As a state legislator and a long-time member of the Laurel Fire Department, I’m familiar with the department’s plans to construct a new satellite fire station on Fire Tower Road, northeast of Laurel. The new facility should speed response times, increase public safety and save lives.
During the planning phase for this worthy project, I was displeased to learn that the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) would not approve the site plan, nor grant an entrance permit, unless it included sidewalks.
At first blush, that may appear to be a reasonable request — until you learn that the station site is currently a watermelon field in a rural area that is not slated for residential development. The sidewalks would connect to nothing, starting and ending in farm fields.
The fire department was given a choice: They could either install the sidewalks or pay a fee that would allow them to avoid that requirement. Department officials decided to pay the fee, which was a fraction of the cost of building the useless sidewalks to nowhere.
DelDOT officials explained that the fee would be held in an account, just in case sidewalks were needed there in the future. However, I am more inclined to think of the fee as the coerced payment in a state-sponsored shakedown. In further questioning DelDOT staffers I learned that the money the fire department paid will be used for inter-modal transportation needs in Sussex County, but not necessarily in the Laurel area.
The Laurel Fire Department is not alone in being subject to this policy. Both the Ellendale Volunteer Fire Company and the Memorial Volunteer Fire Company at Slaughter Beach faced similar choices between installing sidewalks or paying a fee in their sub-station projects.
Gov. Jack Markell has made building new paths around the state a priority for his administration. In fact, one of the first things Jack Markell did when he became governor was issue Executive Order #6 (April 2009) directing DelDOT to create a “Complete Streets Policy” to promote hiking, biking and walking.
The governor built on that initiative last year by unveiling his First State Trails and Pathways Plan, identifying 19 proposed projects that could be undertaken within the next several years. The governor was able to get $7 million included in the current capital budget earmarked for trail development.
In his new state capital budget Gov. Markell has proposed almost doubling that spending, asking for $13 million to create additional trails.
No one is suggesting that making Delaware friendlier to those people that wish to bike, walk and hike is not a good thing. However, I believe that goal needs to be tempered with prudence and placed into proper perspective. The cost of projects intended to make our communities safer should not be driven higher by well-intentioned, but ultimately misguided, state policies.
Clifford G. “Biff” Lee is a State Representative serving the 40th district (Laurel).