Officials say infrastructure spending a boon for state

Traffic heads southbound past overpass construction in Little Heaven. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — The $816 million bond bill passed over the summer allocates the largest sum of money to capital projects in 13 years, part of a deliberate approach taken by Gov. John Carney both to improve the state’s infrastructure and to avoid growing the state budget to an unsustainable level.

It’s a strategy that has received kudos from lawmakers and the business community.

The national Business Roundtable last month released an analysis estimating that spending $737 billion over 10 years on infrastructure — roadways, waterways and airports — would create 1.1 million jobs. After 20 years, according to the report, disposable household income nationwide would increase by about $28,300 (hourly wages would rise a whopping $1.34).

For Delaware, the investment would give households an additional $1,000 per year and, over 10 years, add 3,000 jobs, the study claims.

“This new study demonstrates the wisdom of Governor Carney’s proposal to beef up infrastructure funding in Delaware,” Delaware Business Roundtable Executive Director Robert Perkins said in a statement. “A significant investment in our infrastructure will have real and lasting benefits for Delaware’s taxpayers.”

The state’s spending in infrastructure in recent years represents a marked change, partly due to an increase in available funding.

During the Great Recession and its aftermath, the state simply had less money available, and its capital needs grew as resources were diverted to the operating budget.

Work continues on the overpass at the intersection of Del. 1 and Bowers Beach Road at Little Heaven. This view shows the roadway south of the intersection. Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

In 2015, legislators approved a hike in fees charged by the Division of Motor Vehicles, which, combined with borrowing, shifting of some operating costs and increasing oversized permit fees, gave the Department of Transportation nearly $62 million more in the fiscal year that began July 1, 2015, compared to the one that started the year before.

After surpassing $500 million only once from fiscal years 2010 to 2016, the bond bill has topped that figure each of the past three years, and the governor’s proposed capital budget for the upcoming fiscal year totals almost $679 million.

That spending is helping tackle a large backlog, not just in needed road construction but in deferred maintenance on state buildings and cleanup of polluted waterways, according to Office of Management and Budget Director Mike Jackson said.

It’s a plan the head of DelDOT wholeheartedly embraces.

“We’re doing great things. I don’t want to say it will solve all the transportation issues in the state because we still have a long, long way to go, but we’re pretty excited,” Transportation Secretary Jennifer Cohan said.

A view looking north showing the work being done on the overpass at the intersection of Del. 1 and Bowers Beach Road at Little Heaven. Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

DelDOT expects to spend $3.2 billion on infrastructure over the next six years, with about half of that in Kent and Sussex counties. Much of the money comes from the federal government.

“We’re seeing for the first time in quite a while actual dollars being spent where the most needed projects are,” Ms. Cohan said, describing the overall sum as an increase of nearly one-third from five years earlier.

The added funding not only allows the construction of major new roadways, such as the recently completed U.S. 301 extension, it also enables DelDOT to spend more on paving and repairs.

Of course, the big projects are the ones that grab headlines, and there are plenty of projects DelDOT is excited about.

Officially opened last month, the U.S. 301 extension stretches 14 miles, starting from Saint Georges, passing Middletown and going over the Maryland state line, where it connects with the already existing U.S. 301. Ms. Cohan expects it to provide an economic boost to Middletown, and it should reduce congestion in the town.

Asked about the most notable Kent County project, Ms. Cohan pointed to the long-awaited Camden Bypass, which will widen U.S. 13 at the Puncheon Run and divert traffic from Camden’s main throughway. Construction isn’t set to begin for several years, but the project is the top-rated one in Kent per DelDOT’s criteria.

Traffic heads northbound past overpass construction in Little Heaven. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

The agency plans to launch 16 new all-electric buses in the spring, and it is hopeful lawmakers will approve a new economic development fund. Proposed by Gov. Carney — on the advice of DelDOT planners, Ms. Cohan noted — the Transportation Infrastructure Investment Fund would enable DelDOT to better respond to business needs.

In the event a company is considering moving to Delaware but wants to see infrastructure improvements first, be it a new access road or repaving, DelDOT can use money from the fund to get to work on projects that otherwise might not go under construction for several years.

“The target for that is economic development projects that would be very attractive but would require transportation upgrades that aren’t in the capital program,” Gov. Carney said.

Although some caution each project should be judged on its merits, lawmakers are generally supportive of spending money on infrastructure. Such projects benefit Delawareans in many ways, officials say, boosting economic development, improving public safety and making transit easier.

Construction workers on top of the overpass in Little Heaven. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

That kind of spending also avoids building recurring expenses into the operating budget, one of Gov. Carney’s main priorities.

“It’s bringing the citizens new services through an actual product that they can touch, feel and enjoy,” Rep. Quinn Johnson, a Middletown Democrat who co-chairs the budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, said.

In addition to the money allocated to it by Washington as part of a formula, Delaware is aggressive in pursuing federal grants, Ms. Cohan said.

And all that spending, she believes, pays off in a big way.

“Go ride roads in other states and then tell me what you think,” she with a laugh when asked how Delaware’s roadways stack up against its neighbors’.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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