DelDOT Secretary Shailen Bhatt is not one to hold back when he talks about the past and future of the department.
He said pedestrian fatalities on Route 1 require a response and also called for talks to discuss options to protect the Indian River Inlet bridge.
He said because Delaware Department of Transportation owns 95 percent of the state's roads, the department has to deal with complex, multimillion projects on I-95 as well as potholes on back country roads. “Transportation touches everybody, everyday,” said Bhatt, who has worked at many levels of government, easing his transition to become secretary of DelDOT.
Speaking Nov. 9 to the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce, Bhatt said fiscal responsibility has been a long-standing legacy issue in the department. “We had become the 'yes, and' agency,” he said meaning DelDOT went far beyond its means, falling $1.2 billion in debt.
Bhatt said 40 percent of the operating budget went to pay debt service when he became secretary last summer. His goal is to get that number down to 26 percent. Because DelDOT has stopped borrowing money, the debt has dropped to $1.1 billion, and Bhatt predicts debt will fall below $1 billion next year.
“DelDOT has been in a dire financial situation because of legacy issues. We are making changes,” he said.
Bhatt broke down DelDOT's $500 million budget in simplistic forms: $140 million for salaries and benefits; $130 million for projects; $121 million for debt service; and $100 million for the transit system. DelDOT also receives $200 million in federal funds that can only be used on certain roads such as I-95, Route 1, Route 13 and Route 113.
Bhatt said the department is using transparency, financial responsibility, efficiency and accountability to tackle legacy issues that have caused DelDOT problems in the past.
The secretary said tough decisions are being made to prioritize projects and policy decisions to get the best return on every investment. “It means we have a reduced level of projects,” he said.
Many projects are still included in DelDOT's six-year capital plan, but have been postponed or rescheduled.
In the Cape Region, Bhatt said the recent pedestrian fatalities on Route 1 demonstrate that improvements are needed along the Route 1 corridor. “We need to address that issue,” he said.
In addition, plans are moving forward for a new transit and park-and-ride transportation hub near Five Points; construction is slated to start in 2014. DelDOT is also a partner in the First State Trails and Pathways initiative and is moving forward with plans for a bicycle/pedestrian rails-to-trails path between Georgetown and Lewes.
He said the I-95 interchange project near Christiana Mall is ahead of schedule and could be completed in 2013, a year ahead of schedule.
Questions about bridge protection
What most chamber members wanted to know from Bhatt was how the state will ensure the Indian River Inlet bridge stays open, even during storms. Water and sand buried Route 1 leading to the bridge as Hurricane Sandy churned off the coast Oct. 28.
As Bhatt answered questions, a nor'easter was moving up the coast. Water on Route 1 briefly closed off some lanes on Route 1 even during the second storm.
Bhatt said crews spent five days clearing 6.5 million cubic yards of sand off Route 1 following the Sandy. “DNREC thought the dune project would protect us, but after this we are forced to look at other options,” he said.
Getting to a solution involves three agencies, he explained. DelDOT is responsible for the roadbed and bridge; DNREC is responsible for the dunes and sand; and the Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for the Indian River Inlet.
Bhatt said the current plan is to bury corrugated metal sheet piling in the sand 1,000 yards along the beach. “It's there to defuse wave action so it does not undermine the approach roadbed. The bridge is a $150 million asset that must be protected properly. We will also discuss other options,” he said.