July 29, 2001

Highway planners stirred up the proverbial hornets' nest when they attempted to initiate an advisory process for the highway safety improvement project planned for northern Philadelphia Pike. Community leaders accused DelDOT of ignoring, if not jeopardizing, a year's worth of work on the Claymont Renaissance.

"All of the DelDOT team were clueless as to the actual details of our vision, except for Joe Watson," said New Castle County Councilman Robert Weiner, who represents the area. Watson has been attending Renaissance meetings as the Delaware Department of Transportation representative.

Claymonters did not exactly ride the highway people out of town on a rail after a controversial organizational meeting on July 26 broke up, but several made their displeasure known the next day in an exchange of strongly worded e.mail messages.

The highway project, according to Gary Laing, municipal liaison in DelDOT's external affairs department, is to include needed safety improvements on the pike between Calhoun Road, in the Bellevue area, and Naamans Road at the northern end of Claymont. That can be done, he added, in conjunction with the community's efforts to significantly improve the appearance of the highway and make it into a 'main street' conducive to pedestrian traffic with a leisurely visitor ambiance.

Community leaders suspect that the difference between their concept of the highway's future and DelDOT's is that the latter envisions allowing more traffic to flow faster while they want to slow down the vehicles and, to the extent possible, divert many of those whose occupants don't have Claymont destinations.

Weiner said those are not totally divergent viewpoints but added, "DelDOT must be willing to offer Claymont the same context-sensitive design work they produced in Greenville in response to [that] more economically advantaged community." His comment referred to the recently completed widening of Kennett Pike in that suburb.

Laing told Delaforum after the meeting that the DelDOT group "didn't present any plan for any kind of work to be done." He added that "no pencil has been put to paper [and] all options are open."

But, he said, the highway is a prime candidate for improvements. There have been 445 accidents recorded there during the past four years and four people have been killed, he said. Moreover, he added, the trend is upward with 155 accidents in 2000, compared to 101 in 1999, 97 in 1998 and 92 in 1997.

"We think that what the Claymont Renaissance wants to do is wonderful. ... We want to make what we do eventually fit in with what they want to do," he said.

The sparking point at the by-invitation-only meeting at which DelDOT sought to form the advisory committee, or 'working group', for the Philadelphia Pike project, apparently was over whether to proceed with drafting a 'mission statement'.

Weiner described the DelDOT presentation to that point as a "heavy-handed opening salvo" structured around "a myopic vision for the reconstruction of Philadelphia Pike." He said it was offensive to local residents to present the issue as "How do we design a highway whose sole design criteria is to reduce the occurrence of severity of vehicular collisions?"

"When they finished their one-sided presentation about their vision of the factors to be considered ... and in the next breath said, 'Now let's draft a mission statement', I knew it was time to counterattack," Weiner said. He insisted that Charles Baker, general manager of the county's Department of Land Use, and Thomas Comitta, the consultant whom the Claymont Renaissance Steering Committee has hired to produce conceptual plans, be permitted to make presentations.

"Once Tom Comitta finished his presentation, we citizens all were united in stating to DelDOT that the mission statement must merge the safety concerns of DelDOT as only one factor in the community's broader vision," Weiner said.

Delaforum has had to rely on second-hand accounts about the gathering. Dealforum did not attend because it was not advised that the meeting had been scheduled, despite having specifically asked DelDOT public relations officials to be so notified. Such meeting are, by state law, open to the public, but DelDOT spokesperson Michelle Ackles said the practice is to issue "letter invitations asking community people to [come]" rather than public notices because "there are literally hundreds of these per year." The general public, she said, is kept informed through 'workshops', which apparently have in recent years replaced formal public hearings on most projects.

Laing said there is no desire to exclude either the media or the public from advisory committee sessions but the agency has found "it is more conducive to open discussion" if attendance is limited "especially in the initial phases of a project."

Weiner took exception to a statement by DelDOT safety official Randall Grunden which said Laing "has been assigned to deal with all external communications" about the project. "I hope that your purpose ... was not to suggest that I should refrain from communications with my constituents," the councilman replied.

There also was some question about the accuracy of a statement reportedly made at the meeting to the effect that DelDOT must limit improvements along Philadelphia Pike to mitigating unsafe conditions because federal money will be used to finance the project. Weiner said that "transportation strategies, including safety concerns, must by [federal] law be integrated into sound land use planning concepts."

"We have a multitude of financial resources and welcome DelDOT's safety improvement dollars to the mix. However, the quarter million dollars of funds that we have raised or expect to soon receive to develop both a transportation and marketing plan, require utilization consistent with the Claymont Renaissance vision," he said.

Noting that he plans soon to introduce county legislation to change the name of what has become Philadelphia Pike to its Colonial-era designation, King's Highway, Weiner called upon DelDOT to change the name of the advisory committee to something more compatible with the community improvement project's intent. "It makes no sense to market our community as a desirable destination to visit by advertising some place called Philadelphia," he said.

In an obvious effort at damage containment, Ackles joined the e.mail exchange to tell Weiner: "This part of Philadelphia Pike is a part of our Highway Safety Improvement Program and does have demonstrated accident problems, but that does not mean that we're married to any particular designs or proposals, and I regret if [that] was the impression that was conveyed. Our department has adopted a context-sensitive design policy and we have every intention of working with the community to address both community desires and safety for motorists and the community at large."

DelDOT apparently has agreed to accept broader community representation on the advisory committe at a fresh-start meeting to be held in September.

2001. All rights reserved.

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