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Solution to congested highway might be up in the air

By Joe Rogalsky
Delaware News Journal

DOVER - Searching for ways to unclog the traffic snarls that plague Downstate beach areas during the vacation season, lawmakers said Monday that building an elevated bypass above Del. 1 may be the best option.

Members of the legislative Bond Bill Committee, which authorizes state spending on construction projects, expressed concern that few options existed to find a long-term solution to the traffic issues, especially near Rehoboth Beach and Lewes.

"In my mind, there is only one thing we can do, and that is overhead passes," said Sen. Robert L. Venables, D-Laurel, the committee's co-chairman.

"It could cost $30 million a mile, but that might be cheaper than buying real estate. There is no other answer that I can see."

The Bond Bill Committee met Monday to discuss the Department of Transportation's fiscal 2005 spending plans. Fiscal 2005 starts July 1.

Sen. F. Gary Simpson, R-Milford, who represents Rehoboth Beach and Lewes, said a large-scale project needs to be completed for the traffic problems along Del. 1 to be substantially improved.

Southeastern Sussex County's population has boomed in recent years, putting strain on the road system, especially Del. 1. During the vacation season, when tourists flock to the beaches, the highway can closely resemble a parking lot on weekends and holidays.

Sen. Simpson said traffic studies show 30 to 40 percent of the traffic going through Del. 1 in Rehoboth Beach is heading to points south, such as Bethany Beach, Fenwick Island and Ocean City, Md.

"We have to do something so those drivers do not clog up Rehoboth and Lewes," he said.

He said one possibility would be to build a second bridge over the Indian River near Millsboro, so motorists going south of Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach could bypass the Rehoboth-Lewes area.

"They would take that because going that way would save 25 to 40 minutes," Sen. Simpson said.

However, the senator said, building a second bridge would require significant environmental impact studies and high land-acquisition costs. It also would use up open space.

An elevated bypass over Del. 1 in Rehoboth Beach, Sen. Simpson said, poses none of these problems because the state already owns the highway.

"We have do something to give us additional capacity," he said.

"Building something above Del. 1 may be the best way to go."

State Secretary of Transportation Nathan Hayward III said expanding the highway in Rehoboth Beach is not possible because businesses and parking lots are built right up to the road.

A hot real estate market spurred the growth in the beach areas, but it has driven land prices so high that building more roads to handle the traffic is difficult.

"Dirt in Sussex County is so expensive now that we have discovered that the real estate we would have to acquire costs the state more than the asphalt and concrete, even for small turning lanes," Mr. Hayward said.

DelDOT does not have a long-term plan for how to fix the Del. 1 traffic problems, Mr. Hayward said, though it recognizes something needs to be done.

"I am as befuddled as anybody," he said.

"My problem with major new arteries is that they require a great deal of land - land that is environmentally precious to us. I hate the idea of taking what little is left of open space and turning it into a highway."

Mr. Hayward said an elevated highway is possible from an engineering standpoint, but would provide poor aesthetics.
"If it is likely the only answer and it is financially feasible, we should look at it," he said.

While lawmakers and transportation officials seek a long-term answer to the beach-area traffic woes, a task force created by the General Assembly has recommended several small projects to help vacationers reach their resort.

Carol Ann Wicks, DelDOT's chief engineer, said the improvements are designed to ease congestion at various "pinch points" along Del. 1 in Rehoboth Beach.

Upgrades include adding a second left-hand turn lane for motorists going from Del. 1 to Del. 1A entering Rehoboth Beach and repairing the stretch of Del. 1 between Rehoboth Beach and Dewey Beach.

To prevent traffic congestion when cars waiting for traffic lights block intersections, Ms. Wicks said DelDOT has posted signs along Del. 1 reminding drivers not to block intersections.

Police on motorcycles will patrol Del. 1 and ticket violators who block intersections, she said.

In some situations, Ms. Wicks said, motorists cannot cross Del. 1 because vehicles are stopped in the middle of an intersection at a red light.

The task force looked at more than road construction, Ms. Wicks said. The panel is working with the local chamber of commerce about convincing landlords to alter their rental policies to stagger the flow of vacationers in and out of the beach areas.

DelDOT's plans to start construction of a new 1,000-foot bridge over the Indian River Inlet remain on schedule, Mr. Hayward said.

A Canadian university recently tested a model of the bridge in its wind tunnel. The model withstood wind speeds as high as 231 mph, which Mr. Hayward said is the world record for the fastest wind speed. He said the record was set in 1934 on Mount Washington in Crawford Notch, N.H.

"I wanted to know if the new bridge could withstand the highest wind speed ever recorded," he said.

"The laboratory in Canada was able to determine conclusively that this is a structure that will be secure."

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