Remember 3rd grade economics, Wants vs. Needs? The Markell administration may WANT the new Rt. 301 bypass, but we certainly don’t NEED it. And, we definitely can’t afford it!
Meeting the new Transportation Secretary, Shailen Bhatt was at the top of my WANT list this year. The Secretary of Transportation is in charge of a third of our State Budget and is pivotal to Delaware’s economy for (at least) the next two years.
As a self appointed watchdog of DelDOT, in 2005, I founded the Middletown Corridor Coalition to review and analyze the ongoing process of the US 301 Bypass Project. I am a firm believer that the DelDOT is the most important agency in our State. Without a well run DOT we are doomed for failure and statewide bankruptcy. From congestion to commerce we depend on our roads, rail and buses and put our future in the hands of those that run our transportation agency.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I met Secretary Bhatt (pronounced Bat), I just knew I NEEDED to see what he and his administration were going to mean for Delawareans.
As he entered the room, he made me feel at ease right away. He is not a small man, that’s for sure, his stature is commanding. He choose to sit right next to me on a cushioned chair placing one foot up on the cocktail table and reclined back, as if he was there to listen to me. I quickly realized he WANTED to show me what he knew about the agency he just inherited. Which I guess was ironic, because that is what I WANTED to show him.
I cut to the chase immediately. The $700 million dollar Rt 301 bypass Project. Just two days earlier I received FOIA’d, copy (not publicly available) of the US 301 Traffic and Revenue report (T&R rpt.) dated 9/2011. It was timely that I got the report when I did. As I always do, I poured through the 116 pages and pulled out the essential points for my meeting. I love to use the DOT data for my argument. It makes it almost impossible to argue back, when it’s their own data I am using.
At first we discussed the Project and why the Minner and now Markell administrations claim the NEED for this venture. I began by explaining the consultant aspect of this and other projects and brought up RK&K engineers (where our now former DOT Secretary Carolann Wicks is now employed).
In our conversation, he quickly told me that one of his first experiences with Delaware roads was with the current Rt 301/896. He correctly noted that the current road goes from a 4 lane facility and then oddly transitions into a two lane facility. He continued by saying, “I thought, ‘How does that make any sense whatsoever?’” Of course, I agreed with Sec. Bhatt. The Middletown Corridor Coalition (which I founded in 2005) has been arguing that point for years. He agreed that the design of the current road is lacking and would cause congestion and accidents. (Holy Moly …Did we just agree on a point already?)
We talked about the NEED for safety, and that being yet another reason DelDOT originally said we NEEDED the bypass. They contend that the 18-wheelers were the main threat to the safety of the drivers on the current 301. The T&R report and the report on DelDOT’s website, the US 301 Spur Monitoring Report, show that is not the case at all. This is a fact that WILMAPCO (NCC MPO) would agree with as well.
Our conversation turned to the time savings for the Truckers, yet another reason we’ve been told the bypass will work. We’ve been told truckers will WANT to save time and take this new road (and pay a toll). The T&R report shows that not to be the case. It was said that truckers will want to get off of current I-95 (a toll road) and get on another toll road because it will save them time and money. The time issue is also squashed in the T&R report stating….
“On US 301, the travel times ranged from 109 to 128 minuets – averaging 117 minutes; while on I-95 the range was much broader: from 93 to 125 minutes depending on Baltimore/Washington traffic conditions, averaging 104 minutes. Note that the US 301 routing is six miles longer than the I-95 route. Generally, the I-95 routing is both shorter and faster by approximately 13 minutes, but this route does include significant additional toll costs.
In 2010, the travel time runs were repeated with largely similar results where the I-95 routing was generally 15 minutes faster than the times using the existing US 301 alignment during the off peak and non peak directions of travel. During the peak periods in the peak direction, congestion in the southbound direction during the a.m. peak on I-95 results in this route being approximately five minutes longer than the US 301 route. During the p.m. peak, I-95 is only eight minutes faster than US 301.
It is significant to note that the US 301 travel times were recorded on existing US 301 in Delaware. If opening today, the US 301 Main line project would likely reduce approximately seven minutes off the present 117 minutes, reducing the US 301 travel time to 110 minutes, and its average speed to 60 mph (matching that on I-95)”
So, according to DelDOT’s own report and after, after spending $700 million dollars, this new road would not save the Truckers any time.
If truckers get off of 95 and onto the new road we lose money that would normally go directly into the transportation trust fund (money allocated for road improvement and operations throughout the state.) The money from 301 tolls has to go directly to paying back the debt service on the sale of the Toll Revenue Bonds, until the debt is paid off in 40 years. So for 40 years we lose money that would otherwise be directed to all of Delaware’s roads. When I pointed this fact out to the Secretary, he said, “Well, it is a shell game!”
We continued our conversation and got to the point why I was there….Financing, Money, M00lah, Dinero! I told Sec. Bhatt that we could not build the road unless it was a toll road. That means that we would build the road, by selling Toll Revenue Bonds. He quickly stopped me and said, “That’s not true, we could build it in phases the traditional way” he meant that we could get 80% federal financing and The State would pay 20%. He may WANT to pay for the road that way, but evidently he has not done his research, or he would have known that 80/20 was the original way that DelDOT WANTED to build the new bypass. That was squashed years ago. The State gets a limited amount of funds from the feds each year (which by the way is unsustainable at the current level we receive). If we used the 80/20 method to build the New 301, all the federal funds we get every year would have to go directly to the construction of the new road and for the duration of the build and no other road project in Delaware would be completed during that 5-6 years time frame. We NEED those federal funds for far too many other projects to place them solely on one WANTED project.
He responded by saying, “Toll backed bonds may not be an option.” Of course, that is true, because of the number of cars and trucks that go over the Maryland/Delaware border. The main factor in toll revenue projections is traffic counts. As of now we have 10,800 vehicles that go over the border. 21% are trucks. If you use DelDOT’s own numbers (and projections that 60% of the 10,800 will get on the new road) and calculate the tolls paid, (which is unlikely) you come up with approximately $13 million in revenue. That may seems like a lot until you realize that the debt service on the bonds sold to build the road is $25 million each year for 40 years. Or to put it another way, the cost will be $1 Billion dollars, leaving the residents of the State of Delaware, holding the bag for the remaining debt of $480 million dollars. Not to mention the $5-6 million a year for operation and up keep once the road is opened.
I asked the Secretary where we would get the missing funds to cover the debt service. He quickly said we would get it from the Transportation Trust Fund. Really? He hadn’t yet really delved into the actual funding issues or he would know the dire straits of our Transportation Trust Fund. Per DelDOT’s own report to the Office of Budget and Management, “About 37 percent of the agency’s spending goes to payments on past bond sales, (Debt Service) and another 22 percent for transit services.” That’s nearly 60% of our Budget leaving 40% for operations and road work. I told him, “I guess we could do that, but we would be spreading ourselves awfully thin!” and He agreed. Again he was suggesting that we may or may not build this road.
He said that quite a few times in our meeting: “we may or may not build this road,” or “toll revenue bonds may not be an option.” He told me at the end of our meeting that he wanted to speak to those in favor of the road project and those against and to look at all the data. This is where I hope he spoke truthfully. Mainly, because I know once he really looked at all the facts, that this road would be a fiscal liability to the State of Delaware.
Here’s hoping Secretary Bhatt is a man of his word and takes a serious independent look at this project and others the DOT has had in their sights. He NEEDS decides what the State of Delaware NEEDS to get done, not what folks necessarily WANT!