The Tornoe Spin: Gridlock, thy name is Wilmington

So, how’s your commute through Wilmington been? 

Ever since the closing of the I-495 bridge (surprisingly not named after some local politician), a quick daily check of traffic through Wilmington on Google Maps reveals more red than an episode of “Game of Thrones.”

Frankly, I’m amazed at how well traffic has flowed the past two days, considering two simultaneous music gatherings (the Firefly Festival in Dover and Wilmington’s annual Clifford Brown Jazz Festival) and a forecast for great beachgoing weather.

DelDOT deserves a pat on the back for pulling off this small feat.

Still, there are several unanswered questions about the bridge closure that I’m waiting to hear a response on. For starters, federal highway officials determined that the damage was at least initiated by a ton of dirt being piled next to the bridge. It wasn’t hiding from anyone, and reports indicate that state environmental officials frequented a compost facility nearby for inspections.

How did everyone miss this giant pile of dirt if it was so dangerous?

Not everyone missed the warning signs. Nearly two months before the bridge was shut down, a Delaware man who frequently crossed the bridge called 911 and tried to warn state officials about noticeable tilting, calling it a “crazy emergency.” By all accounts, not one official ever heard his warnings, and the bridge remained open for six weeks after his call. Why?

This whole event underscores the need for more transportation funding to help maintain Delaware’s aging roads and bridges. Gov. Jack Markell had hoped to convince residents that an increase in the gas tax, along with some borrowing, was the solution to end a downturn in spending on roads. But cash-starved residents and weak-kneed politicians opposed the efforts, leaving it dead on arrival.

I put a lot of the blame on Markell, who never seemed to put his finger in the wind to see if his proposals would fly. In hindsight, maybe asking for a 10-cents-a-gallon increase was too much for residents to bear. Maybe he should have pursued taxing wholesale petroleum sales instead of jacking up prices at the pump. Maybe hitting residents with a potential one-two punch of higher gas prices and property taxes to fix Delaware’s polluted waterways (mostly devastated by industry, not homeowners) wasn’t the best political idea in an election year.

But never fear, our intrepid Markell Administration is on the case. Unable to gain the needed support to pass his gas tax, Team Markell announced that the weekend tolls on Route 1 will increase by $1, up to a staggering $3. So, New Castle residents looking to enjoy a weekend at the beach, expect to fork over $12 for that round trip (on top of your pocket full of quarters for parking).

The worst part about the toll increase is it will only raise an estimated $10 million, with DelDOT planning on borrowing an additional $20 million for road repair and paving. But that $10 million won’t be devoted to things like bridge upkeep; instead, it gets shifted to lawmakers’ Community Transportation Fund, their private slush fund to do repairs and curry favor in their individual districts.

Regardless, you know to expect terrible traffic in and around Wilmington at least through Labor Day. So in order to maintain an adequate level of stress, take notes from Firefly attendees: Throw a lawn chair and a hacky sack in your truck to make your stay on I-95 more social and enjoyable.

Though I’d leave the pot and the booze home for now.

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Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and WHYY contributor. Follow Rob on Twitter @RobTornoe

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