State looks to infrastructure for economic boost

Traffic moves by construction of the South Frederica Interchange on Del. 1, a $20 million project that will improve access to the highway. Photo by Eric Crossan

By Jon Hurdle
Special to Delaware Business Times

On a gray November day in Kent County, backhoes and pickup trucks tended a freshly
graded embankment adjoining new concrete bridge supports that sprouted bare lengths of rebar.

Temporary wooden fences separated the site from the speeding traffic of Del. 1 a few yards away, while hard-hatted workers prepared to build a new bridge over Delaware’s main north-south highway.

It was the latest work on the new South Frederica Interchange, a $20 million project that is among a series of major infrastructure works designed to improve road safety, ease traffic flow and facilitate economic growth around the state.

The project, due for completion in summer 2018, is one of a number along Del. 1 — costing a total of $100 million — that will allow drivers to leave and enter the highway by using ramps connected to new bridges, avoiding the potentially dangerous maneuver of crossing a line of traffic at crossovers.

The need for a so-called grade-separated interchange is especially acute at South Frederica because the east side of the highway is home to DE Turf, a new sports complex that attracts youth teams from all over the country, and on tournament weekends draws in some 1,500 vehicles over a three-hour period.

The prospect of easier access to the site helps to explain why there’s interest from businesses including McDonald’s in building new facilities there, showing how new infrastructure can promote economic growth, said Jennifer Cohan, secretary of the Delaware Department of Transportation, during a visit to the site.

The improvements were among four major infrastructure projects that were toured by Cohan and Gov. John Carney in early November to highlight Delaware’s efforts to upgrade its road network and create better conditions for residents and businesses.

“These projects are about jobs and economic growth,” Carney said during the stop at South Frederica. “This is part of that — building the infrastructure that we need to grow.”

The tour stops included a transit center at Lewes in a state-funded $9 million project that will encourage drivers to leave their cars at a park-and-ride on the edge of town, and take public transit instead.

At the Biddle’s Corner Toll Plaza on Del. 1 near Middletown, Carney and other officials inspected the work to create an interchange with the new U.S. 301, a 13.4-mile highway that will run to the Maryland line. At a cost of $412 million, and with the creation of some 3,700 construction jobs, 301 is the state’s biggest current infrastructure project. Half of the construction cost is coming from a federal government loan, and half from a state bond sale.

When it’s completed at the end of 2018, the new road will ease congestion in Middletown, improving conditions for residents and businesses alike, Cohan said.

“Trucking companies don’t want to be stuck in downtown Middletown because time is money for them, and we don’t want their exhaust in our air,” she said. “They are as excited about opening this road as the local people are.”

Since 90 percent of the new highway is being built across farmland and open space, the construction is minimizing disruption to drivers, Cohan said.

But that won’t necessarily be the case in Sussex County for users of U.S. 113, which is poised to begin a massive multi-year upgrade to ease traffic flow and improve safety along 35 miles of the corridor by eliminating traffic lights and crossovers at 17 locations at a projected cost of $544 million.

Delays caused by construction are inevitable, and some drivers will complain, but the disruption will be worthwhile because road conditions will end up much improved, said State Rep. Dave Wilson, a Republican, at an unveiling of the 113 project at a DelDOT office in Georgetown.

“There will be some pain,” Wilson said. “I will have some constituents crying because of the construction.”

But Wilson argued that the work will help traffic flow and encourage businesses which he said have been wary of setting up along the U.S. 113 corridor because of chronic traffic congestion.

“A lot of them question whether they want to do business here because they know what’s happened over the last 10-15 years,” he said. “They want to know: ‘What is going to be the impact on my business if I locate here?’”

The projects on Del. 1 and U.S. 113 are 80 percent funded by the federal government, with the remainder in state matching funds.

State Rep. Ruth Briggs King, a Republican, also welcomed the 113 project, saying it will stay close to the existing route, and help businesses that have already set up in the corridor.

For example, she said the upgrade will improve the traffic flow at the intersection of 113 with
Del. 18 and Md. 404 in Georgetown where several businesses have set up in recent years, creating what is already a very busy intersection.

The first upgrade, a grade-separated interchange, will be done at U.S. 113 and Del. 16 at Ellendale, followed by another at the intersection with U.S. 404 in Georgetown. A public meeting on both projects will be held by the end of the year.

Some of the projects spent years in the planning stages and are finally coming to fruition, Gov. Carney said. “If you live long enough and you serve long enough, you actually get to see some of these projects get finished,” he said.

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