DELAWARE – The Delaware Department of Transportation is among many highway associations across the United States keeping a close watch on Capitol Hill, as their main source of funding is slowly running out.
"My sense is that we have to prepare for the worst, because it could be an August fix, it could be a November fix, it could be next year until they get around to this," says DelDOT secretary Shailen Bhatt.
The Highway Trust Fund, which contributes to all major highway projects in the first state, is reportedly expected to shrink to $4 billion in July. From this point, Bhatt says the Federal Highway Administration will start limiting payments, and once they get to a zero balance they stop them completely.
"Five billion dollars sounds like a lot of money but it's not in terms of every state drawing down on the Highway Trust Fund," says Bhatt. "When they stop that funding we are forced to either tell the contractor to stop work or we've got to cover the payments ourselves and that's a pretty significant impact."
With the fund's future unknown, DelDOT is being very careful about the contracts that they advertise, and are not seeking bids for projects they normally would advertise at this time. Across the state there are eight projects that could be slowed or shut down if the funds are not available this summer, and seven projects that are ready to be advertised for bids, but will not be able to move forward if the funds are not available.
A handful of those projects are on Delmarva. For instance, the widening of Route 26 is already underway.
"We finally got that project underway and what's also important is we got the locals to make sure it was a three-year construction time frame, not working during the beach season and the peak season," says Bhatt. "That's one that could be significantly impacted if we run into trouble."
Pedestrian improvement projects were set to begin this summer on Route 1 between Lewes and Rehoboth, but that also will not happen without the fund. This project involved a task force with a number of leaders from the area, after reports of 14 injuries and five fatalities on the highway between 2011 and 2013.
"Safety is a priority," says Carol Everhart, President of the Rehoboth-Dewey Chamber of Commerce, which had a number of representatives on the task force. "There needs to be more lighting, it's difficult to see someone who's crossing the highway, and pedestrians aren't necessarily using the crosswalks and walkways on that highway."
"We've identified an unsafe condition, we worked with the community to come up with sidewalk improvements and crosswalk improvements that are going to make things safer for everybody that's coming down there," says Bhatt. "The longer it takes to get started the longer it takes to make things safer down there."
Bhatt says DelDOT does have a $50 million set aside from last year that they can use, although it was not originally intended to replace federal money. He says that will be their first line of defense, but it can only go so far, and then they would be forced to shut down projects.
Meanwhile, legislators such as Senator Tom Carper (D-Del) have proposed a federal gas tax, which has not been changed since 1995.
Regardless of the decision, Bhatt hopes congress makes one quickly.
"If there are other alternatives out there we'd love to look at them, but at the end of the day, just like your electricity, your water, there's a cost for infrastructure and we need to pay it," says Bhatt. "Hopefully we can get this resolved before we get into a direr situation."
According to DelDOT, below is a list of some major projects underway that could be slowed or shut down if federal transportation funds dry up this summer.
Projects Currently Under Construction (Amount of FY 15 Fed. Funds at Risk)
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