Delaware Department of Transportation – U.S. 301 Toll Road

Delaware DOT picDelDOT’s latest project will not only improve safety, but also serve as a learning opportunity for future employees.
By Bianca Herron

Delaware’s Department Of Transportation (DelDOT) is responsible for 90 percent of the roads in the state. Maintaining everything from interstate highways to neighborhood streets, DelDOT strives to make every trip taken in the state safe, reliable and convenient for travelers not only via roads, but also by rails, buses, airways, waterways, bike trails and walking paths.

“We have regional traffic coming through from Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey,” Chief Engineer Robert McCleary says. “We have 1,600 bridges and maintain about 13,000 lane miles of highway. We have an agency of about 2,800 employees and our total operating budget is nearly $1 billion. It includes the Department of Motor Vehicles as well as the Delaware Transit Corporation, which are both subsidiaries of our agency. Additionally, we’re the 49th state in terms of size, but we rank near 17th in lane miles. So we have a real robust program for a small state.”

McCleary notes that DelDOT was “fortunate” to get a revenue package in the fiscal year of 2016. “The state gave us an extra $55 million annually to invest in our capital program,” he explains. “We’ve been doing more work since then. So we’re working on great projects right now all over the state.”

One of those projects is the U.S. 301 Mainline Project, a new four-lane highway using all electronic tolling. Delaware DOT box

“The U.S. 301 Toll Road is a vital connection between Route 301 in Maryland, which is a four-lane, dual divided highway,” McCleary says. “It will now connect to Route 1 in Delaware, which is also a four-lane, dual divided controlled access highway. Prior to this project, traffic would come to the Delaware line and narrow down to a two-lane rural roadway that contributed to many accidents, safety and congestion issues on that 301 corridor in Delaware.”

This project will create a brand-new alignment, McCleary adds, including 13 miles of four-lane controlled access highway and three interchanges with electronic tolling. “There are no toll booths and money is collected electronically via an antenna that reads the EZ Pass transponders,” he says, adding that this is the first electronic toll road in the state.

“There aren’t that many states in the country that have full electronic toll roads, so it’s fairly new technology and new for Delaware,” he says. “It’ll take some time to get used to by the travelers on the highway, but will prove beneficial overall.

“There’s definitely a safety component to it and a traffic efficiency standpoint,” he continues. “When completed, this toll road won’t allow traffic to slow down, or even come to a stop and then speed back up since there are no tollbooths. We don’t really have the ability to expand our workforce, and it would be a requirement to put a few new employees to cover that function if we had a manned tollbooth.”

McCleary notes that budget concerns at the state level have been ongoing since the Great Recession in 2007 and 2008. “We’ve had 10 years of belt tightening,” he explains. “In that time period we’ve reduced our workforce by 100.”

Culture of Safety

Construction started on the U.S. 301 Mainline Project in 2015. “All the contractors started doing preliminary work, such as clearing trees for the new alignment of the highway,” Group Engineer Jonathan Ledger says. “The road contractors started in early 2016 doing their work.”

The road is scheduled to open for revenue service in December 2018, but construction will not be completed until 2019. “There are side roads that have to be constructed and that we need to complete,” explains Mark Tudor, assistant director of project development – north. “Time is money. The earlier we can complete the toll road for revenue service, the better we can address our financial goals.”

Communication and coordination will play a critical role in this project as it has seven mainline construction contracts. “Having consistency throughout the corridor is a challenge,” Area Engineer Susan Maldonado says. “There are a lot of people involved in this project, including two construction districts, three area engineers, six mainline contractors and at least eight consultant groups. If we make a change to one contract we have to ensure the changes will be reflected on the other contracts as well. So we have to ensure that everyone is on the same page at all times.”

According to Ledger, DelDOT Public Outreach Coordinator Ken Cimino has been a “great help” during the project so far. “He coordinates all the contracts and everything that we need to ensure we keep on schedule and complete this project on time,” he says. “So he has been an asset for us on this project.”

Cimino notes that DelDOT is “really focused” on constructing the project in a timely and safe manner. “As part of our outreach efforts, we have quarterly construction information meetings that are broken down into groups,” he says. “For example, we talk with the communities, emergency services and individuals we’re impacting while completing the project. We have these meetings on a quarterly basis and update everyone on what they can expect, at least a week ahead, so they can try to plan their daily activities accordingly.

“In addition to the quarterly meetings, we also have responses to questions or concerns on a 24/7, year-round basis,” Cimino continues. “A question or concern comes into DelDOT Public Relations and a member of the project team responds to the inquiry within hours of receiving the inquiry.”

People involved with the project have kept safety at the forefront of their minds because it impacts more than them alone, notes Area Engineer Mark Buckalew. “We have several schools in the area, so we have to be very cautious so as to not put children in the way of any danger,” he explains. “For example, right off of the highway, there a few key crossings where construction traffic is traveling. So we have flaggers stationed at those areas to facilitate the equipment being transported for the project. We have also constructed temporary roads to get traffic around certain areas to maintain safety.”

Precision Building

The construction cost for the project is $460 million, which includes all the contractor, utility and inspection work. The project will not only help regional traffic, but also support economic development in one of the fastest-growing areas in the state of Delaware, according to McCleary.

“This project is a big benefit to the local area of southern New Castle County,” he says. “So you’ll have the four-lane controlled access highway, then you’ll also have the renovation and rehab work we’ll do to the original Route 301 alignment – in addition to the multiple facilities we’ll build to connect the transit, amongst other things we’re building in the area.”

Ultimately, everything DelDOT is building circles back to improving safety, managing truck traffic and reducing congestion between local and regional traffic.

“This project has been in the works for many years,” Tudor says. “It started in the early 1960s, so there has been a discussion about this type of project for upwards of 50 years. What finally got the ball rolling is continued recognition that something needed to be done to the corridor to improve safety and traffic. With so much discussion for many years, we really just needed the financing to make it a reality.”

According to Cimino, the project for many participants is an “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” “There are not many projects that not only cost this much, but also a majority of our projects are rehabilitations, not re-alignments,” he explains. “So this is an opportunity that doesn’t come along often.”

Additionally, DelDOT uses many of its projects as training platforms for its new engineers, inspectors and technicians. The U.S. 301 Toll Road project will not be any different, McCleary notes. “We’ve also partnered with the University of Delaware to have training videos made by actually going out and filming the work as it’s occurring,” he says. “We are also re-writing our construction manual, which provides guidance to our construction staff on how to administer and inspect construction contracts.

“Those construction videos are hyperlinked to the online version,” he continues. “For example, if the manual highlights earthwork you can click the link and watch a video. So the project itself is not only a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but it’s also a once-in-a-career experience to build your resume, learn and teach those upcoming employees in our line of work.”

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