By Kim Hoey Stevenson
Special to Delaware Business Times
If the goal of the U.S. 301 bypass project was to simply eliminate truck traffic through downtown Middletown, Mayor Ken Branner would label it a success. He expects the project to be a great deal more.
“It’s really going to be a great thing for Middletown,” said Branner. Yes, it will eliminate much of the truck traffic, but also end a lot of general traffic congestion, and bring some economic development, as well.
“It’s a plus for us,” he said.
“A plus” is the general opinion of most people that will be served by the almost 14-mile, 24-bridge project that would stretch from the Maryland line, southwest of Middletown, to the Roth Bridge at Del. 1.
“The project’s been 50 years in coming, but the last 15 have been pretty exciting,” said Branner, joking about the amount of time it took for the project to get under way. It was more than two decades of controversy on where to build the bypass before this final design was put in place.
The actual building of the project started last January and is expected to last three years, with an opening date set for December 2018. Its cost is budgeted at $470 million.
Once the four-lane super highway running around, instead of through, Middletown opens, the current 301 will revert back to the two-lane rural road it was in the beginning. For residents of Middletown, that hopefully means a significant reduction of truck traffic through town.
Good news for Ryan Scott who lives in Middletown Village, about a mile from the bypass construction area. The current truck route runs in front of his development. There’s no traffic light near the entrance and truck traffic from the nearby Amazon distribution center can be a problem, he said. During the Christmas season, he said it literally took him 30 minutes to get out of his development one day.
“I’m generally in favor of it,” said Scott, who said he and his wife moved to the area because they could see it was growing. Middletown is mostly a commuter town with many of its residents driving between 40 and 90 minutes to jobs in nearby cities in other states. “I wish they’d get finished.”
While Scott doesn’t get a lot of the noise and dust from the project, he knows people who do. This past summer, trucks were moving 20,000 tons of dirt every day, a total of more than 5 million cubic yards of earth to build the raised 160-foot wide roadway. Most of the dusty earth- hauling work is finished, said Ken Cimino, the Delaware Department of Transportation consultant who handles community outreach for the project.
The dirt bed will be topped with stone and finally, concrete. Placement of the actual concrete roadway is expected to begin this coming summer.
The project has meant hundreds of construction jobs with four companies working the seven contracts of the project concurrently. The real economic benefit of the roadway, though, isn’t expected until it opens.
“It’ll be a boon to the economy,” said Brian DiSabatino, president of development and construction EDiS Co. Having the Middletown area tied into fast access for manufacturing supply lines as well as commuting to the major urban centers around it means potential growth in business as well as community.
DiSabatino is co-founder of a new planned community in the Middletown area, Whitehall, designed so people could live and work in the same place. The 301 project was one of the factors in choosing the location. Fees from home sales actually go into a road fund to help pay for projects like the bypass, he said.
The expected boost to the economy is generally predicted to be 1.5 times the cost of construction, in this case about $705 million, said George Sharpley, an economist with the Delaware Department of Labor. That is the standard figure for economic growth in projects like these, he said.
Middletown is ready to capitalize. It built its industrial park with the 301 expansion in mind, said Branner. It’s already seeing fruit. Besides the Amazon fulfillment center already in place, the city recently announced that the Swiss company Datwyler Sealing Solutions chose the Middletown industrial park to build a 275,000-square-foot factory. Ease of shipping on the developing roadway was one of the deciding factors, said Branner.
DelDOT and Middletown have partnered to plan the town’s business growth, and have designated its western district as an area where they think new companies could establish.
Not everyone is convinced that the economic growth will meet the expense. Matthew Lenzini, a Middletown resident, is worried about the roadway costs. Building the road is one thing, but the cost of the upkeep of the road is another, he said. He’s not sure anyone has thought about the upkeep costs, which he thinks could make the bypass a billion-dollar road over time. While he understands that Middletown is growing and traffic is an issue, he questions that the road is being built now. The state is expecting a shortfall of more than $300 million in revenue for the upcoming budget, and the Transportation Trust Fund, a fund that was set up to pay for roadway projects, is practically empty.
“I tend to always look at the economic aspect first,” said Lenzini, a financial analyst.
Other complaints about the project include worries about traffic next to an elementary school and that dust and toxins blown off the new roadway could hurt the development of the children’s lungs there.
“It is obscenely close to the elementary school,” said William Weller, a resident with young children in the district.
Representatives of the department of transportation said all factors pros and cons were reviewed in coming up with the plan they have now. The project is on schedule and on budget, said Cimino. Now that the heavy earth-moving has died down, so have the complaints about dust, dirt and traffic, he said.
“It’s unbelievable how fast it’s going,” said Branner of the project. The road expansion will be good for citizens, good for clearing up congestion, and good for business growth. “We’re looking at the big picture here.”