Federal Highway Funds Provide No Quick Fix in Delaware

Wed August 24, 2005 - Northeast Edition

HARRINGTON, DE (AP) The good news for Delawareans eager for transportation improvements is that the state’s congressional delegation has brought home the bacon.

The bad news is that the state isn’t ready to fry it.

Delaware’s $1-billion share of a new federal transportation bill includes more than $168 million for 27 specific projects championed by Democratic Sens. Thomas Carper and Joseph Biden, and Republican Rep. Michael Castle.

On Aug. 4, as tractor-trailers rumbled and belched through the tiny Kent County town of Harrington, Carper touted his success at wrangling $8.5 million in federal funds for a long-planned project to route the big rigs away from the narrow downtown streets.

“We’ve been waiting for this for 20 years,” said town Councilman Morris Willey.

Local officials said the heavy truck traffic poses a safety risk for motorists and pedestrians and causes damage to the streets and underground infrastructure. More than a few customers of downtown merchants have had their car mirrors clipped by passing trucks, which often have to stray over the center line or bump up onto curbs to navigate the intersection of Clark and Commerce streets.

The noise and congestion is made only worse by the trains that roll through town several times a day, causing major backups of diesel exhaust-spewing rigs.

“It’s just havoc down here,” said local merchant Lisa Brittingham.

But she and other Harrington residents will have to wait a little longer before they see any relief.

Congressional passage of the six-year transportation bill came just weeks after the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT), which must provide a 20 percent state match for federally funded projects, put $287 million worth of work on hold —including the new Harrington truck route — because of budget problems.

“We’re a ways from construction, that’s for sure,” DelDOT Spokesman Darrel Cole said of the Harrington project, which has been on the books for years.

Cole said the DOT welcomes the new federal money and that it eventually will be put to good use, but that it does nothing to solve the agency’s immediate problem, a cash crunch that state lawmakers will have to solve after years of forcing DOT to use fuel tax, fee and toll revenue meant for construction projects to help pay for the agency’s operating expenses.

“We need $280 million right now, right this minute,” Cole said. “That’s why we’re cutting projects.”

Harrington Mayor Gene Price said DelDOT officials told him earlier this year that construction on the new truck route would begin next spring, then sent him a letter approximately two weeks ago saying the project was being put on hold.

Other projects not being funded by the state this fiscal year include improvements to Rehoboth Avenue in Rehoboth Beach and replacement of the Woodland Ferry on the Nanticoke River between Seaford and Laurel, for which Carper secured $6.75 million and $2.5 million, respectively.

Carper said he’s confident that the state will be able to come up with its share of money in the next few years for the Harrington truck route and other projects.

“Help is on the way,” he told Harrington town leaders. “… It’s going to take a couple of years to get this done, but we’ll get it done.”

Under the $286.4 billion, six-year transportation bill, Delaware is to receive more than $965 million in highway funds, a 30 percent increase over current levels, and $70 million in transit funds, a 50 percent increase from the previous authorization.

As a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s transportation subcommittee, Carper played a role in negotiating the final version of the transportation bill. In the process, he was able to secure an additional $63 million for pet projects in Delaware, on top of the $105 million in “earmarks” garnered by the state’s congressional delegation as a whole.

The delegation’s earmarks include $51.2 million to replace the Indian River Inlet bridge and $24.4 million for improvements at the bottlenecked junction of Interstate 95 and State Route 1 south of Wilmington.

In addition to the Harrington, Rehoboth Beach and ferry projects, the additional money Carper earmarked as a member of the conference committee includes $20 million to build a new interchange from I-95 and improve local street and pedestrian access to the Wilmington Riverfront, $6.5 million for renovating the Wilmington train station, $4.8 million for a pedestrian and bicycle trail in Newark, and $1 million for an Energy Exploration Center at Destination Station, a proposed $12-million education center in Rehoboth Beach.

“We were surprised and delighted,” said Carol Everhart, executive director of the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce.

Critics said such earmarks — a record $24 billion for more than 6,300 projects nationwide — are nothing but pork barrel spending.

But Carper defended his work, said “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

“Having a Harrington that is free of truck traffic … that’s a beautiful thing for Harrington,” he said.

The Harrington project involves a variety of road improvements to divert trucks off Highway 14, a major east-west thoroughfare that stretches from the Maryland border to Milford and winds through downtown Harrington.

The plan is to allow the rigs to bypass town by making improvements to Highway 13, a major north-south artery on the east side of town, and Farmington Road, a parallel road on the western side, from which the trucks would be routed via an improved connector road onto Highway 13 to resume their east-west journey.

Juanita Wieczoreck, executive director of the Dover-Kent County Metropolitan Planning Organization, said she was surprised by the amount of money Carper got for the Harrington project, one of the MPO’s highest-priority projects.

“If our congressional delegation can bring us a little more money this way, I’m all for it,” she said.