Future of railroad at crossroads in Lewes

DelDOT: Remove it all or keep a piece for historic value
November 21, 2017

When three railroad tanker cars are hauled out of Lewes in the coming weeks, it will mark the end of an era. After more than 100 years, the railroad will be no more.

Preparations are already underway to remove the rail line from Savannah Road west to Fisher Road in Cool Spring, but the future of the lines within the city of Lewes is still up for debate. 

Lewes Mayor and City Council held a workshop Nov. 14 to discuss the rail line, and Bob Perrine, DelDOT’s railroad program manager, presented city officials with options.

The city could preserve a small section of the railroad for its historic and cultural value or it could choose to have the entire line removed. 

“We need to preserve the history,” said resident Mike Tyler. “I think it’s very important because we’re a historic town and this is a very strong element of our history.”

If the city is interested in keeping a section of rail, Perrine recommended a small portion, about 800 feet, between Kings Highway and Monroe Avenue.

Tyler suggested the city consider obtaining a rail car – a caboose or locomotive – for display purposes to pay homage to Lewes’ rich rail history. 

Mayor Ted Becker said state archives officials are interested in placing a historic marker along the railroad between the Lewes Public Library and the new Rollins Community Center. Sen. Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes, has already agreed to sponsor and finance the marker. 

The railroad bed is 147 years old, Perrine said, making it the oldest in the state and one of the oldest in the country. 

Until last year, Delaware Coast Line Railroad hauled materials to and from SPI Pharma near Cape Henlopen State Park a few times a month. That all changed when it was discovered the historic swing bridge over the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal was unsafe. After further study, DelDOT determined it would be too expensive to repair the bridge and decided to decommission the railroad line from Cool Spring to Lewes. 

DelDOT expects to begin removing the rail line in the spring, with a targeted start in April. Before that can occur, Perrine said, DelDOT must first receive approval from the Surface Transportation Board of the U.S. Department of Transportation, and then the project will be advertised. Due to the size and scope, Perrine said, the project should attract national companies and affordable estimates. 

“This is the first major rail removal we’ve looked at,” Perrine said. “We’re looking at five or six miles of track. We have removed track before many times, but in much smaller pieces.”

DelDOT plans to keep ownership of the railroad right of way.

“We will be retaining railroad rights to the property,” Perrine said. “That is very significant in the process to decommission the line. Rail rights are very difficult to obtain, and since we have them and don’t know about the future, it’s better to retain them.”

Whether Lewes decides to keep or remove the railroad, DelDOT is seeking an agreement with city officials for maintenance of the right of way. The city does not have to maintain the property, but DelDOT’s level of care would likely be less than desirable for residents, Perrine said. 

“You’re going to get a standard DelDOT maintenance treatment, which none of you would be very happy with looking out your windows,” he said. “Twice a year we’ll come in and … knock it down.” 

If the city were to take over maintenance, he said, the rail bed could be removed and replaced with grass or wild flowers that could be maintained by the city. 

If the city retains a portion of track, Perrine said, maintenance would be the city’s responsibility. He doesn’t foresee a great expense. 

“Being static, you’re just going to have rust,” he said. “It will be awhile before it rusts far enough to where you’ll have to do something for safety. From a maintenance perspective, you’ll just have to keep the weeds out.”

The rail crossings at Gills Neck Road, Kings Highway and Savannah Road will be removed along with all others outside the city limits. Depending on whether the city decides to retain a portion of the track, others could be removed as well. 

The rail crossing on Freeman Highway is the responsibility of the Delaware River and Bay Authority. DelDOT still has to discuss its future with DRBA, Perrine said. 

He said the elimination of the crossing could coincide with track removal from Cape Henlopen State Park to Freeman Highway, which will likely occur simultaneously with removal of the rest of the rail line. 

Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control officials are interested in converting the 1.5-mile section of track into a trail with eventual connection to Lewes’ other trails, possibly via American Legion Road. 

The 3.2-mile section of rail from Savannah Road west to Minos Conaway Road will be converted to a multi-use path as part of the second phase of the Lewes-to-Georgetown Trail. Work on that is expected to begin in fall 2018. 

Removal of the canal swing bridge will be a separate project, Perrine said. He said environmental studies must be completed before DelDOT can move forward with removal. 

“We’re not just going to remove it and destroy it,” he said. “Part of our environmental assessment is to determine where the bridge can go.” 

The goal, he said, is to have the bridge on display at a place where it can be used for educational purposes. 

The city of Lewes will continue to receive comments regarding the portion of rail within city limits through Thursday, Nov. 30. Comments may be sent to Council will then discuss the future of the railroad before sending its preference to DelDOT Secretary Jennifer Cohan.

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