June 18, 2001

With a near-unanimous historic vote, DelDOT's Tyler McConnell Bridge advisory committee decided to recommend building a parallel two-lane span over the Brandywine next to the present two-lane bridge with a small panel to be set up to advise the secretary of transportation when construction should begin.

They also voted in favor of recommending only relatively minor improvements to the Barley Mill-Montchanin Roads intersection and the western approach to the bridge, and called for building a bicycle and pedestrian greenway atop what is left of a long-abandoned railroad line along the south bank of the Brandywine in lieu of mingling recreational cyclists and hikers with traffic on the high-level McConnell crossing.

A parallel two-lane span -- which consultant William Hellmann said would rise just one foot south of the present bridge -- was chosen as preferable to a new one-lane span which, it was agreed, eventually would have to be doubled in width anyway. The choice decided upon will cost an estimated $11.3 million.

The committee still has to reassemble in July to formally endorse the report containing its recommendations, but a series of votes taken at its meeting on June 18 represented landmark decisions. For all intents and purposes, they resolved a sometimes bitter controversy which has raged for the better part of a decade. The compromise solution, forced to a large degree by planned expansions by the Du Pont Co. and Astra Zeneca Plc., was forged by nearly a year's worth of advisory committee deliberation.

While virtually all public works tend to be controversial, this was more so because the crossing lies literally in the midst of commercial, historic, environmental, scenic and residential entities that are more concentrated than anywhere else not only in the state but in the region.

Secretary of Transportation Nathan Hayward and Governor Ruth Ann Minner will make the final decision on the bridge and its approaches. There is no required or suggested deadline for them to do so but observers believe that it will come by late summer or early autumn. Delaware Department of Transportation's long-range capital budget already includes money to move ahead with the project.

New Castle County Councilman Richard Abbott -- who represents the area and who initially advocated putting off  bridge construction to see if reducing traffic congestion by replacing the nearby Montchanin Road intersection with an interchange would be sufficient -- expressed satisfaction with the advisory committee's action. "That's fine," he told Delaforum. "It clearly was what the public was in favor of. In the end, the majority rules."

He claimed vindication in having helped spark a thorough, if often minute, examination of options and establishment of a blue-ribbon panel of gubernatorial appointees to, in effect, determine the construction timetable. "My position all along has been not to build a bridge before it was needed. That's what the [advisory] group decided tonight," he said.

Somewhat ironically, Abbott arrived at the session just after the key vote was taken. He said that was the result of another obligation and indicated that he would have cast his lot with the 'supermajority' had he been there. It was at Abbott's insistence early on in the process that a 75% majority, deemed to be a consensus of sorts,  was necessary for the group to act.

Joan Hazelton, of Preservation Delaware, abstained from voting, announcing that the organization she represents did not yet have sufficient information about effects of bridge building to take a position. Robert Kramer, of Rummel, Klepper & Kahl, the consulting engineering firm out of Baltimore that DelDOT has hired for the project, told the advisory committee that the state's official historic resources group favors the so-called 'no-build' option for the bridge and its approaches.

The advisory committee disposed of both that notion and the idea of an interchange at the Barley Mill-Montchanin Roads location in short order. Both ideas apparently do not sit well with the general public, judging by comments registered at a workshop-style hearing in early June. McConnell Bridge is the only two-lane stretch in the eight-mile State Route 141 corridor between Interstate 95 and Concord Pike.

A potential sticking point was resolved a few hours before the advisory committee meeting when the consultants not only agreed with but also agreed to heartedly recommend adoption of a plan put forth by Gail Van Gilder, of Delaware Greenways. Instead of including a bicycle lane on the McConnell Bridge, the state would pay for a greenway along the right of way of the abandoned Kentmere branch of the former Reading Railroad between the terminus of the already approved path coming down from the Blue Ball area to the Brandywine at Alpacas Wood and Kennett Pike at the county police Westover Hills substation.

Taking that route, Hellmann said, would be "a lot better than riding side-by-side with traffic on a busy highway."

Van Gilder said that the greenway would be intended for recreational bikers and not people who commute to work on two wheels. There would still be sufficient shoulder on the bridge to accommodate them.

The advisory committee, however, balked at recommending that the parallel span include a bike lane as a fall-back position in the event legal considerations or some other obstacle prevented construction of the creekside path. Right after that, the 75% rule also prevented their taking a stand specifically opposed to putting a bike lane on the bridge.

Another loose end was the size of the panel that would flash a green light to start the actual construction, which is expected to take about two years. The consultants recommended seven as a more practical arrangement than putting the loquacious 37-member advisory committee in charge of that signal. It was decided by the committee, however, to leave the size of the panel up to the secretary of transportation and its composition to the governor as the appointing authority. As finally approved after discussion, the recommendation is for the new panel to be representative of various interests affected by the project.

Hellmann said the professional team on the bridge project estimates that a three-lane crossing will be needed in 2005 or 2006 and four lanes around 2012. "That's our projection -- but who believes projections?" he remarked.

With the imposition of a panel, he explained, the actual timetable becomes a matter of the transportation secretary making "an informed decision" based on continuous monitoring of the traffic situation not only on Barley Mill Road and the bridge but also other roads in the vicinity. He said the actual timing most likely would coincide with the state's budget cycle, which calls for gathering data around November, recommending action around February and General Assembly action in June.

Committee member Garrett Copeland said he was satisfied that the procedure would prevent "a hasty decision to build a bridge and intersection that's only needed for four hours a day."

Design of the bridge also would take about two years and could start as early as in  the coming fiscal year, which begins on July 1.

Kramer said that in accepting the alternative greenway-bike path arrangement and dropping a previously recommended complex 'trigger' formula for beginning construction, the consultants demonstrated responsiveness to the committee and the public. "You have forced us to do better thinking," he said.

He also demonstrated in the session its willingness to go along with some fancy footwork.

The committee rejected, for lack of a 75% majority, a consultant-recommended plan for the westside approach to the bridge that included keeping the present arrangement of two travel lanes in each direction, a semi-circular turn from southbound Montchanin Road onto westbound Barley Mill, a 20 foot-wide landscaped median in Barley Mill and a berm to block the view from three residences along Old Barley Mill Road of the main road, which necessarily will have to be widened to four lanes at that point to provide access to the parallel bridge.

Instead, the committee took apart the plan and, in separate votes, approved all but the berms and decided to combine short- and long-term improvements. In doing so, however, it called for providing some form of effective mitigation from the effects of the project during its design phase.

DelDOT official Marc Coté told the group that consideration also will be given to having overhead utility lines in the project area placed underground rather than simply moved. Because that is not normal practice and utility companies -- specifically Conectiv Power in this case -- object to taking that more expensive alternative voluntarily, that probably would cost the state about $1.75 million, he said.

© 2001. All rights reserved.

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