FENWICK ISLAND — Spurred by pressure from several residents and business owners suffering through one of the worst summers in decades, Delaware transportation officials this week announced the construction schedule for the ongoing Route 54 rehabilitation will be limited to nighttime hours for the remainder of the season.
Last fall, the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDot) embarked on an ambitious project to widen Route 54 from its intersection at Route 20 to the Mallard Lakes community. The improvements include adding a 14-foot wide center turn lane as well as adding six-foot-wide bike lanes and five-foot-wide sidewalks.
While no one would argue with the intent of the $8.1 million project, which will greatly improve traffic flow and public safety along the blossoming corridor in the long run, much of the heavy construction is taking place in the heart of the summer tourist season, snarling traffic and often creating hour-long back-ups in the middle of the day.
As a result, many of the businesses along the corridor are suffering through one of the worst summer seasons on record as many potential customers are opting to forego the tie-ups and long waits. To that end, a core group of Route 54 business owners, with the backing of Delaware Senator George Bunting and Representative Gerald Hocker, successfully petitioned DelDot to alter the construction schedule to night-time hours only for the remainder of the summer season with no construction activity scheduled for weekends or holidays.
Smitty McGee’s owner Dawn McGee said this week she only hopes the changes haven’t come too late to salvage the remainder of the summer for many businesses along the corridor.
“We met with the hierarchy at DelDOT and were able to get it stopped during the day. It has been taking us right down the toilet,” she said. “We’ve never had a summer season. Ocean City is reporting record weekends, and we haven’t had anything resembling a summer season yet.”
On Tuesday, DelDOT announced it had heard the message loud and clear and agreed to alter the construction schedule for the next seven weeks, limiting work from the hours of 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. on Monday-Friday for the remainder of the summer. In addition, no construction work will occur during daytime hours for the remainder of the summer other than occasional utility work and material deliveries.
“DelDot has acted quickly and responsibly to address concerns raised by motorists, business owners, residents, emergency responders and legislators,” said DelDOT secretary Shailen Bhatt. “While there will be some additional costs and project schedule changes associated with the temporary switch from day work to night work, DelDOT believes these effects will be minimal compared to the benefits of alleviating excessive traffic congestion for area residents and businesses during the remainder of the busy summer tourist season.”
Bhatt acknowledged the impact on business and the flow of traffic to the Delaware resorts was at the heart of the decision to alter the construction schedule.
“A financially prosperous beach vacation season is vital to the economic viability of many resort businesses in Delaware,” Bhatt said. “Full and part-time residents who look forward to the summer beach season will also find it easier to reach local businesses and go about their daily routines.”
For some along Route 54, the late-July construction change is certainly welcome news, but could come too late to salvage a lost summer season.
“For the first time in 22 years, I’ve had to lay off people in the middle of the summer,” said McGee. “The damage has been done. I can’t fix the damage that has already been done, but maybe we can salvage what’s left of the summer with these changes. Hopefully, the word gets out that they aren’t working during the day and that Route 54 is open and clear again.”
While the year-round Smitty McGee’s could be insulated somewhat from the long-term effects of the highway construction, others might not be as lucky.
“There could be some businesses that rely almost entirely on the summer business that might not be around next year,” she said. “Anybody that’s just getting by and relies on the summer might not make it through next winter.”
Mia Fratello’s is another business with a strong local following that has suffered through half of a summer because of the ongoing project and the congestion and back-ups.
“We lost most of June because of it,” said owner Bryan Keith this week. “Our lunch and happy hour business was down because people didn’t want to sit in traffic for 45 minutes to go two miles.”
Keith said in the short time since the schedule was changed on Tuesday, his business is already seeing the repercussions.
“For me, it’s helped already in the last two days,” he said. “Lunch has picked up and happy hour has already picked up because you can get down Route 54 without stopping for an hour.”
Mia Fratello’s has spent most of the summer coping with a physical impediment from the construction.
“We’re really blessed to have a great local following and we do well almost all year long, but this has made it difficult for anybody new to find us,” he said. “They built this five-foot wall in front of our business that obstructs the view from the roadway. The wall was built to accommodate raising the road, but that part of the project is not scheduled until the winter.”