News

June 12, 2001

Delaware Department of Transportation is considering a rerun of last year's alternate-lanes closing of Interstate 95 when the section of the highway through Wilmington goes under the proverbial knife in 2003.

Emphasizing that the option being put forth by an community advisory committee is only a planning-phase consideration at this point, project manager Darren O'Neill said it would provide the greatest amount of elbow room for the contractor who will be rebuilding that part of the road.

That will be the final phase of a three-stage project which currently involves work on I-95's south Wilmington viaduct. That work is being done mostly at night and involves minimal disruption of traffic. The third section will deal with the highway between the viaduct and Concord Pike.

When the stretch between Concord Pike and the Pennsylvania state line was being rebuilt in 2000, the southbound side was closed for three months to allow work to proceed apace. When that was finished, the northbound side took its turn with a three-month closure. Extensive pre-construction publicity and, highway officials say, a near-ideal level of public cooperation during construction resulted in a minimum of traffic problems. The state received national recognition in transportation circles for what was deemed an innovate approach to a major project on a heavily traveled road.

Part of being able to pull that off successfully, everyone agreed, was the fact that through traffic headed to Pennsylvania or Maryland was diverted to Interstate 495, the bypass leg of the Interstate system along the banks of the Delaware River. That would happen again if the same plan is followed next time, O'Neill said.

A diversion at the 95-495 splits north and south of the city also would occur if the other two pending options are adopted, he said. They are to switch traffic to one lane in each direction on one side of the road while the other side is being worked on; or to maintain two lanes in both directions by using the shoulders while the contractor works on small widths of the roadway. "Either way, the road will have less [traffic] capacity," he said.

"It proves I was right. DelDOT is admitting I was right," said New Castle County Councilman Robert Weiner when he learned of the possibility of the diversion.

Weiner has long advocated a permanent swapping of the designations of I-95 and I-495. He said anything short of that would not do the job of keeping the road through the more heavily populated part of Brandywine Hundred and the city for use by people with mostly local destinations while allowing those who have no intention of stopping here to be on their way.

"People [from outside the area] put blind faith in following I-95," he said.

"Every major civic and business group has backed my idea. The only reason DelDOT won't do it is because one man -- Henry Topel -- opposes it," Weiner added.

Topel called Weiner's remark "a fraudulent comment." He said the councilman "has repeated that lie for years."

While acknowledging that he does oppose a designation swap, Topel, who owns the Best Western Brandywine Valley Inn on Concord Pike, said that his position mirrors that of the local hotel and restaurant association. "It's not just me; it's an entire industry that provides thousands of Delaware jobs."

He said that Wilmington Mayor James Baker, when he was president of City Council, supported and later signed a resolution declaring the city's opposition to any name change. New Castle County took the opposite position in a resolution it enacted.

O'Neill -- who said that current highway terminology shies away from the term 'detour' in favor of using 'diversion' to highway routes that retain their numerical designations -- declined comment on Weiner's position.

Michelle Ackles, of DelDOT's external affairs department, said the agency did not oppose switching designations, but did not do so because "there is no clear consensus in the community" on the issue and there are possible federal ramifications.

"The federal government has difficulty with that sort of proposal. It's not as simple [to do] as it sounds," she said.

Weiner took umbrage at not being invited by DelDOT to participate on the advisory committee which came up with the options and not being invited to attend the 'legislative luncheon' on June 11 at which they were presented. "I'm an elected official and my district is affected," he said.

O'Neill said that the luncheon was for city officials and that state and county officials would be kept informed about the project in appropriate settings.

2001. All rights reserved.

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