DelDOT update on Millsboro projects draws questions

Shante Hastings, DelDOT’s director of policy and performance, shares information on
plans to address traffic congestion in the Millsboro area. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

MILLSBORO — Delaware’s Department of Transportation officials admit there is no single silver bullet or overnight solution to Millsboro’s traffic congestion migraines.

DelDOT’s multi-pronged answer: a cloverleaf bypass and connector road linking US 113/SR 20 to SR 24 just west of the Mountaire Farms plant, widening northbound and southbound US 113 to three lanes several miles plus several other upgrades.

Town of Millsboro officials aren’t sold on those plans. They and a handful of residents voiced opinions, requests and suggestions at an Oct. 25 public meeting facilitated by 41st District State Rep. Rich Collins, R-Millsboro.

DelDOT Director of Policy and Performance Shante Hastings, Bryan Behrens, DelDOT’s group engineer for Sussex and Kent counties, and traffic studies manager Peter Haag Jr. fielded questions, concerns and criticism.

Millsboro councilman Larry Gum’s biggest beef is the current functioning mode of the traffic light at SR 24 and US 113.

“That is where your problem is. The biggest problem with your traffic through Millsboro is at that light, right there at Rt. 24 and US 113. The flow of traffic is horrible,” said Mr. Gum. “This crisscrossing and one lane at a time is a disaster. I’m in emergency services and we can’t get in and out of town because of that damn light. That light backs traffic up to the railroad tracks. That light needs to be one way across and turn and then the other way cross and turn.”

That would involve conversion to split-phasing, which is what DelDOT has in store for the light at Rt. 20 and US 113.

“That is in design,” said Mr. Haag. “We’re hoping to get it implemented before summer of next year. That is in the works. It will have impact to (US) 113. We’ve seen the crash patterns. We see the confusion and we agree.”

“Rt. 24 you need to go the same way. All traffic in, all traffic out,” said Mr. Gum. “We’ve been arguing about this Rt. 24 light for over five years.”

DelDOT officials said there are no plans for split-phasing at Rt. 24/US 113.

Projects and estimated price tags (construction and right of way acquisition) include:

•SR 24 bypass connector and grade separation, $128 million;

•US 113 widening north and south of Rt. 24 and access management, $25 million;

•US 113/Rt. 24 short-term improvements, $5 million.

Another discussion topic was the traffic light in town at State Street and Rt. 24.

The Millsboro connector bypass replaced DelDOT’s initial Blue Alternative Route proposal that entailed a 16-mile eastern bypass of Millsboro, Dagsboro and Frankford tying into US 113 north of Selbyville. The Blue Route, which was projected to cost more than $800 million, met opposition DelDOT said from backlash from residents and downstate elected officials.

Millsboro councilman Tim Hodges voiced several concerns. One is big-rig truck traffic, the bulk from Mountaire, that funnels daily through the town.

“That is one of the biggest complaints that the town of Millsboro has heard. That is maybe the worst reason why we are here today,” said Mr. Hodges. “And we’ve been dealing with it for how many years?

Mr. Behrens said DelDOT believes the bypass connector – a two-lane road similar to SR 20 that connects Millsboro and Seaford – will alleviate that. “We want the trucks to do that, and not go through downtown,” he said. “The idea is the presence of the bypass is going to pull a lot of that east-west traffic out of downtown Millsboro that causes so much of the congestion.”

Mr. Hodges foresees potential traffic back-up from large trucks accelerating and decelerating.

“So, if you aren’t going to accommodate the trucks to getting up to speed or slowing down, at least in and out, what good is it? How much of the traffic is still going to come through downtown Millsboro,” said Mr. Hodges. “How far is traffic going to back up on this bypass? DelDOT has spent all of this and effort and money. I understand we wouldn’t want an SR 1 through there. But why not something in between something that may give four lanes, very long acceleration and deceleration lanes. Why just a Rt. 20 going in there. It doesn’t make sense to me. If we are trying to get the trucks out of downtown Millsboro as well as a lot of the four-wheel traffic out of Millsboro, how is this really going to solve the problem.”

“We tried,” said Mr. Behrens. “We tried to do the Blue Alternative and we were shot down overwhelmingly.”

“I love hearing you say that. That is what the area needs,” Mr. Hodges said. “I was one of the three people that stood up in this hall – when all the social media and everything generated by a few farmers in Dagsboro, God bless them – and that Blue Route was shot down because of a handful of people. How does this come close to benefitting all of the people that live in the town of Millsboro and surrounding the town of Millsboro 360 degrees? How does this even compare to the Blue Route?”

“It is completely different from the Blue Alternative,” Mr. Behrens said.

“Then why are we spending tax dollars on it?” said Mr. Hodges.

“Because you have a congestion problem in Millsboro,” Mr. Behrens said.

“But you are not solving the problem,” said Mr. Hodges. “Look at how traffic in Millsboro has increased over the last 20 years. It’s only going to get worse. How about planning ahead at 20 years out. Don’t you think in 20 years we’re going to need that to be a four-lane?”

“We actually forecast for 30 years out when we do our design,” said Ms. Hastings. “Any time we do a project we are looking at a 30-year projection.”

Mr. Gum and Millsboro Mayor John Thoroughgood do not see the rationale in widening several miles of US 113 to three lanes northbound and southbound.

“The three lanes through, unless you are going to have three lanes that start at Milford and come all the way down, Millsboro is just a funnel,” said Mr. Gum. “My suggestion would be the bypass primary and look at your lights.”

“I agree with Larry as far as the three-lane road on 113. That is really not going to anything, just a big parking lot,” said Mayor Thoroughgood.

The mayor’s big concern is with bypass plans. “You are calling this a bypass, you’re dumping it back on Hollyville Road, and you have probably 1,500 employees that work just a quarter mile from that road. You probably have got 200 trucks,” he said. “I don’t understand the concept. Why you wouldn’t go on the east side of Mountaire, turn right, go on a cloverleaf and get back on the road without doing stopping?”

“That was brought up years ago,” said Mr. Behrens. “Simple answer, complicated answer. We don’t need to. It works from connecting west of Mountaire.” Mr. Behrens said moving the Rt. 24 connector road east of Mountaire would cost millions of additional taxpayer dollars.

In design, the bypass Rt. 24 connector is scheduled to be completed in 2025-26. About 70 properties will be impacted by potential right-of-way acquisition.

Short-term plans include road widening and turn lane options at US 113/Rt. 24 in the area of the Wawa convenience store, which frequently experiences bottleneck congestion.

Ms. Hastings said there have been internal discussion at DelDOT about the possibility of building bridges, not loop rams, just directional bridges for traffic access from side of US 113 to the other.

Mr. Hodges shared his thoughts on DelDOT’s short-term plans for Rt. 24 at US 113 by the Wawa, saying the problem doesn’t need a Band-Aid.

“My personal take on it, and I think others on town council support this idea, is if you are going to get in there and do construction in the short-term, let’s fix the problem,” Mr. Hodges said. “Please don’t give us just an interim little thing. Let’s fix the problem. Let’s fix the Wawa traffic problem. Let’s go ahead and take right turn back. Whatever is needed, let’s do it.”

Millsboro Town Manager Sheldon Hudson asked about design for the US 113/Rt. 20 cloverleaf.

“I get approached by commercial developers fairly often and they are concerned about that shifting. I have multiple developers approach me and they are scared because they don’t know where that is going to land,” Mr. Hudson said.

“It will tweak slightly. I don’t think it’s drastic,” Mr. Behrens said. “There are tweaks but it is based on this concept.”

Resident Doug Parham says major improvements are paramount, the sooner the better. “Separate the bypass away from the 113. I think the 113 is a really long-term challenge. I agree, three lanes is just going to be a three-lane parking lot,” Mr. Parham said. “Right now, the traffic through downtown Millsboro in my opinion is what is killing us. It’s killing our commerce. It’s killing our restaurants. It’s killing our people. What can you do to accelerate that?”

Ms. Hastings said DelDOT makes every effort to get projects done ahead of schedule. The right-of-way appraisal, negotiation and acquisition process can take upward of two years. She noted the bypass connector is about 3 ½ miles in length and will potentially impact dozens of properties.

“Each of those owners can affect the process.,” said Ms. Hastings. “If we had all willing property owners, it could much less time. Still, at the end of the day we still have to follow that process because we are getting federal funds because we don’t want anyone to come back and say, ‘DelDOT mistreated me.’ That could stop the whole project.’”

“We are moving as fast as we can and trying to be as innovative as we can, but we also have to make sure that we respect the process so that we don’t get stopped at some point in time,” Ms. Hastings said.

Rep. Collins said abuses in the past caused laws to be passed to protect property owners.

“What happens is, the day that DelDOT says, ‘We need your property to build a highway in 20 years,’ your property just became worthless. Who would buy it from you?” Rep. Collins said. “Highways and building highways are an issue that I have learned I have got to walk on egg shells, folks. You can’t imagine the emotion in every part of it. The drivers want something. The property owners want something. Everybody thinks every idea is stupid. It’s unbelievable. It’s like a mine-field trying to wade through it.”

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