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Queen of the Roads

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Secretary of Transportation Carolann Wicks
leads one of the most visible departments in
state government. “We probably affect people
more than any other agency, whether it’s your
trip to work or your trip to the soccer game or
the bus was late,” she says. “There are so many
pieces of us that are affecting people’s daily lives.”
Photograph by Tom Nutter

www.tomnutterphotos.com

 

 

Queen of the Roads
Carolann Wicks faced a bumpy road when she climbed into DelDOT’s driver’s seat. It’s been far from a Sunday drive, but the department is patching up its problems-one pothole at a time.

Carolann Wicks became secretary of the Delaware Department of Transportation in February 2006 after Nathan Hayward retired due to illness.

Wicks was a natural choice, having worked her way up from entry-level engineer to chief engineer during her 23 years in the department.

As secretary, Wicks’ first-and by far most important-order of business was to steer the department through a $1.5 billion budget shortfall that threatened to force the state’s current and future transportation projects into gridlock.

Last summer the state legislature signed off on a plan to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund, the pot of money used for the agency’s capital projects. The plan raised vehicle fees and tolls and increased traffic fines.

Wicks joined DT at Chops Grill in the Sheraton Dover Hotel in mid-July to talk about her first year and a half as DelDOT’s head honcho.

DT: I drive I-95 every weekday, and it can be a nightmare. Can you tell me that the fifth lane and all the other projects are going to make it better?

CW: It’s going to help. Is it the ultimate solution for an interstate? I don’tthink any state can walk away and say, “We’ve taken care of all of our future issues.” We’ll be back. The ultimate plan would be to put separate roadways on the sides for more local traffic and then in the middle you have your main lanes for people going through. That again would be in addition to the improvements that we have now. We’re building this in phases, and with each step you make another level of improvement. It’s an ongoing challenge for us to keep up with the significant traffic that’s on there.

DT: Why does there always seem to be construction on the highway at the beach during summer?

CW: It’s hard to cure concrete and roll hotmix in the wintertime. But to that point, we are very mindful of major corridors like that, about how to work at night and what other kinds of traffic sequencing we do, not working on Monday mornings and Friday afternoons. We do limit our contractors in different parts of our state because of that, but at the end of the day, there’s only so many good weather days. And if it’s good weather for us, it’s good weather for people to be touring our state or traveling somewhere.

DT: What are the priority projects for the next few years?

CW: The I-95 corridor, in general, is a significant priority to us. The fifth lane is the first in a series. Once that’s done, we’ll be able to be in a situation to improve the interchange at the mall, because you need to be able to receive the capacity by having the fifth lane in place. It started really with the Churchman’s bridge crossing, where we pushed back the abutments.

We also have the Newark toll plaza, which needs to have highway speed lanes in there and to reduce the congestion and backup that occurs on a regular basis. It’s a huge amount of volume that’s on our interstate as a piece of I-95.

The 301 project is one I feel very professionally committed to seeing on its way due to the fact that the roadway of 896, as it goes up to Summit Bridge from Middletown, has had a significant amount of fatalities and serious accidents. It’s not just about how do we help Middletown grow. It’s about supporting development that is in the pipeline and coming. But it’s also about today’s issues of truck traffic and accidents.

The southern New Castle County and coordinating improvements there in general are part of what we’re working on. You have a lot of growth in Sussex that we have not been keeping up with. We’re trying to do that through some east-west improvements with SR 26, 54 and 24. This is getting these roads up to a standard of shoulders and intersection improvements and real basic operational improvements. In Kent County, there’s the West Dover Connector and Governors Avenue.

DT: How did the department run into problems with the trust fund?

CW: We came to a point in the agency that is not unlike other states. It is not unlike what we
doing on a national level as far as funding. For DelDOT, we have three areas that have come to this focal point.

One has been the increasing costs of doing our business. Fuel has gone up. Energy costs. Basic hotmix costs have gone up over the last several years. They’ve plateaued a little bit now, but in the last several years, they were just rising in a significant manner. Real estate-you think about the beach area-has gone up to a point where the cost of buying the land is actually exceeding the cost of the improvement, which had never been the case.

You add to that the demand we’ve been under given the increase in growth. Whether it’s southern New Castle County, whether it’s Sussex County, we are growing because we are a very attractive state to live in and to retire in and to recreate. All of that puts greater burden on the transportation system. It puts greater burden and demand on, for example, motor vehicle services, transit services, the like.

Lastly, as the result of trying to work our way through that, we have had a backlog in our pipeline of projects and some very significant projects that for a small state, have been very challenging for us to completely accomplish. You’ve got this rush of project needs that are in the pipeline. Our revenues have been stable, but they haven’tbeen growing at the same rate because they’re not indexed with inflation.

DT: Didn’tthe folks at DelDOT see that coming?

CW: Actually, we did see it coming. We did alert the legislature in our Bond Bill as we made the presentation. It just came faster than we thought it would have. We had some level of expectation that, given the demands of projects growing and the growth of the state, but I think that culminated with the cost increase of the materials that did spike, that that happened, the drawdown or the ability to have our dollars go as far as they have in the past came upon us faster than we had predicted.

We had foreseen it and we had pointed it out, but it wasn’timminent, and so in that situation it ended up coming forward faster.

DT: What were the alternatives to fee increases?

CW: The alternative was very bleak. We would make sure we would honor our contractual obligations, such as the fifth lane on I-95. The revenues coming in for the next several years were basically going to be allocated to finishing that job. Then you have to look at where your federal funds are coming from and then match them with the appropriate state match, so you don’tlose any federal dollars.

Well, it wouldn’tbe very long before, not only would we not have any new state initiatives, we would be running into trouble with actually matching those federal dollars because of the contractual obligations we already had.

It was a fairly bleak picture going forward. I was certainly not looking to exaggerate, but just be factual about how far our money would be able to go before we would have to say, “We can’tput anything else out on the street.” Because if you’re going to advertise something, you better be sure you have future revenues to take care of that contractual obligation.

We knew we were at a crossroads, a structural crossroads, with the Transportation Trust Fund, if we were going to move forward as a state.

DT: Is privatization still on the table?

CW: It is. We did not recognize it as an immediate solution because of the immediate need to infuse new revenues into the trust fund for ’08.

To do a privatization, if you use I-95 as an example, would take a fair amount of due diligence to go through and understand how much it would truly work. What would you have to establish in the contract to ensure that we, as citizens, would be given good maintenance, long-term capacity, and all the other pieces of that we’ve come to know and expect of what we try to live up to.

Understand the trade-off of having a cash settlement up front and losing those tolls for the life of the lease versus having the tolls yourself, borrowing against those tolls, as we do, and doing it in the more traditional approach.

It will take, if we are to pursue that any further, an educational process on our part to educate our legislators and the public because the sentiment tends to be, “No, we don’twant our roads sold to other people or groups or entities.” There’s a knee-jerk reaction that people have that this is not a good thing. It would take some time to do that.

On a national level, that is being pushed. Where do you go if people don’twant their gas tax increased? Where do you come up with the revenues by which to fund programs?

DT: What is the most common complaint you hear about the department?

CW: That we’ve fallen behind and we’re not delivering as much as everybody wants. Everybody wants things quickly and, certainly, with the least amount of impact to their route to work.

I-95 has certainly been one of the more common complaint areas, given the amount of traffic and how something can quickly go wrong and then it’s gridlock. In general, there’s always more to do, and people want it done as quickly as possible.

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