After decades of planning and false starts, Delaware could be just a year away from beginning work on a $400 million realignment of U.S. Route 301.

After decades of planning and false starts, Delaware could be just a year away from beginning work on a $400 million realignment of U.S. Route 301.

“We’re hoping to have a final [recommendation] on how to proceed by the end of the year,” Geoff Sundstrom, Delaware Department of Transportation’s director of public relations, said last week. “The big question right now is the overall state of the economy, because that will affect the cost of financing the project, which will determine whether the traffic volume is sufficient enough to pay for the project.”

The three-year construction project – as currently proposed –  would result in a new four-lane divided toll highway that stretches 14 miles from the Delaware-Maryland line and through Middletown before reaching Del. Route1 about a mile south of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.

Construction of that highway would include overpasses at Strawberry Lane, Bunker Hill Road, between Appoquinimink High School and the Spring Arbor neighborhood, as well as an overpass at Marl Pit Road, less than mile north of the Springmill Community.

The new Route 301 also would include one toll plaza at the Maryland-Delaware line, as well as interchange tolls at Levels, Armstrong Corner and Jamison Corner roads.

A so-called Route 301 Spur Road that would stretch from northwest of Springmill to the C&D Canal is also part of the design, but is not proposed for construction until after the main project is complete.

Mark Tudor, DelDOT’s assistant director of North Project Development, said the main objective of the realignment would be to remove the high volume of commercial truck traffic from the existing highway, which is limited to one lane in either direction both south and north of Middletown. The average number of vehicles that use those stretches on a daily basis ranges from 11,000 to 22,700 vehicles, respectively, according to DelDOT.

“Heavy duty trucks account for nearly 25 percent of the traffic that crosses the Delaware-Maryland line on Route 301,” Tudor said. “By relocating that traffic, we believe we will be able to ease existing and future congestion, and thereby improve safety on the existing roadway, which historically has experienced higher than average accident rates.”
Economic development is another factor driving the project, Sundstrom said.

“We believe that creating a more robust commercial corridor will also help Delaware to attract new and larger businesses to the area, similar to the Amazon Fulfillment Center that opened in Middletown last year,” he said. “And, of course, the construction project itself also would create jobs in the area.”

Middletown Mayor Ken Branner agreed that a new U.S. 301 would help stimulate the commercial growth in Middletown. Just the concept plan of the new road has had an effect on the town's commercial growth, he said.
“Knowing the new Route 301 was coming was a huge impetus for Johnson Controls expanding to its Route 301 location, which spurred other growth like,” Branner said. “When it becomes a reality, imagine the help it will be to bringing more commercial projects to Middletown and southern New Castle County overall.”

An expansion of Route 301 has been debated since the 1960s, but the current proposal dates back to 2004 when DelDOT moved to chart a route for the new highway before development choked off the potential for a realignment.

From 2005 until 2007, the transportation department held a series of public workshops during which various route alternatives were presented, along with the results of an environmental impact study.

In the spring of 2008, the Federal Highway Administration approved the proposed route for the realignment, which allowed the state to proceed with final design and begin the process of acquiring property for the new highway.

“Approximately 1,476 acres of land have been acquired for the U.S. 301 project from 133 parcels, including six in Maryland,” Tudor said. “This includes the area needed for the road’s operational right-of-way, environmental mitigation and parcels, or portions of parcels, that were landlocked or otherwise determined to be un-economical remnants.”

DelDOT is still working to reach a settlement on another 34 parcels that make up about 125 acres of property.

All told, the acquisition costs reportedly will exceed $100 million – a price tag that come in addition to the $400 million construction cost.

Currently, DelDOT is working to acquire low-interest federal loans and grants for the construction project – a financing plan that will require final approval from the secretary of transportation, director of the office of management and budget, the secretary of finance and the controller general.

“The issue, in my opinion, is not just where the traffic is today, but where it will be in 10 to 20 years, because the congestion is only going to get worse and we need to be prepared,” said state Rep. Quinn Johnson (D-Middletown), who chairs the House Capital Infrastructure Committee. “There is also no question that we need this from a jobs perspective, but we also have to make sure we can pay for it in the way that DelDOT has proposed.”

Although the exact toll costs have not yet been determined, Tudor said the prices would be comparable with Del. Route 1 for personal vehicles, with higher tolls for commercial trucks that are competitive with Interstate 95.

“Right now, the commercial truck traffic uses Route 301 as an alternative to I-95, because it’s cheaper and competitive timewise,” he said. “In Maryland, the highway is four lanes and nowhere near as congested because they’ve been upgrading the road over the last 40 to 50 years, while Delaware has not kept up with major investments on its side.”

While some utility relocation work near the state line is already underway, Tudor said DelDOT is hoping to have its funding and approvals in place to begin construction of the new highway by late next year.

If approved, the project would be bid out in seven contracts that would be conducted simultaneously, in contrast to the gradually phasing of Del. Route 1, Tudor said.

“Even if we don’t receive the go ahead this year, that doesn’t mean the project is off completely,” he said. “It will just mean that it’s been differed or that we have to change our plans for its implementation.”