WILMINGTON – Inside a nondescript office building in the countryside outside of Smyrna, employees of the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) sit huddled in a spacious, darkened room filled with blinking TV monitors, watching remotely ...
[caption id="attachment_210864" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Northbound traffic on Interstate 95 has been diverted onto the historically southbound lanes during the first portion of the Restore the Corridor project through Wilmington. | DBT PHOTO BY SCOTT SERIO[/caption]
WILMINGTON – Inside a nondescript office building in the countryside outside of Smyrna, employees of the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) sit huddled in a spacious, darkened room filled with blinking TV monitors, watching remotely as the morning rush hour unfolds on the screens in front of them along a 3-mile stretch of Interstate 95 that snakes through the heart of Wilmington, 40 miles to the north. It is late March, a few weeks after the launch of the $200-million, two-year “Restore the Corridor” rehabilitation project following seven years of planning and hundreds of internal DelDOT meetings and community forums.This morning, north and south traffic, crammed into what had been southbound-only lanes, is running relatively smoothly, with only minor backup as northbound traffic approaches the Riverfront exit. Yet, while the DelDOT crew is breathing easier today, they report that many mornings in the past month its Smyrna traffic monitors have been awash in acute driver malfunctions, regardless of DelDOT’s best efforts.On those days, commuters who failed to explore alternate routes curse the fates while rehearsing excuses for being late for their 9:15 meeting or missing the 8:47 Amtrak to New York. Drivers who have patiently remained in the clogged through lane do battle with deplorables trying to cut back in from the exit-only lane. Triple-taskers, checking apps and messages while texting family members, discover with a jolt they have rear-ended the SUV in front of them. And husbands and wives on vacation from other states bicker because one of them chose to ignore the signs routing them around the chaos via I-495.When that occurs, Smyrna tries to quickly clear up traffic by prescribing alternate routes, contacting emergency services and alerting drivers through electronic highway signs, special apps and social networks.
[caption id="attachment_210863" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] The Delaware Department of Transportation monitors the Restore the Corridor work from its Smyrna headquarters using a system of cameras and sensors. | DBT PHOTO BY ROGER MORRIS[/caption]
“We can make changes here in real time,” said Donald Weber, who, as DelDOT’s chief of traffic operations and management, oversees this nerve center which monitors statewide traffic, though concentrating for the duration on I-95 in Wilmington via a system of stationary and vehicle-mounted cameras, Bluetooth monitors, microwave detectors and other paraphernalia that feed a mountain of information into this traffic center. Plus, in preparation for re-routing, all 219 traffic signals in Wilmington were outfitted before construction and are remotely controlled and adjusted for timing from Smyrna.Some measures to alleviate traffic problems, such as changing highway message boards, can be programmed automatically, while others are adjusted by Weber and his crew, which is on the job 24/7. A month into the two-year project, the main problem encountered is one that DelDOT can’t control: aggressive and inattentive drivers.“We had about 50 accidents in the corridor during the first month,” Weber reported, noting almost all major traffic tie-ups have been a result of accidents.However, separate DelDOT work at interchanges west of the construction area, especially at Route 141, is causing additional delays. Then, too, there are what DelDOT workers refer to as “Joe Jams” – those times when traffic is halted as President Joe Biden’s motorcade travels between Air Force One at Wilmington Airport and his home away from the White House on Barley Mill Road. There have also been residential noise complaints about demolition work at the Riverfront interchange. While most noisy activity is scheduled for daytime work, Amtrak insists that construction work above its tracks take place at night when fewer trains are passing through.Any major highway construction project of this size and duration has two facets – first, engineering and construction and, second, the planning that goes into minimizing the disruption it causes the community. Will commutes become a nightmare? How will alternate routing work? Will neighborhoods along the route be bombarded with excessive noise and dirt? Can businesses still be easily accessed? Will it be an economic loss or gain?
Just Drive, No Excuses
DelDOT was determined drivers couldn’t use the excuses, “No one told us” or “Why can’t I get updated on what’s happening?” once the project was underway. On Jan. 28, two weeks before the Restore the Corridor prep work was to begin on Feb. 12 (actual construction started March 1), DelDOT held a virtual public meeting via Webex, widely publicized in advance in the media.One month later, on Feb. 24, DelDOT bridge design engineer Craig Stevens (“the Bridge Guy”) opened a second Webex meeting with a touch of humor, saying the show would be recorded and posted on the project website,restorethecorridor.com, “like old M*A*S*H* reruns.” Remotely scattered in other locations, other DelDOT personnel and employees of consulting design firm Whitman, Requardt & Associates and general contractor Kiewit talked and answered questions. To begin, project work had gotten off to a slow start because, in the 12 days since it began, there had been an ice storm, two moderate snowstorms and a heavy rain – not ideal weather for construction or traffic.Stevens explained that Restore the Corridor is essentially a long-needed rehab project for a 50-year-old highway, and that no new lanes, exits or bells and whistles were being added.Having the “bridge guy” on hand made sense because this rehabilitation is essentially a bridge project. Along its 3 miles are 19 bridges spanning everything from a river (Christina) and a creek (Brandywine) to marshes, Amtrak lines and basketball courts (3rd Street). The idea to handle commuting traffic was simple. Instead of people entering the city in its middle via I-95, they would instead be encouraged to enter from the edges – routes 4, 13, 48, 52 and 202. Through traffic would be directed to use I-495 while within the city pre-construction work had been finished on access lanes and streets adjacent to the corridor. If all went well, the project would be completed by mid-2023. One engineer noted that the work being done during these two years “can improve the service life of the corridor for another 30 years.” Mark your calendar for a 2053 repeat.Throughout the Webex meeting – like fundraising campaigns for public TV – the narrative was interrupted by messages for listeners to frequently check the website for updates, to download the app and to pay attention to news on social media.
Two Bridges, One Project
[caption id="attachment_210857" align="alignleft" width="266"] Jason Hasting[/caption]
“I’m still involved, but the construction manager has pretty much taken over,” said Jason Hastings via a Webex call on a warmish early March afternoon a week into the I-95 restoration. Hastings, who as DelDOT’s chief of bridges and structures, has for the past seven years shepherded the project from “need to do” to “now under construction,” transmits that relaxed look of a grad student whose time-consuming thesis has just been approved by the faculty committee.“In 2014, we identified two I-95 bridge projects that we knew had to be done – the Brandywine River Bridge and the viaduct [the long stretch of elevated highway after the I-495 split] – both big projects,” Hastings said. “If we did them back to back, it would take four years of construction. So we made the decision to do them both at the same time.”It was in August 1968 that the section of I-95 now being rehabilitated was completed through Wilmington to Route 202 – a controversial in-town route dividing the city’s northwestern neighborhoods from downtown – and 50 years is a long time in highway age, especially bridges. As Hastings saw it, the public would understand the rehab even as they grumbled about it. “We decided not to do anything to change the footprint,” he said. “It was maintenance, and people understand the need for that. They have to maintain their houses and their cars without anything being improved.”Beginning in the summer of 2018, regularly scheduled meetings were held with members of a community advisory group to hear concerns, involve them in contingency planning and ultimately get them to back the project. “They wanted to be sure we weren’t giving out the message that ‘Wilmington is closed,’ especially the Riverfront,” Hastings said.So intensive planning began, and design consultants and construction firms were asked to submit bids. The primary contract was awarded to Kiewit, a huge builder of highways and airports globally, whose headquarters is in Omaha, Neb. In spite of detailed planning, Hastings said the work was “relatively routine engineering.” Federal funding covered 80% of the planning stage, he said, but the bulk of the construction is being borne by Delaware through Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles (GARVEEs) that allow states to pay debt service and other bond-related expenses with future federal highway funds. Conveniently, there was space available for the construction work center on the third floor of DART Transit headquarters off Lower Beech Street, adjacent to where railroad tracks pass under the highway at the Riverfront exit on their way to Joseph R. Biden Amtrak Stations. “That saved us $1.5 million,” Hastings said.When the massive DelDOT Route 301 Middletown bypass project (14 miles, $636 million) was opened to toll traffic in January 2019, Hastings’ – and DelDOT’s – attention “pivoted’' to the Restore the Corridor project.
Voices along the Corridor
[caption id="attachment_210860" align="alignright" width="213"] Sharon Kurfuerst[/caption]
As Delaware’s largest private employer (more than 12,000 people) and chief purveyor of both routine and emergency medical services, perhaps no institution has a greater stake in the I-95 rework than does ChristianaCare. The highway is a primary pathway for its employees to get to work, patients to arrive at its three hospitals and emergency vehicles to transport those in need of urgent care. “We’ve focused on timing – letting patients and employees know by internal messaging and social media to start early and expect delays,” said Sharon Kurfuerst, chief operating officer for the health care system. “We’ve put an ambulance at Wilmington Hospital and now have a standby helicopter ready.” Contingency plans with emergency responders have been worked out. Additionally, DelDOT prepared helicopter landing sites around the city in case of a major emergency not related to its work.In addition to DelDOT, the city of Wilmington “spent millions of dollars to repave streets” for traffic diversion, said John Rago, deputy chief of staff to Mayor Purzycki.
[caption id="attachment_210858" align="alignleft" width="223"] Megan McGlinchey[/caption]
“Most city streets look pretty good today as a result and are ready for increased travel,” Rago said.Megan McGlinchey, executive director of the Riverfront Development Corporation, said she was initially concerned that the exit ramp to the area would be closed and that alternate routes would not be clearly marked, but “they heard our concerns and responded well.” James Spadola, president of the Delaware Avenue Community Association, also gives DelDOT high marks for addressing the group’s traffic concerns.
[caption id="attachment_210865" align="alignright" width="221"] Ken Grant[/caption]
Ken Grant, public and government affairs manager for Mid-Atlantic AAA, has spent hours communicating how to navigate the region to members locally, regionally and nationally as well as those accessing the agency’s services and retail store at One River Place. Most Wilmington businesses still have most employees working remotely. “We haven’t yet defined a timeline for when some employees will begin returning to our offices, but it will not be until sometime after June 1,” said Thom Sueta, director of corporate communications for Chemours, which is headquartered in the city’s downtown. “When that return is planned, we will communicate more proactively with them.”There are no tourist-centric, fast-food restaurants along the affected stretch of I-95, and places of lodging in the area have not reported a decline in traffic. “A silver lining is that the project is bringing an influx of project workers interested in exploring the downtown area,” said Greg Kavanagh, managing director of Hotel Du Pont. Similarly, Christiane Kwansa, sales manager for Homewood Suites at the Riverfront, has seen no decline in business.
The Talk of Lower Beech Street
Whoever designed the headquarters for DART, a DelDOT subsidiary, at 113 Lower Beech St., probably did not win awards for bright and cheery workspaces. The third floor hallways, where the I-95 project has its operations center, are institutionally dark and narrow. Yet the walls are convenient places to tape up yards-long project schematics, giving all engineers easy access. Most importantly, it is located in the middle of the project area, and all the design and construction staff are located together for easier conferring.
[caption id="attachment_210862" align="alignright" width="259"] Donnie Arant[/caption]
On the day after Easter, a sunny spring morning, Donnie Arant is being driven on an inspection tour over the rough surfaces of the construction zone, his head bobbing up and down and his eyes masked by large sunglasses, as he is being interviewed on Teams. Arant is manager, or in Kiewit terms, “sponsor,” of the project and lives nearby in Columbia, Md. And while Kiewit’s main office is in Omaha, its regional headquarters is just west of the Baltimore-Washington International Airport.“Actually, some of my supervisors live up this way,” he said, while others have bought or rented houses locally for the duration. Although Kiewit was the big economic winner when the contract was awarded in November 2019, the project is also a boon to the local economy. “We have hired some local supervisors, and we employ about 100 people in the craft trades – all of them union jobs, with most of the workers from Delaware and Pennsylvania.” Additionally, a large number of subcontracts are being made to local companies – a DelDOT requirement – with 11% of them DBE, or disadvantaged business enterprise, contracts for minority- and women-owned businesses.As it turns out, Kiewit and Arant are no strangers to the state. “We did the construction work on State Route 1 in Rehoboth,” Arrant said, adding proudly, “We were the only bidder that could do the two bridges in one season.” And, although the Restore the Corridor project only started in March, Kiewit has been working on its planning since it was awarded the contract a year earlier.
The Road Forward
As the Covid pandemic lessens – as it appears to be doing – and as the project extends over the next two years, traffic will get thicker as more employees return to office buildings, and driver patience will get thinner. There are phases 1B, 2A, 2B and 2C yet to come. “Our intention is not to overload people with details at the moment,” DelDOT spokesman C.R. McLeod said. “Our plan is to explain as we go along.” Additionally, once normal traffic is restored, there will be additional cleanup and cosmetic work under the bridges.As with many things, the project’s timing proved to be a silver lining in the dark cloud of COVID-19. “Seventy-five percent of I-95 traffic through Wilmington is local,” Hastings said, “and traffic was already off 10-15% before the project started.” Traffic on Route 141 between Route 202 and the Newport interchange has increased significantly since the construction work began, DelDOT reported, causing some backups as motorists are using it as a near-in bypass.Those who have lived through similar road construction projects urge patience and common sense. “We call it the Middletown Autobahn,” said Roxane Ferguson, executive director of the Middletown Area Chamber of Commerce referring to the U.S. 301 bypass, “and all in all its construction was a minor inconvenience. Our businesses weren’t seriously affected, although we do get some complaints from Maryland shoppers who have to pay a toll on 301.” Perhaps the most constructive advice comes from Sasha Aber, whose Home Grown Café recently experienced a similar two-year tear-up along Main Street in Newark. “The traffic wasn’t that bad, and there were plenty of places to park,” Aber said. “What was really bad was the media saying how terrible everything was and scaring customers away.”