- Associated Press - Friday, June 26, 2015

DOVER, Del. (AP) - Long-term answers to traffic congestion in Delaware could include new and expanded commuter rail service, special lanes for buses, even a light-rail system linking Wilmington with southern Delaware and other parts of the Delmarva peninsula.

For now, however, the answer seems to be to build more roads.

Although the Delaware Department of Transportation is eyeing several ideas to expand bus and rail service, particularly in northern Delaware, expanding and improving the existing road system remains a key factor in trying to ease gridlock.

“Our primary efforts are aimed at expanding capacity on roadways that experience routine rush-hour commuter congestion or seasonal congestion due to increased traffic from outside the state,” said DelDOT spokesman Geoff Sundstrom.

Many of those efforts involve Interstate 95, where some 25 million vehicles go through the toll plaza annually. Workers are upgrading the junction with state Route 202, while officials look at plans to reconfigure the ramps at state routes 896 and 273 to handle higher volumes.

Plans are being made to realign U.S. Route 301 to help alleviate congestion from high volumes of truck traffic in the rapidly growing Middletown area. Plans call for a four-lane, limited access toll road, using electronic roadside detectors to scan E-ZPass transponders or license plates for automatic billing. The road would extend from the Maryland border to Route 1, Delaware’s major north-south artery.

DelDOT also is planning to widen Route 1, a frequent site of rush-hour congestion, from the Chesapeake and Delaware canal bridge to just north of Route 273. The work is expected to cost more than $100 million.

“That’s a very big project,” noted DelDOT chief engineer Rob McCleary.

Farther south, project plans include a major bypass around Millsboro and a connector road tying Route 13 to Route 8 in Dover.

“Our expectation is that traffic will continue to grow, but we are doing projects to keep up with it,” McCleary said. “I don’t think congestion gets worse. Congestion will always be part of the system, but we’re trying to keep up with it and keep up with the pace of traffic growth.”

Meanwhile, the vast majority of Delaware commuters continue to drive alone, eschewing mass transit and carpooling that can be arranged through RideShare Delaware, which works with employers to help set up carpools among interested employees. RideShare also offers free ride-matching services for commuters and parents of Delaware school students.

“It’s marginally successful. We keep pushing it,” said John Sisson, CEO of DelDOT’s Delaware Transit Corp.

Transit officials also continue to eye system improvements to increase bus and rail ridership. Ridership on fixed bus routes fell from 10.6 million in fiscal 2012 to 9.9 million in fiscal 2014, while rail ridership declined slightly last year. The only steady growth has been in paratransit bus service for the disabled.

Systemwide, transit ridership fell from a peak of more than 12.8 million in fiscal 2012 to less than 12.2 million in fiscal 2014. Through April of the current fiscal year, which ends Tuesday, ridership totaled about 9.6 million.

Sisson said falling gasoline prices in recent years have resulted in a corresponding decrease in transit ridership, with more people, choosing to drive their own cars.

Sisson noted that transit in northern Delaware is usually a matter of choice for people seeking to avoid congestion and the cost of tolls, parking and fuel. In contrast, people in central and southern Delaware often rely on mass transit because they have no other means of transportation, he said.

Sisson said Delaware’s efforts to increase transit use include studying how to make the transit system in Wilmington more efficient and offering real-time information on bus locations and wait times. Officials also are exploring the use of HOV lanes for buses in the Wilmington area.

“We’re trying to make transit more attractive using technology,” Sisson explained.

DelDOT officials also are exploring expanded rail service capacity in Newark, which could result in closing a 20-mile gap in passenger service between Newark and Perryville, Maryland, on Amtrak’s northeast corridor. They also are looking at improved rail service in Claymont, where the current Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority station has limited parking and poses access problems for the disabled. Developers who bought a nearby shuttered steel plant have suggested that they could incorporate a new train station into their redevelopment proposal

“We’re really interested in that concept. … That’s a potential win-win for everybody,” Sisson said.

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