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Editorial: Transportation drives and connects our economy

Katie Tabeling
Delaware Department of Transportation

The Indian River Bridge, which connects Rehoboth and Bethany beaches along Delaware’s coast, after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. | PHOTO COURTESY OF JAMES PERNOL/DELAWARE DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION

When I drive through my hometown to run errands or drop off my daughter at day care, it seems there’s always a pot hole I have to dodge. And a crack here and there.

It seems small in the grand scheme of my daily life. But these days as I drive around Middletown and arrive at one of the five grocery stores in town or about seven miles to the closest gas station, it has dawned on me how much of Middletown was planned to grow and how there needs to be the infrastructure to support it.

Middletown is one of the biggest success stories when it comes to inexpensive land costs, ample room to build and a favorable political climate to get things done. When I went to college over the border in Maryland, it was a fun day trip to pile in a car with friends and head to the Walmart for essentials and the local Waffle House for some diner food. 

But in the last 14 years, that area of New Castle County has taken off like a rocket. and in no small part to the Transportation Improvement District, a coordinated infrastructure plan that also creates a fee formula to help subsidize the improvement. Westown’s cost is $66.7 million, according to the Delaware Department of Transportation. As a result, Route 71 has now seen apartment complexes and multiple shopping centers extend or be added on to the area.

Infrastructure isn’t exactly glamorous on its own. But when it’s working, it’s driving much of the economy. Take Ocean City, Md. for an extreme example. I worked there early in my career, and it sits on a barrier island, along with Fenwick Island, so there are three roads in and out of it.

During my time with a local paper, I somehow managed to get my hands on a massive spreadsheet for the ongoing road repavement projects in Ocean City. There’s 807 roads in the municipality, leading to neighborhoods for the few year-round residents and condominium complexes, and side streets leading to a few businesses. Roughly a third of the roads in Ocean City were built to accommodate condominiums and neighborhoods in the 1970s and 1980s. That meant those roads were only created with laying two inches of asphalt over dirt or sand, which is what the Public Works Department usually found.

According to the inventory between 2008 and 2017, the Ocean City Public Works department estimated it would cost $26.3 million to improve all those roads. At that point, the city spent $27 million on road improvements, or $2 million per year. Imagine being on vacation on a barrier island, with only three ways in and out, and you’re on the wrong side of a sinkhole that swallows up the main artery.

If that road goes, so does the entire tourist economy for the Maryland resort, which was valued at $263 million per year before the COVID-19 pandemic.

We need reliable infrastructure to efficiently move goods and services across our country. Our roads, train lines and ships connect homes and offices. Without it, our communities would be islands adrift at sea. Our roads and rail lines are how we transport our crops like corn and soybean to feed animals, and most notably, $4.4 billion of chicken per year from companies like Perdue and Mountaire. 

Delaware has been trading new ground with the arrival of Avelo Airlines and more investment in the Sussex Coastal Airport to help bring corporate jets and more intermodal transportation methods. And our roads also leverage our tourism economy to draw thousands of visitors every month in the summer, crowding the streets.

When infrastructure is not working or suddenly crumbles away you definitely notice. And that’s the tragic situation still unfolding in the Baltimore region. It’s immediate impact is already harsh, with six people presumed dead as of March 28 and the wreckage of the steel truss bridge blocking ships to the Port of Baltimore.

But with that 47-year-old bridge closed, it’s still remains to be seen how commuters and tractor trailers will navigate the path to jobs and warehouses. It will take years to replace that bridge.

President Joe Biden’s administration has launched 40,000 projects as part of his $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which he signed into law into 2021. Those projects span more than 4,500 communities in all 50 states and are estimated to take between 3 and 5 years to complete.

In Delaware, it’s estimated that $700 million in federal funding has been allocated to projects like bridge maintenance replacement ($45 million) the Indian River Inlet ($43 million) surface transportation block grants ($58 million) and much more.

It’s slow to roll out, but ideally, it will pay in dividends well beyond the upcoming November election. Our economy is not contained by our borders, and Delaware, and the nation as a whole, need to work to keep up with the maintenance of our vital transportation arteries.

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