Senator Bikeway causing issues for Dover funeral home

Bennie and Shirley Smith stand on the bike path in front of their business in Dover. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — The newly constructed portion of the Senator Bikeway multi-use path that runs in front of the Bennie Smith Funeral Home at 717 W. Division St. is designed to be as safe as it can be for cyclists to use.

However, for Mr. Smith and his staff, it has turned into a full-blown nightmare.

Maneuverability by traffic in that area has been reduced since the northern shoulder of Division Street now contains the Senator Bikeway, with delineators sticking up from the roadway that divide the bicyclists from the vehicular traffic on the street.

It is not the way Mr. Smith and his wife, Shirley, co-owners of the Bennie Smith Funeral Home, envisioned it when they originally signed off on the project with the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) and Century Engineering a while back.

“We agreed for the bike path to be there,” said Mr. Smith, who has had his funeral home at its current location for more than 30 years. “We didn’t have a problem with that, even though they didn’t exactly say they were going to have it the way they have it.

“The problem I have is that they never mentioned at all that they were going to put these sticks (delineators) up. They never mentioned that the (businesses’) limousine and the family car couldn’t be parked in front of the building for services. These things were never mentioned.”

He added, “We agreed that we didn’t have a problem with the bike path, but they didn’t say that was going to affect our business when they put it there. But they knew that was going to be a problem for our funeral home.”

Charles (C.R.) McLeod, director of communications for DelDOT, said that Dover City Council approved the Senator Bikeway blueprint and there is nothing in the works that is planned to change or reverse the construction.

He said that DelDOT staff and members of Century Engineering did their due diligence in alerting neighboring businesses and residences about the bike trail.

“This project was brought to us by the city of Dover, as it is part of the Senator Bikeway, which was the number-one goal listed in the City of Dover Bicycle Plan in 2015. The project was also vetted and approved by city council before being implemented.

“We worked with local businesses before the bike path was installed to address issues and concerns and DelDOT has not received any other complaints about the new path, beyond the issue raised by the funeral home. The Department does not plan to remove the delineators as they are deemed necessary for separating bicyclists from motor vehicle traffic along that corridor.”

Delineator issues come to light

Therein lies the problem for Mr. and Mrs. Smith. They argue that the delineators are unsafe and negatively affect their ability to properly coordinate funeral services because a hearse and a limousine (for family members) have always been allowed to park in front of their business for their services.

“We initially said, ‘OK’ (to the bike trail) and they advised us that they would put a sign up that we could park the hearse and the limo out front for services,” Mrs. Smith said. “We didn’t have any other place to park them because the parking lot (behind the business) is full, so what are you going to do with it? So that was fine.

“But then we went to (city council) the first time and they said we’re going to table (the matter) for 30 days. In about 15 or 16 days they called us back and they decided then that they didn’t want the limo to be parked out there. We can’t park the limo somewhere and have the clients walking around the building to come in.”

As for the delineators, Mrs. Smith said they are ridiculous and dangerous.

“They keep saying this, ‘The delineators out there are for the protection of the bike people,’” she said. “I don’t understand that. You have a block-and-a-half of protection for bike people. You take a left onto West Street in a residential area and there’s another block-and-a-half for protection for the bike people.

“Why are you discriminating against people who use the Route 13 bike path and all of the other bike paths that are all over Dover? You’re discriminating against those bike people. If you say you are protecting the bike people, then why aren’t you protecting them all over Dover and especially on Route 13?”

Chris Asay, a member of the newly formed Dover Bicycle and Pedestrian Advocacy Group, said there are huge distinctions when it comes to the U.S. 13 bike lanes and the Senator Bikeway.

“The bike lanes on (U.S.) 13 are considered by national standards to be a high-stress bike lane because of the high volume of traffic and the high speeds and so on,” he said. “What we’re intending to do with the Senator Bikeway is to create a low-stress bikeway that doesn’t put folks in that kind of position.

“Almost all of the bikeway is on an off-the-road multi-use path and there’s a small section that has the little delineators for about two blocks. A bunch of the bikeway after heading east from there are neighborhood streets that have very low traffic volumes and a 25 mile-per-hour speed limit. The intention is to have this bikeway be safe enough that you’d be willing to let your 12-year-old granddaughter make the trip by herself.”

Searching for a solution

The Smiths said a potential solution to the problem could be to remove the delineators and replace them with reflective mirrors on the roadway. Then they would be able to more easily drive a hearse and family car away from their business and on to the funeral site during a service, without having to maneuver through a small lane of delineators that contains the bike trail.

The issue of the controversial delineators is nothing new.

Bill Hare, city council president, had concerns with the city having to pay for replacing the delineators every time some of them get knocked down back when the bikeway path was being discussed.

City Manager Donna Mitchell said that was part of the deal when city council gave its approval to build the Senator Bikeway.

“The city staff will have to maintain all of them (delineators),” Mrs. Mitchell said. “The project was what was approved by council, so this is part of the project. Since council approved the Senator Bikeway the components that go with that project the city staff will have to maintain. Anything curb-to-curb, we have to maintain.”

Mr. Asay said DelDOT, the city and the funeral home have met to try to come up with a solution but have not yet been able to.

“Construction was just getting underway when the conflict-of-needs came to light,” Mr. Asay said. “Attempts were made to find an easy solution, involving city leaders, TransPros (DelDOT and Century Engineering) and BSFH, but efforts were not successful, as all parties are currently frustrated with the conditions.

“The funeral home is allowed to park vehicles inside the protected bikeway, but the delineators make maneuvering difficult, and also damage vehicles as they pass through. City leaders are sympathetic to these problems, and transportation professionals are unclear about what solution will work.”

Mr. Asay said there are valid concerns on both sides of the issue.

“The frequent blockage of the bikeway frustrates the bicycling community and invalidates the bikeway as a safe passage,” he said. “This is especially true when the blocking vehicle is not the BSFH hearse. City leaders hear these concerns but are unclear about safety needs of bicycle users. A bikeway that is ‘safe’ on 95 percent, but dangerous on 5 percent, is considered 100 percent ‘dangerous.’”

Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen, who is also chairman of the Dover/Kent County Metropolitan Planning Organization, said he believes a middle ground can still be found between the Smiths and the Senator Bikeway.

“I think they need to take those delineators up from the front of Mr. and Mrs. Smith’s funeral parlor,” Mayor Christiansen said. “We leave it striped out and come up with a reasonable means for parking there that would also allow for bicycles to be able to do what they do on the trail.

“We have a thriving business that’s there and we need to take that into consideration. I’m speaking as a member of city government and as chairman of the Dover/Kent County MPO. I support any and all modes of intermodal transportation, but we also have to realize that we need to sit down and there has to be a happy ground for both sides.”

Does design compromise safety?

Safety is the No. 1 issue that continues to resurface regarding the delineators.

Mr. Smith said while they might make the bicyclists feel safer, they also make it more unsafe for city of Dover residents due to a lack of room for first responders to get around traffic in case of an emergency.

Roy Sudler Jr., a Dover City Councilman who represents the city’s 4th District, said changes are in order when it comes to the delineators.

“It needs to be done, ASAP,” he said, of removing them. “The state needs to hold themselves accountable and make the proper adjustments. I don’t think it was logically thought out correctly. If you just look at logistics, if you have a fire apparatus or a police apparatus there’s no area and no way for oncoming traffic to go to the right and it just doesn’t make sense.”

The Smiths said they experienced a problem on Feb. 21 during a funeral service and there wasn’t an officer from the Dover Police Department available to help them direct traffic.

One of the funeral directors elected to take an officer’s place to direct the traffic west onto Division Street and as the vehicles proceeded to pull out, he stopped the traffic headed west in order to allow the funeral procession to proceed.

The funeral director said there was a driver repeatedly blowing his horn as the funeral procession pulled out and then pulled around the two cars stopped in front of him and into the traffic headed east on Division Street. He then pulled back into the westbound lane and nearly hit a car in the procession.

Mr. Smith said that multiple other cars blew their horns and waved their arms out the window gesturing to his director and pointing at the bike lane. He said that is unacceptable.

Mrs. Smith added that traffic tends to be lined up several times during the day at the light at West Division and Loockerman streets.

“They also have to try to make sure that the people that are following in the funeral procession don’t hit those barriers because they could scrape their car,” she said. “You just don’t know.”

Councilman Sudler said a resolution needs to take place considering the Smiths’ longtime distinction of being respected business owners in the city.

“Who puts those traffic dividers in front of a funeral home?” Councilman Sudler said. “It’s an area where the density is not that high in comparison to the highway.

“We look forward to getting this resolved and we expect the state to be aligned with what it necessary. I don’t think it was well thought out, although I think that the (Senator Bikeway) initiative had great meaning and meant well. I think it’s more of a hazard now to everyone than anything.”