Santa Knew Delaware Rt 301 Tolls Would Push Trucks to Cecil County; DELDOT Still the Grinch

January 22, 2019
By

NEWS ANALYSIS

It was a snowy December night in Middletown, DE a decade or so ago, when the Delaware Department of Transportation (DELDOT) held a public meeting to showcase its plans for a Route 301 toll road around the rapidly growing town. Mark Tudor, the project director, glibly touted the glossy pictures and charts around the room, and responded dismissively to citizens’ questions. But he wasn’t quite prepared for Santa Claus.

Outside the meeting, Dr. David Beste, a veterinarian and owner of the Middletown Veterinary Hospital, wore a Santa suit, accompanied by a four-legged crew of protestors, with faux antlers on their heads and signs around their necks. “I need my Vet;” “Don’t take my Doc,” and “Pets, not trucks,” were a few of the canine complaints.

DELDOT wanted to put toll booths and/or approach lanes for toll collection on the hospital property, located at the intersection of 301 and Del. 299, taking a huge swath of the site where Beste had just completed a major expansion and renovation of his hospital, located a short distance from Warwick in Cecil County, MD. The road plan would have made his property unusable for a vet hospital and negated his major investment in expansion and renovation.

But some of Santa’s elves—pet parents who lived in southern Cecil County who were concerned about keeping their local vet but also worried about the impact on Cecil County traffic from the 301 toll road—raised another concern: “toll diversion.” That means trucks and cars diverting from the main highway to rural roads in Cecil County to avoid paying the tolls. “No TOLLS,” read the small hand-written signs attached to baseball caps.

For years, Tudor and other DELDOT leaders pooh-poohed the diversion problem, telling a “tolls working group” meeting in Cecilton that it would not be a big issue. Documents of that working group show DELDOT estimated that the toll road would reduce car traffic by 1,400 to 1,500 cars per day on Route 213 in Maryland, which links to Rt. 301 in Maryland in Kent County and extends north through Cecil County. And DELDOT claimed truck traffic on 213 would increase by “zero to 100” trucks per day.

Perhaps the local protesters should have also donned Pinocchio costumes, with elongated noses.

Although DELDOT eventually relented and took a much smaller segment of the veterinary hospital’s land and moved the toll booths down Rt. 301 to the state line with Maryland, Santa and his elves were right that the toll road would dump traffic onto rural Cecil County roads and clog Rt. 213 near Cecilton.

The toll road opened for business a week ago and already truck traffic is clogging back roads in Warwick, escalating tractor-trailer hauling from Warwick to Cecilton on Route 282 to Route 213, and also frustrating farmers and rural residents along Sassafras Road, Edgar Price Road, and Wards Hill Road as truckers seek to avoid the 301 tolls in Delaware and back-track to toll-free 301 in Maryland.

Cecilton Mayor Joseph Zang, who has warned about truckers’ toll diversion problems for several years while the 301 project was under construction, appeared before the Cecil County Council on Tuesday (1/22/2019) to relate the problems his town is having and discuss attempts to get solutions to the problem through the State Highway Administration in Maryland and other agencies.

“We need to protect the integrity of our small town,” Zang said. The town has one traffic light, at the intersection of Routes 213 and 282.

He has been working with the county Sheriff’s Office to enforce speed limits in town and in nearby Warwick and is trying to get SHA enforcement of weight limits on area small roads that are being violated by large trucks seeking to evade the tolls.

He said there have been discussions with Kent County, MD on getting a “virtual” truck weight station on 213 to catch overweight trucks, which are also using local roads to try to evade a full-scale weigh station located on 301 at the Maryland-Delaware line.

In Warwick, there are several small signs stating that trucks are barred from side roads and only permitted for “local deliveries.” An hour-long CECIL TIMES surveillance Tuesday afternoon in the Warwick area spotted multiple large truck violators of the limits, including a massive trailer with Pennsylvania plates that rumbled through Warwick from a 301 bypass route on local roads and then turned into the rural Sassafras Road near the Hammers restaurant, apparently headed to the toll-less section of 301 in Maryland’s Kent County.

But some local residents say there should be prominent signs, with weight limits posted, in Warwick itself and tough enforcement against violators.

County Councilor Al Miller (R-3) said he visited a farm family on Edgar Price Road on Sunday and spotted major ruts in fields adjacent to the road, caused by large trucks that had trouble navigating the narrow rural roads. He said local residents told him that trucks are creating a safety hazard in the area, with some even trying to turn around when they get lost trying to avoid the tolls.

He said the situation will only get worse as winter weather brings snow and ice to the rural roads that were never designed to handle so much truck traffic. He said he snapped a photo of a large truck with New Jersey license plates barreling along the rural roadway—clearly not a local traveler.

Mayor Zang said that part of the problem is that Cecil County doesn’t have the resources to post deputies at all hours to try to catch toll evading trucks. But Kent County has been helpful with its Sheriff’s Department catching large trucks speeding through Galena on Rt. 213. Galena is a well-known speed trap, with Sheriff’s cars lying in wait, at all hours of the day or night, to catch speeders—both cars and trucks– moving faster than its 25 miles per hour limit in the core of the town.

The Cecilton mayor also answered council members’ questions about a study to potentially install a speed camera in the town—which would be the county’s first—in response to speeding as well as the increased traffic in town due to toll diversion from DELDOT’s Middletown project on Rt. 301.

Zang said an initial one-day survey found 76 vehicles exceeding the speed limit by 12 miles or higher, with readings taken near Cecilton Elementary School on Route 282 and the Head Start children’s center on Route 213. He noted that state law allows speed cameras within a mile of a school, and that the entire town would fall within that area limit. He said he wants to conduct a longer time study, on multiple days, to get a clearer picture before any decisions are made on going ahead with a speed camera program.

Cecilton is a “one stop-light town,” he said. But children still walk to school and have to cross busy roads such as Route 213 to reach their classrooms.

Cecil County Executive Alan McCarthy appeared at the Council worksession and added to the discussion on the toll diversion problem, saying that he spent an entire day last week discussing the problems with State Highway Administration officials and pressuring them to resolve some of the issues with top officials of DELDOT. He said he hoped that there would be action on the issues in the next few weeks.

While DELDOT has been dismissive of Cecil County concerns for many years, the fiscal reality of the new toll road may wake up some top officials now. The Rt. 301 massive construction project, calculated to have cost a total of $636 million including land acquisition costs, is under federal fiscal pressure to collect tolls.

A key element of its funding is a federal $211 million loan that is supposed to be repaid by revenues from tolls collected on the road. Cars pay $4 for traveling the full 14-mile roadway if motorists use an EZ pass transponder. There are no cash toll stations, so if a driver does not have an EZ pass, a license-plate reader will send a bill for $5.60 per trip. Trucks pay higher fees based on the number of axles, with most paying $11 or $12.

Trucks are supposed to provide 55 percent of toll revenues on the new Rt. 301 toll road, according to DELDOT documents, even though trucks were estimated to provide just 18 percent of the traffic on the new road. Any major diversion of truck traffic from the toll road could jeopardize the fiscal solvency of the project.

If toll revenues fall short, DELDOT will have to tap other state funds to repay its federal loan. So Delaware has a financial incentive to co-operate with Maryland to keep through-traffic on the toll road and avoid trucks’ toll evasion through rural Cecil County.

So perhaps wiser, and fiscally worried, DELDOT officials will finally listen to Cecil County officials and residents now. And Santa and his elves won’t have to deal with the dismissive attitude of Mark Tudor now. He has moved on to another major construction project for DELDOT: running the massive rail hub project to link AMTRAK and SEPTA commuter lines in Newark, DE.

In classic DELDOT fashion, no bad deed goes unrewarded?

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2 Responses to Santa Knew Delaware Rt 301 Tolls Would Push Trucks to Cecil County; DELDOT Still the Grinch

  1. Edwina Walters on January 23, 2019 at 10:46 am

    The big trucks are going to destroy the small country roads! If you meet one they all but run you off the road.

  2. Holly Crawford on February 4, 2019 at 10:27 pm

    DOT could fix this problem by just lowering the toll at the middletown on and off ramp . I work in Crumpton and live in Middletown– it would cost me almost $3000.00 a year to get on the new 301 for less than 5 mins, $2000.00 if I had ez pass. People can’t afford this HIGH toll.

    I have been in contact with DOT many many times, senators aides, govern aides. If they lower the middletown on and off ramp the traffic would stop going around the toll. Lowering to $1.00 each way would only be $10.00 a week for people like me who use 301 5 days a week. One of the first thing I told them was it was going to be on their head when there were accidents on these small roads. My parents live in Warwick and its hard for them to get out of their drive way.

    Delaware DOT got greedy and its causing havoc on all those around this area. We must not give up this fight for Dot to do the right thing

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