June 12, 2001

One member of the Tyler McConnell Bridge advisory committee said he would quit the volunteer DelDOT panel if it doesn't decide on its recommendations about what to do with the span this month. His remark came against an obvious rise in the frustration level among several members of the group, which has been wrestling with the controversial issue since last summer

"I'm running out of time for meetings," Eugene Crittendon, of the Westover Hills Civic Association, declared. "There are those of us who have the feeling we've been given more [information] than we can absorb. We can certainly vote in two weeks."

"There are those of us who would like to see this process come to an end," New Castle County Councilman Robert Weiner said.

Carolann Wicks, DelDOT's assistant chief engineer, said there is no deadline for the committee to come up with its recommendations although June 30 earlier was presented as a 'target' date. The ultimate decision rests with Secretary of Transportation Nathan Hayward and Governor Ruth Ann Minner. The advisory committee has a meeting scheduled for June 18 and a tentative date of June 25 for an additional one.

Lori Denno, of Delaware Nature Society, called for scheduling yet another session, specifically  to cover in detail an environmental assessment report. She said that she could not vote on a bridge alternative without understanding its impact. "An environmental assessment is an important document. It should not be separated out of the [decision-making] process," said Joan Hazelton, of Preservation Delaware Inc.

Denno said later that, while she was "concerned and disappointed about the order of the meetings -- specifically the fact that the environmental assessment is slated to be last on the list of topics and thus of questionable use in helping evaluate the alternatives -- I did not request yet another meeting."

"I would love to know how much is being paid for all these books with everything anybody ever said, thought about or dreamed about," said Terry Riley, of M.B.N.A. America Bank. "This is the group that is charged with making a decision so we should make a decision." Her reference was to the large loose-leaf binders in which committee members have been inserting a voluminous amount of paper distributed at each meeting. The June 11 session was the 13th in the series.

One of the papers handed out at the session was a summary of comments taken at a workshop-style public hearing on June 4. Although the data was not tabulated, there appeared to be some conclusive preferences among the 86 attenders who gave comments. Those included opposition to doing nothing -- an option officially still open -- support for building a parallel two-lane span in preference to a one-lane span, rejection of an interchange to replace the intersection of Barley Mill and Montchanin Roads, and opposition to building a ramp from the bridge's eastbound approach to Hagley Museum.

Crittendon's  remarks and ensuing discussion came after the committee made its first official decisions, which had to do with some 'short-term' recommendations.

It decided to endorse a plan to have Delaware Transit Corp. establish four commuter bus routes serving the Du Pont Experimental Station, Astra Zeneca corporate headquarters and the Alfred I. du Pont Hospital for Children. The transit agency, a unit of Delaware Department of Transportation, already has committed to one of the routes, from Christiana Mall. The others would link the employment centers with New Castle, Newark and Hockessin.

The group also disposed of some other non-controversial 'short-term' recommendations, but was diverted from dealing with which of four possible scenarios involving widening of Barley Mill Road by DelDOT consultants who recommended that decision be made in conjunction with 'mid- to long-term' recommendations having to do with the bridge itself and the Barley Mill-Montchanin Road intersection.

Instead, the group got into a long discussion about how to 'trigger' whatever permanent improvements are decided upon. Specifically, the debate involved the consultants' recommendation that planning for a new bridge begin soon, but that actual building of one not commence until annual monitoring finds that eastbound traffic during the morning rush hour is backed up past Montchanin Road for a period of at least 30 minutes on three of the five workdays. Planning and building will each take about two years.

The intersection would not be improved until the same condition, with the backup extending to Rising Sun Lane in front of the Du Pont Experimental Station, comes about with afternoon westbound traffic.

The group appeared about evenly split over whether timing how long a queue lasts or how long it takes to get from the end of the queue to its head was the better measure.

"You have a line but it keeps moving and it only takes seven minutes to get through," said Joseph Finch, who represents St. Joseph-on-the-Brandywine Church on the committee. "When you look at Houston or other places in the country we don't have a problem at all."

The 'trigger' idea was presented as a way to satisfy those who believe nothing should be done about the controversial crossing until perceived traffic congestion can be demonstrated to be real. "We tried to create a 'trigger' where everybody would [agree] we have a problem before anything was done," consultant William Hellmann, of Rummel, Klepper & Kahl, the consulting engineering firm out of Baltimore that DelDOT has hired for the project.

The recommended backups, he said, would bring conditions back to what they were last November before new morning traffic restrictions involving the Experimental Station intersection were imposed. He said he thought that would occur in 2005 or 2006. Several meeting attenders pointed out that waiting for the recommended 'triggers' would require commuters to put up with the problem for two additional years while the bridge were built.

One attender facetiously asked what would happen if an annual review found the traffic lines lasting only 27 minutes. By the time the group reconvened the following year, they would be lasting 34 minutes and 27 seconds.

'We're being short-sighted if we say we're going to wait till things get really bad before we begin to solve the problem," said Beverly Baxter, of the Committee of 100, a business community organization. She said that would be hurtful to companies like Du Pont and Astra Zeneca "which are an essential part of the economy of New Castle County."

"I can understand a comfort factor for people who don't want to build," said Arnie Caine, of Astra Zeneca. "What is not acceptable is to wait until we have a big problem." Doing so, he added, would impede recruiting employees and bringing them into the area. Weiner pointed out that the advisory committee, which has company representation, has no member who commuters to one of the affected job locations.

During the discussion, Crittendon quietly got up and left the Hagley Soda House, where the meeting was being held.

2001. All rights reserved.

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