May 24, 2001


Attenders at a workshop-style public hearing on June 4 will be asked to express a preference between building a one lane or a two lane parallel span just south of the Tyler McConnell Bridge, with or without a separated lane for bicycle riders and pedestrians. That would expand the existing crossing by at least half.

They also will be asked to choose between 'permanently' keeping Barley Mill Road as it is now or adding a third westbound lane between Old Barley Mill Road and Kennett Pike. Another possibility is replacing the Barley Mill-Montchanin Roads intersection altogether with a 'tight' interchange.

Those are the most significant of several options related to the project that Delaware Department of Transportation's  bridge project advisory committee voted at a meeting on May 23 to put before the general public at the hearing. It will run between 4 and 8 p.m. in Arsht Hall on the University of Delaware's Pennsylvania Avenue campus just west of Wilmington.

The idea is to collect comments there and then reconvene the advisory committee in two or three sessions in June to craft recommendations to present to Secretary of Transportation Nathan Hayward and Governor Ruth Ann Minner to enable them to make a final decision about the scope of the project soon after the turn of the fiscal year.

Apparently eliminated from further consideration are such proposals as adding a second deck to the existing bridge and building a new one at the present site or elsewhere along the Brandywine. Somewhat surprisingly, the committee mustered the 75% majority necessary to drop adding a third lane to the existing bridge. Several possibilities for eliminating turning movements through the Montchanin Road intersection also were shelved as was replacing it with a traffic circle.

Once the advisory committee got started, its trimming seemed to be gathering so much momentum that it almost deep-sixed the interchange. DelDOT consultant Robert Kramer pointed out that dropping it would mean putting forth only a single option at the public hearing and "people will say, 'You've already made a decision, so why ask for our opinions?'."

Earlier in the session, Kramer told the group that, if they fail to reach consensus in time to meet that non-binding schedule, they can elect either to continue to meet during the summer or adjourn until autumn, with a resultant major delay in moving the project forward. "I don't know how much of your lives you want to dedicate to this," he said.

Whether that remark or a report by consultant William Hellmann on what came out of several meetings held recently with local interest groups or both were responsible, the committee moved through its agenda with relatively little of the adversarial bickering which occurred at its previous session. Groups that have been consulted, he said, include the management of the Du Pont Experimental Station, the Alfred I. du Pont Institute, Friends School, St. Joseph-on-the-Brandywine Church and civic associations in Alapocas and the Ponds of Greenville.

Officially, a decision to recommend doing nothing about the bridge or along its approaches remains on the table, but no direct mention of that possibility occurred as committee members narrowed down a laundry list of options in preparation for the hearing. Closest anyone came to raising that issue was New Castle County Councilman Richard Abbott's objection to widening Barley Mill Road. He said doing so for a relatively short stretch along the bridge approach will inevitably lead to widening elsewhere.

"Creeping expansion of roads is what people in New Castle County hate. Concord Pike is a disaster; Kennett Pike is going to go to four lanes eventually," he said.

Kramer said that the committee can embed several 'triggers' into its recommendation to preclude expansions before they are required, For instance, he said, an additional westbound lane for Barley Mill Road probably will not be needed for a few years.

Clearly the most significant progress toward resolution of the long-running central controversy over what to do about the bridge -- it predates establishment of this advisory committee by several years -- was the narrowing of previous options to construction of a parallel span. Hellmann said that  materials now used for bridge building make it possible to erect such a structure on five piers, compared to the 11 used to hold up the present one. Two would be located on either side of the Brandywine, one on the steep slope off its east bank and two along the longer approach on the west side.

A three-lane arrangement would require reversing the center lane to serve the heavier flow of eastbound traffic during the morning rush hour and westbound traffic in the afternoon. That, Hellmann said, can be done by a combination of overhead traffic signals and a moveable lane barrier. "That's done with two or three roads that lead into Washington, D.C., and it works pretty well," he said. There are no such reversible lanes anywhere in Delaware; the closest is on the Commodore Barry Bridge across the Delaware River just south of Chester, Pa.

Hellmann said that present traffic projections indicate a need for a three-lane bridge in 2006 and four lanes some time around 2012. He said a parallel span can be designed in a way that will permit future expansion. That led Norman Johnson, of the Montchanin Civic Association, to remark, "We don't want to see something like Greenville spread over 12 years. Let's go to the final solution and get it over with." Road construction on Kennett Pike in the Greenville area has been going on for several months.

Ted Matley, executive director of the Wilmington Area Planning Council, said that adding an additional lane to Barley Mill Road along a short stretch would "create a perception" that is what is intended for the entire length of the Delaware Route 141 corridor. Berta Kerr, of the Westover Woods Civic Association, said that drivers familiar with the road will tend to stay out of the extra lane and those not familiar with it will create a safety hazard attempting to merge back where it ends.

After the committee voted to drop from consideration an option which would prohibit left turns at the intersection and thereby eliminate the need for turn lanes, the proposition calls for either four or five through travel lanes and a turn lane in both directions approaching the intersection. The committee voted not to keep open yet another alternative, which would provide for a double turning lane from eastbound Barley Mill Road onto northbound Montchanin Road.

As previously discussed, an interchange would involve passing Montchanin Road over Barley Mill Road with close-in ramps connecting the two. Hellmann said tests now underway will determine whether presence of rock will require elevating Montchanin Road about eight feet or whether an interchange can be build by just lowering Barley Mill Road.

Also under study is the likely effect on traffic movement of prohibiting drivers leaving the Du Pont Experimental Station by its present main gate from proceeding onto the bridge, at least during the afternoon rush hour. Requiring them to exit by way of the gate leading to Alapocas Road could significantly increase the amount of traffic going through Alapocas Woods to Augustine Cut-off.

That and other points raised at the meeting caused Lori Denno, of Delaware Nature Society, to object to separate presentation of the various components of the project. "We cannot possibly decide until we see how they work together as a package," she said. Kramer said such relationships will be charted before the committee is asked to vote on its recommendations.

2001. All rights reserved.

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