A representative from the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) attended the Monday night meeting of Laurel Mayor and Council at the invitation of the town. Given the delay on completion of the Central Avenue Bridge project that has extended work to well over a year, the town council felt having a DelDOT representative to share an explanation would be beneficial to the community.
DelDOT engineer George Pierson, manager of the Central Avenue Bridge project, said he understood the frustration surrounding the bridge construction delay; however, the reasons for the delays were related to conditions unknown to the state while the project was being planned.
Pierson said the original completion date for the Central Avenue Bridge construction was January 26. He said the first delay came about when the state was notified about federal fishery restrictions being enforced in response to a concern about threat to the Atlantic Sturgeon population. This meant there could be no underwater construction activities between March 15 and June 11 and again between Aug. 15 and Nov. 1. “That left us with a very small window for work and very challenging times of the year, including all of the winter and a month and a half of the summer,” Pierson said. “But, we rescheduled the work for the project in conjunction with the contractor and moved forward.”
He went on to say that when worked resumed contractors ran into “numerous issues” while doing foundation work on the bridge. He said addressing the foundation issues would cause the project to push past the Aug. 15 deadline, so the project had to be completely shut down until the federal regulations allowed work to resume in November.
Pierson explained that it was crucial that the foundation work be completed because there needed to be support for the bridge structure before the remaining above water bridgework could be completed. “Essentially, we are building a bridge to support the old bridge,” he said. “Fortunately, we were able to get the necessary foundation work completed before the pending federal fisheries deadline of March 15. Once work resumes in June the nature of the construction will be pretty standard.”
The forecasted completion date of the Central Avenue Bridge is June 28. Pierson said if the contractor in unable to complete the work by that date the state will have the standing to implement a $1,050 penalty for every day the work is not complete.
He said the state has also taken initiative to implement additional opportunities to accelerate the project including the use of subcontractors to assist with construction and the approval of weekend and multiple crew options.
Rick McVey, a former council candidate who ran unsuccessfully against incumbent Councilman Randy Lee, was in the council audience and requested to ask questions as part of public participation. McVey asked Pierson whether it might have been easier to simply build a new bridge, rather than construct “a bridge under a bridge.”
Pierson replied in the affirmative, saying a new bridge would have made for a less involved project. However, because the project was using federal dollars it was necessary to adhere to special guidelines including regulations that call for saving historical features. “For this project the historical feature that needed to be preserved was the bridge itself,” Pierson said. “The bridge was no longer structurally sufficient handle the traffic load it was under. It was underperforming for years. Therefore, the plan was to do the harder thing here and build something under it to try to save the bridge.” He said once completed, the bridge will have a concrete deck, unlike the previous metal, grated surface.
McVey also asked why the delays, including the federal fisheries restrictions to preserve the Sturgeon population were not taken into consideration when the state began plans for the Central Avenue Bridge construction.
Pierson said that in terms of the delays that came about during the foundation construction, the state had no way of knowing there were issues until contractors began doing the underwater construction. When the issues were discovered, he said it was important to take whatever actions necessary to ensure the structural integrity of the foundation.
Pierson said regarding the Sturgeon restriction, it was his understanding that the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) fisheries were operating a project just prior to this project and netted a Sturgeon about a half a mile downstream from the Central Avenue Bridge. This resulted in the federal government placing the restrictions on the project.
McVey also asked Pierson if the state had a mechanism in place to help the businesses in downtown Laurel who have been impacted financially by the bridge closure. He said he has provided a phone number to businesses and the town, of the DelDOT unit that would handle compensation issues. However, he could not elaborate on potential for compensation because he had no control over that department or how the laws are written regarding compensation. “I deal only with the construction aspects of the project,” he said.
Councilwoman Cheryl Martin said she had been in touch with business owners who had called the DelDOT phone number Pierson provided, but were told that there would be no opportunity for compensation relating to the Central Avenue Bridge project.
“I think that DelDOT needs to do something for those businesses down there (Central Avenue) because they have lost a lot of money,” she said. “You can’t cross the bridge and the traffic we had coming over the bridge sustained these businesses. It is a shame that you did not think about that when you started this project. I know there is nothing you can do personally, but I would like you to take it back to your bosses and let them know they need to do something for these businesses.”
Pierson said he understands the frustration and has run into similar situations during other construction projects throughout the state. “It’s unfortunate,” he said. “But, we have done what we could to supplement signage to help advertise that the businesses are open and get the message out. Unfortunately, there is not much else I can do from our standpoint.”