, we are sorry. But our bridges and our waterways are going to be safer, if you will give us just a few more weeks,” said Rep. Dukes.

Meanwhile, the Woodland Ferry issue surfaced this spring when it was brought back from Baltimore following five-year maintenance and U.S. Coast Guard inspection.

“When it was brought back and put in service, they went to fire it up and they found out there was saltwater in the block,” Rep. Dukes said. “That has created a wave of litigation with DelDOT and the contractor for who is responsible.”

On a more positive note, Mayor Shwed points to the new Burger King restaurant under construction near the intersection of US 9 and US 13.

“There are other things that would be very positive for Laurel. Right now, things are a little bit on the upswing,” said Mayor Shwed.

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