Delaware DOT Focuses on Community Engagement with Five Points Transportation Study
Seasonal Traffic Solution: DelDOT Partners with the Community to Find Congestion Reduction for Five Points Intersection
Sometimes, construction projects are as simple as “see a need, fill a need” or “see a problem, fix a problem”. Other times those needs, problems, and solutions are less clear, and various constituencies may have different viewpoints when it comes to resolutions. This scenario has arisen in Delaware, which led to the Five Points Transportation Study.
Located in Eastern Sussex County, Five Points is the name given to the area around the intersection located at Routes 1 and 9 in Lewes, Delaware. Lewes is one of a few beach towns in the area (others are Rehoboth, Dewey, and Bethany), which also includes Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and Cape Henlopen State Park. The city of Lewes, whose year-round population is just over 3,000, is located where the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean meet.
During the summer months, the populations of Lewes swells as it is a popular tourist area. In addition to the natural gifts the area is fortunate to have, Lewes is a family-oriented and relaxed town. The seasonal traffic that comes with tourists have left the roads extremely congested.
Development of the area has been sprawling and could have been better coordinated. “There’s a lack of connectivity in the areas which leads to pressure on the road network and poor traffic distribution,” says Joshua Thomas, a Planning Supervisor for the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT). Thomas, who has been with DelDOT for 11 years, manages a team that is responsible for long range transportation planning and works with local government and Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO’s) to develop projects and determine needs. Thomas sites multiple examples of the connectivity issues in the area, including traveling between shopping centers and residential subdivisions.
The transportation issues in the area have been known for years. Ideas and solutions on how to rectify the problems have been floated in the past, yet none moved forward. While each of the previous plans went through a public outreach process, many local community members felt they should have had advance notice that solutions were needed and plans were being developed. “This study came about because the county and DelDOT realized we had to have a partnership study and bring all of the major parties together,” says Thomas.
A Focus on Outreach
Therefore, phase one of the Five Points Transportation Study focused exclusively on outreach. The goal was to listen and work with the community and to encourage their engagement. There were many public meetings and open forums where community members joined with DelDOT representatives to come up with a list of recommendations to DelDOT and Sussex County.
One of the key representatives for DelDOT on the study is Jennifer Cinelli-Miller, a Transportation Planner. Beyond her multiple years with DelDOT, Cinelli-Miller grew up in Delaware and is an area resident. As a child, Cinelli-Miller recalls that some of the area around Five Points was dunes while now it’s bursting with development. “I think my background enables me to connect with the residents and appreciate their concerns,” says Cinelli-Miller.
Phase one of the project began in December 2017 and lasted for one year. As a result of phase one, there were 78 total recommendations for projects of various scope. The 78 recommendations were divided into four categories:
Implement policies and procedures to make the area more efficient, sustainable, and beautiful
Make the most of the existing roadway infrastructure
Make walking, bicycling, and transit more viable as alternatives to driving
Invest in new infrastructure to support anticipated growth
“Each of these recommendations will be addressed,” says Thomas. “That could be in the form of further studies and ultimately in capital projects if the county and DelDOT determine the project has merit.” Some of the 78 recommendations are operational things where DelDOT can enact new processes to make things better.
Phase two of the project began in April and has no defined endpoint. It is during this period that some of the studies noted above will take place. In addition, to evaluating the recommendations, progress of the ideas will be tracked.
Engaging the public on such a wide scale comes with challenges. Their perspective and understanding of the problems and solutions varies from transportation professionals.
“Transportation planners and engineers may be able to look further into the future and see a problem, yet the public might be reluctant till they see the actual challenges,” says Thomas. “Congestion issues are not going way and there needs to be a renewed focus on how to handle them.”
Another challenge is managing expectations. “We are trying to educate people about what long-range transportation planning looks like,” says Cinelli-Miller. “Some studies can be done in a month or two, and it helps when as people see results in the interim.” Such actions help people buy into the process.
These days many people are skeptical and cynical when it comes to government. Therefore gaining the public’s trust was a major hurdle to over come during phase one. “We had to earn their trust through the process,” says Cinelli-Miller. “We connected enough so people came to believe we won’t say one thing and then do another.”
With the public feeling comfortable, respected, and appreciated, they opened up about the issues that concern them, including safety and summer road congestion.
While DelDOT does outreach with every project, this is unique in that it has been more extensive and strategic. This slows the process down, but does allow people to be informed and engaged.
“We are documenting this as it’s going to be a model for all of our studies, certainly the bigger ones where there is more pressure and need,” says Thomas. “However, not every project will have this degree of outreach.”
Cinelli-Miller is proud of how the process has played out. “It speaks to how great projects can be when the public is involved from the start. It’s been a great experience to be so connected to the public.”
In due time the town of Lewes and the whole Five Points area in Sussex County, Delaware will have a transportation system that will easily and quickly connect commuters to where they want to go. That system will be a result of a partnership between DelDOT and the public determining what is wanted and needed for the area.