By Dan Linehan
Special to Delaware Business Times
How we’ll roll: Trains, Planes and Driverless Cars
Transportation planners and experts are careful about predicting how Delawareans will get around in 30 years, but they’re more certain about how they won’t. Many argue that building more roads, highways and parking lots is a trend in need of reversal.
“Building new roads is not where the country is,” said Jennifer Cohan, secretary of the Delaware Department of Transportation. “We are not building our way out of traffic congestion.”
“If everyone continues to drive their own car, we’ll have problems,” said Bill Swiatek, a principal planner at the Wilmington Area Planning Council, or WILMAPCO, a planning group that coordinates transportation spending. “We have to convince people that roads are finite resources.”
But the gulf between what planners say the state needs and what residents want is wider than ever.
Instead of choosing transit-accessible Wilmington, about half of household growth until 2040 will take place in suburbs along the I-95 corridor, WILMAPCO predicts.
As a result, WILMAPCO projects that 61 percent of transportation spending on new projects in New Castle County over the next two decades will go to eight major roadways south of U.S. 40.
Non-road projects, such as the extension of commuter rail in Maryland from Perryville to Elkton, and major work on a trail linking Wilmington to New Castle, are in the works as well, but most funding will continue to pay for road improvements and construction.
Meanwhile, transit ridership is declining. Delawareans are buying more cars than ever, and Census data shows that more people are choosing to drive alone. Even carpooling has seen major declines since the 1980s.
Whether and how Delaware can reverse this cycle of sprawl and infrastructure spending will be a central question for its business community. Though businesses tend to be agnostic on the question of how people get around, ensuring access to workers, goods and markets is essential, said Kurt Foreman, executive director of the Delaware Prosperity Partnership.
Major questions remain on how to pay for it all. Delaware’s trust fund is projected to grow at an annualized rate of 1.4 percent through 2023. If people buy fewer high-mileage cars, the state will stumble toward a crisis. Another approach, paying by the mile, is unpopular for now but seeing a concerted push from policy experts.
Here is a look at some of the transportation projects and trends coming to Delaware and what they could mean for the state in the years, and even decades, to come.
Infill and redevelopment
As a home to one of the first north-south roads through the Thirteen Colonies, and Native American trails before that, Claymont has long been tied to its infrastructure, said Brett Saddler, a resident who leads a public-private nonprofit called the Claymont Renaissance Development Corp.
Today, that means a connection to mass transit, but the current rail station is “nothing more than a glorified bus shelter,” Saddler said.
In 2013, the closure of Claymont Steel hit the community hard, but the 425-acre site presented an opportunity. A new station is slated to open by the end of 2020. The station serves about 1,200 weekday commuters.
Nearby businesses stand to benefit, too.
“Tri-State Mall is licking their chops,” he said.
What’s happening in Claymont is a good example of what planners call “infill” development, which targets vacant or under-used land within existing communities. It takes advantage of existing infrastructure and avoids sprawl, but it’s often more expensive than building on a blank slate.
In other words, it’s an uphill battle. While greenfield development happens naturally in some places, infill often requires government help.
“I have no doubt that if we and the community did not lobby for the investment, we wouldn’t be looking at what’s potentially going to happen there now,” Saddler said.
Road diets and bottom-up outreach
On DelDOT’s long-range planning website, called “Innovation in Motion,” the department compares two roads: A typical four-lane city street and the road of the future, a two-lane road with dedicated bus and bicycling lanes. Owner-occupied cars are still on the stage of these future roads, but they’re moved to a supporting role.
For an example of how these transformations, often called “road diets,” look, consider Newark’s experience with Cleveland Avenue, a busy four-lane road lined with car dealerships.
A 2001 attempt to put Cleveland on a diet went nowhere, as businesses along the 1.1-mile project route objected to slimming the road to two lanes. So the plan was put on the shelf.
Then it was dusted off in 2015, when the city and state, spurred by accident data showing that Cleveland was a particularly dangerous stretch of road, took another shot at the project. This time, they recruited businesses and other interests in the area to a task force, allowing them to join the process.
During one site visit, Acting City Manager Tom Coleman remembers watching families push strollers across four lanes of traffic.
“I thought, ‘If we don’t do something, someone’s going to get killed out here,’” he said.
After this summer’s project, Cleveland Avenue will be two lanes in each direction, with a center turn lane where needed. There are also bike lanes in each direction and pedestrian “refuge islands” in the middle to make it easier to cross on foot.
Road diets will likely be a bigger part of Delaware’s transportation network over the coming decades, according to Coleman. His advice is to engage a wide mix of interests early on.
“I think you’re going to have trouble with a top-down approach to implementing these just because [removing driving lanes] can be so counterintuitive,” he said.
Making transit ‘sexy’
An estimated 17 percent of people in the area depend on transit, but many view it with skepticism, said Dave Gula, a principal planner at WILMAPCO.
But if the future is going to become more transit-oriented, planners say bus travel will have to appeal to people who don’t have to take it.
“What you’re seeing us focus on now is trying to make transit sexy,” said Cohan, the DelDOT leader. That means adding amenities like free wireless internet and phone-charging stations.
Delaware bus riders can now track the location of their bus in real-time and pay via mobile app for summer beach buses. Adults older than 65 were the top downloaders for the beach bus app, Cohan said.
Allowing older adults to remain independent even if they can’t drive — along with young people who prefer not to — is an important part of transit’s role, said Heather Dunigan, also a principal planner at WILMAPCO.
But the viability of transit is limited by sprawl; the farther buses have to travel, the longer routes become, and the more transfers are necessary.
“The disconnect between land-use planning and transportation infrastructure has been part of the uphill battle,” Cohan said. “Of course, more development is great, but if transportation infrastructure doesn’t keep pace, you end up with a situation like you see at the beach.”
In 1920, three out of every four New Castle County residents lived in Wilmington. Today, about one in eight do. As the car made it possible to live farther afield, infrastructure spending struggled to catch up.
“A lot of New Castle County was built in a way that will never pay for itself,” Coleman said. Expanding roads simply leads to more demand for housing, more drivers and eventually more demand for roads.
A 2014 WILMAPCO survey found that 71 percent of respondents thought development should occur in existing towns and growth areas, while only 29 percent thought it should happen where developers choose.
But restrictions on property rights are a tough sell in America. Foreman noted that the term “sprawl” has negative connotations that presuppose “there’s something wrong with people developing their land where they’d like to.”
That said, Foreman said the transition toward denser spaces won’t need to be led by regulators. Instead, as people demand different places, developers will respond.
“They’re thinking about the quality of place now, and what value proposition that a resident of their community gets, whether it’s a riverfront or a ballpark or a walking trail,” he said.
A self-driven future
Generally, experts talk about self-driving or autonomous vehicles on a continuum, with Level 0 being entirely driver-controlled and Level 5 being entirely automated, with no steering wheel, pedals or breaks. Vehicles from Levels 1 through 4 have varying levels of automation, but a driver needs to take the wheel in certain situations.
Level 2 vehicles, which can brake, steer and accelerate on their own but need a driver, are already on the road. How long before we see a Level 5 vehicle — and the full promise of driverless vehicles — is not yet clear, said Ken Grant, public and government affairs manager for AAA Mid-Atlantic.
“I think it’s coming faster than most people would expect,” he said. “Does that mean next year? No. Within 10 years? Maybe. Within 20 years? Probably.”
Imagine a car that is competent enough to drive itself, but still needs a human driver to step in every once in awhile. Expecting drivers to react quickly, especially when a car can drive itself most of the time, may be too much to expect.
“That’s kind of dicey,” Grant said of these Level 3 and 4 vehicles. “That’s one area of transition that’s going to be tricky.”
For this reason, some automakers, including Ford, have said they intend to skip over this level.
Technology, though, tends to change more quickly than behavior. It’s one thing to pick up an iPhone and another to change how you get to work every day. Even when self-driving cars are common, will ride-sharing follow suit?
DelDOT has asked the University of Delaware to investigate the state’s readiness for autonomous vehicles. The university’s April 2017 report is largely positive, suggesting the state already has an extensive telecom network and is planning new efforts to prepare the state for driverless vehicles.
Still, long-distance commutes are likely to increase, triggering more sprawl and environmental degradation, said Philip Barnes, a co-author of the report and an associate policy scientist in UD’s Institute for Public Administration.
“The real, real question here is how’re we going to pay for all this,” he said. “This is not going to be cheap.”
Paying by the mile
As drivers move to more fuel-efficient vehicles, hybrids and electrics, they save gas money but cut down on the Delaware’s 23-cents-a-gallon gas tax.
Delaware is one of many states part of a “huge policy discussion around implementation of mileage-based user fee,” said Barnes of UD.
Grant, with AAA, is a part of DelDOT’s trial run to charge residents based on how many miles they drive instead of how much gas they use. At the end of the month, the device tells him how many miles in each state he drove and receives an informational “bill” (the pilot is not actually collecting money) that deducts the gas taxes he paid.
“It doesn’t say exactly how many trips I’ve taken to Dunkin Donuts, which I’m glad of because my wife doesn’t get to see that,”Grant said, joking.
A 2018 WILMAPCO survey found that 74 percent of residents of Cecil and New Castle counties did not support paying by the mile.
Cohan said there are two major misunderstandings about a mileage-based fee. First, people think their location is being tracked in real time, though the state merely collects information once a month. Second, people think the tax will be in addition to the gas tax, rather than instead of it.
Robert Perkins, a Wilmington business executive who leads the Delaware Business Roundtable, said it’s too early to tell whether the mileage-based tax is the right answer.
“I think most people believe the gas tax is an equitable way to fund transportation, but it’s very wise for the state to look at other ways to pay for infrastructure needs,” he said.
Barnes thinks most people will support a mileage-based fee if it’s explained clearly to them, but there is always a Plan B.
“When our potholes don’t get filled, when bridges crumble,” he said, people will take notice.
That said, predictions about new taxes or automated vehicles should be taken with skepticism, Barnes said.
“It’s crystal ball gazing and anyone who says they know for certain is not being honest with themselves.”
Regardless of whether drivers can be persuaded to adopt new ways of getting around, Foreman, the business leader, said there will be opportunities.
“What I like about Delaware is that we’re small enough that I don’t think the solutions will daunt us,” he said. “Our small scale gives us connectedness and an ability to dialogue that bodes well for our future.”