News that the completion date for construction work on Laurel’s Central Avenue Bridge is once again being delayed has been met with more than just frustration. There is also a lack of confidence by some in the state’s ability to properly engineer such a project. On June 21, the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) informed the town of Laurel that the bridge renovation project might be delayed as much as two months.
DelDOT Secretary Jennifer Cohan, said the agency understands the frustration felt by the community of Laurel. “We share the community’s frustration that this project has taken much longer than anticipated,” Cohan said in a press statement on June 21. “It is often easier and faster to build a new bridge than rehabilitate an old one, as it is a more complex project where more work can be required than initially planned. We have seen that happen here as the work on this historic structure has encountered numerous issues that has slowed progress and prevented the contractor, Eastern Highway Specialists, from meeting the latest expected completion date of June 28, 2019.”
She went on to say that, contracts between EHS and the state call for a penalty assessment of $1,060 per day for every day after June 28 that the project is not completed
The Central Avenue Bridge, which was last rehabilitated in 1992, closed on May 15, 2018, and was originally estimated to be completed in January 2019. According to Cohan, the project was delayed by three months due to a restriction on any work happening in the water during sturgeon migration and additional time needed to complete the pier foundation in the river to support the nearly 100 year-old bridge structure.
Though Cohan gave no specific reason why the bridge was again being delayed, she alluded to the remaining work that needed to be completed which includes final painting of the steel bridge structure, pouring the concrete road deck and completing the pedestrian pathway, and paving the approaches to the bridge.
Members of Laurel Town Council joined DelDOT representatives as they met with the bridge construction contractor at the Central Avenue Bridge on Friday, June 21, to announce the delay in the project. Among those present for the gathering were also State Rep. Tim Dukes and Laurel citizen Rick McVey, who ran as a candidate in the recent Laurel Town Council elections.
McVey said he was disappointed that more citizens in the community were not there for the gathering, saying he feels the loss of the Central Avenue Bridge has impacted the town severely, especially those businesses on the south side of Central Avenue “whose businesses have been decimated by the lack of traffic through the heart of our town.”
McVey said DelDOT has explained that issues including the Sturgeon migration have created delays over the past year; however, he feels the biggest concern is related to poor engineering. He feels that much of the problems encountered by the construction contractor, including a need to drive new, deeper structure pilings to support the bridge should have been recognized well before workers were in the process of driving the initial pilings.
McVey is a former employee of the Laurel-based EMECA/SPE USA, which manufactures steel piling joints for casting into pre-stressed concrete piles for deep foundations. He said he is familiar with the process needed to plan the work associated with driving pilings for heavy structures. He feels engineers planning the bridge project should have been able to recognize the piling needs for the bridge, which involved pilings being driven into the sandy creek foundation.
McVey said he feels that as bridge work was progressing, contractors should have had immediate access to a DelDOT engineer should questions arise dealing with some of the specialty construction issues relative to a structure of this age. He feels waiting for an answer when questions came up could have contributed to lost construction time.
“I think given the issues that have existed with this project, there should have been a DelDOT engineer on site,” McVey said. “DelDOT said at the bridge announcement that they were dealing with blueprints from 1920, given the age of the structure. This bridge went under rehabilitation in 1992, so it is safe to figure there have been changes to some elements. This project needed to have proactive, on site engineering to ensure that the various replacement parts would fit. This could have helped save time as well.”
In reaction to DelDOT’s assessment that “it is often easier and faster to build a new bridge than rehabilitate an old one,” McVey said he feels given the time it has taken to repair the bridge it may have been better to simply build a new bridge.
“I understand the historic significance of the Central Avenue Bridge, but having the main artery through town shut down for over a year for construction, makes me wonder if it would not have been better to have had the bridge moved to a location further down the river and used as a pedestrian walkway. Then a new wider bridge could have been constructed on site and have the foundation pilings driven directly into the banks of the Broad Creek,” he said.
State Sen. Bryant Richardson said he found out about the Central Avenue Bridge meeting after it was held, and was disappointed that he was not in attendance. He said this construction delay is “disheartening” and he wants to offer his support to the community in any way he can.
“I have great sympathy for the people of Laurel and in particular the businesses that have been adversely affected by the closing of the Central Avenue Bridge. To learn that the reopening of the bridge will be delayed another couple of months is disheartening, to say the least,” he said. “I understand DelDOT had a meeting at the bridge on Friday (June 21). I did not receive an invitation to attend, or I would have been there. Not that my presence would have resulted in a better outcome, but I would have liked the opportunity to express my concerns to DelDOT on behalf of the citizens and businesses of Laurel.”
Richardson and his wife, Carol, are owners of Morning Star Publications, which publishes the Seaford and Laurel Star newspapers. He suspended his role as publisher of the newspaper once running for the Senate seat he now holds. He now makes no editorial decisions relative to the publications.
However, as owner, Richardson said he knows the importance of the Central Avenue Bridge delay, especially as it pertains to the economic viability of the Laurel community. He said he wants the paper to be involved in supporting the community’s right, and need, to know about how the project is moving.
“As soon as I heard about the delay I asked our publisher, Mike McClure, to assign a reporter to the story to give voice to Laurel’s concerns. Whatever the citizens and businesses want me to do in my position as state senator or as owner of Morning Star Publications, I hope they will let me know and I will do all I can to help, especially when the bridge reopens,” he said.
Businesses in the downtown area most impacted by the bridge closing say the delay in a completion date is creating daily losses in business. Patrick Wills, Manager of Pizza King, Laurel, said he sees an extreme detrimental impact on the restaurant’s business because of the bridge closing. “We have customers who don’t want to have to drive so far out of the way. This has created a loss in business throughout the day, but especially during breakfast. It is just a major inconvenience, even for the people who live in the area,” he said.
Wills said the restaurant has relied on one of the few resources they have to combat the challenge of the inconvenience of the bridge closing; that is providing good service. “We have to be on our ‘A-game’ when it comes to customer service. We want to make sure our customers know we appreciate their business and recognize the challenges presented by the bridge closing. So we work to give the best food and service possible,” Wills said.
Kim Frisby, manager of Shore Stop convenience store said the bridge closing has led to a drastic reduction in customers who she said are not coming into town, but instead often stopping at convenience stores on U.S. 13.
One major loss to the Central Avenue Shore Stop, which is open 24-hours a day, comes relative to the migrant workers who come to town during watermelon harvest. “For the past two years we have lost the migrant worker bus business,” she said. “We typically have had as many as seven buses stop by in the morning with up to 50 workers each, coming in to the store before they go to the fields. We have lost that business because of the bridge closing. All the buses now go to the stores on the highway (US 13).”
Though she does lament the loss of business, Frisby tries to be understanding about the need for closing the Central Avenue Bridge. “The bridge needs repairs, so the work has to be done. I just wish the timing could have been better,” she said.
Laurel Mayor John Shwed attended the DelDOT announcement of the bridge construction delay and said he, like the rest of the community, is disappointed. He said the bridge closing is taking an economic toll on the town and its local businesses. “I am very disappointed that DelDOT had to inform the Town that the Central Avenue Bridge rehabilitation will be delayed until the end of summer,” he said. “In a small town like ours taking a main artery out of service has a significant negative impact on the small businesses located in the construction zone. We know the Littleton’s Craft and bait shop. PK restaurant, and the Shore Stop Convenience store all have lost business during the bridge outage. Mayor and Council regret that has happened to these businesses, but responsibility for the bridge construction timing clearly rests with the State.”
Shwed said that State Rep. Tim Dukes has gotten assurances from DelDOT Secretary Cohan, that any financial penalties incurred by the contractor because of the delay will be allocated to the Town of Laurel to be used for local road repairs. “I would ask our citizens for their understanding as we endure this delay,” Shwed said.
According to DelDOT, the Central Avenue Bridge is the oldest surviving bascule highway bridge in Delaware and one of the last two surviving Scherzer rolling lift bridges in the state. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing resource to the Laurel Historic District.