Route 54 Project Pushed For Holiday Finish

FENWICK — Embattled Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDot) officials and elected officials this week had their feet held to the fire over the estimated completion date of the prolonged road construction along Route 54 in Fenwick Island, but a projected Memorial Day finish now appears to be a reality.

In excess of 100 concerned and often irate citizens and business owners crammed into Smitty McGee’s in Fenwick on Wednesday morning to grill DelDot officials on the projected end to the Route 54 reconstruction project, which has dragged on for nearly two years. While stopping short of guaranteeing a completely finished project by Memorial Day weekend, DelDot officials essentially promised orange barrels, cones, flaggers and prolonged delays would be out of the area before the holiday.

Frustrated by the prolonged project, several business owners and residents along Route 54 last week started a petition to urge DelDot to finish the job once and for all by Memorial Day. Prior to Wednesday’s public meeting, the petition included over 2,500 signatures.

“We are making good time in terms of getting closer to the finish line,” said DelDot Public Relations Director Geoff Sundstrom. “The project called for completion in July, but we’re trying everything we can for Memorial Day. We recognize the petition and the great attendance in this room. We are all aware of the urgency of getting this project done.”

DelDot Chief Engineer Natalie Barnhart laid out the latest timeline for the project. Currently, the contractor is down to the paving phase, which will be completed in three stages. She said DelDot remains hopeful the third and final paving stage would be completed by Memorial Day weekend.

“We agree it is in everyone’s best interest to get this done by Memorial Day,” said Barnhart. “I can’t guarantee it because everything is so dependent on the weather, but we think we’ll be very close.”

The project is currently in the first phase and could be completed this week. The second phase will start sometime next week and the third layer will go down about two weeks after that, according to Barnhart.

“If you add all that time up, it brings us right up to Memorial Day weekend,” she said.

If DelDot is uncertain the third layer could be completed by the start of Memorial Day weekend, the second layer will be striped and completed with signage and traffic control devices before the holiday weekend and a decision will be made about applying the third later the summer.

“We’ve authorized the contractor to work as much and often as they need to get finished by Memorial Day,” said Barnhart. “We’re pushing very hard and we think we’ll make it. We’ll decide in mid-May if we should try the third layer. We’ll have to decide whether or not to push through and be done and out of here, or wait until after summer to come back and finish the last layer.”

When questioned about the slow pace of the paving process, Barnhart said the contractor is often delayed by waiting for material. She said many contractors have their own hot mix plants, but the contractor in the Route 54 project does not and has to rely on an outside source.

“Typically, we’re waiting on material from the hot mix plant,” she said. “Sometimes they’re on time, sometimes they are not. This contractor does not have its own hot mix plant. We’re working with the supplier to get a commitment to be more consistent. We understand your frustration when you see pavers sitting idle.”

When asked if the entire process could be expedited by working practically around the clock, Barnhart said all opportunities were being explored.

“That’s certainly something we can do if the opportunity arises,” she said. “We’re trying not to be too impactful on the weekends. It’s a fine line we’re trying to walk, and frankly, we can’t make everybody happy.”

A major source of frustration for travelers along the corridor has been the seemingly endless delays often controlled by the flaggers. Barnhart appeared to throw the flaggers under the proverbial bus.

“We struggle with consistency with the flaggers,” she said. “They’re obviously not the highest paid people out here.”

Another major concern has been the considerable amount of damage to vehicles in the construction area. Barnhart said there was recourse for those who have suffered property damage.

“You should definitely turn in property damage claims because they’re covered by the contractor’s insurance,” she said. “We’re going to make sure all of those are settled before we accept the contract.”

Delaware State Sen. George Bunting acknowledged the flaws in the process, but said the time had arrived to put aside differences and work together to complete the project.

“A lot of mistakes have been made, but the time for should haves and could haves has passed,” he said. “We need to worry about today and what we need to do to get this done.”