DelDOT officials discuss road ownershipResidents learn who's responsible for their roads
Lewes — The Delaware Department of Transportation maintains about 90 percent of the state's roadways, a stark contrast to nearly every other state in the country.
Unlike most states, where counties maintain roads, Delaware's roadways are the responsibility of the state, a municipality or a private community. Nationally, states maintain only about 20 percent of roads, said Joe Wright, DelDOT director of the maintenance and operations division.
“Delaware is one of only about three states that maintain the entire public road network," he said. "Most states there's much more public maintenance, but it's done by counties.”
Residents packed a conference room at the Beebe Medical Arts Building Feb. 15 to learn about who owns and maintains the roads and how the system works. The event was sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Representatives from DelDOT were in attendance presenting different angles on the topic and answering questions from the audience.
Wright said the department maintains about 4,000 lane miles of road in Sussex County, compared to only 2,600 lane miles in New Castle and 2,400 lane miles in Kent. A lane mile is one lane of traffic. On a roadway like Route 1, a three-lane highway is three lane miles for every mile of road. However, Vince Robertson, counsel to the county's planning and zoning commission, noted that fewer than 10 percent of subdivisions in Sussex are state maintained. He suspects the cost associated with building to state standards may be the reason.
In Sussex County, he said, most subdivisions are built on a larger lots, meaning less people would absorb the cost of building the roads to state standards. Developers may also build their roads to a less stringent standard, set forth by the county. However, homeowners in developments with roads built to county standards must pay for later repaving and repairs.
“I suspect in New Castle County, where it's more urban, [it is] more doable economically because you have smaller lots, and more lots that would cover the cost,” he said.
Who owns the roads?
The upkeep of the roads in an overwhelming majority of the county's subdivisions falls on the shoulders of the homeowners through fees paid into homeowners associations. It's the responsibility of the associations to save enough money over time to pay for major capital improvements.
But Fritz Schranck, deputy attorney general who advises DelDOT, pointed out each community has the option of dedicating its roads to the state with the caveat that they will be opened to public use.
There are several methods by which a community can dedicate its roads to the state, both before and after the subdivision is completed.
“State money can only be used for a public purpose,” he said. “The state will not spend money on a road that could be gated after it's paved.”
Another benefit to having a subdivision's streets open to public use is that small repairs or a portion of a larger project are each eligible to receive money from the Community Transportation Fund. Each year, legislators receive money to allocate toward transportation projects in their district. To be eligible, the project must have a transportation component, be on public property or land dedicated for public use and benefit more than one person. Last year, legislators each received $225,000 in CTF funds. However, that amount has been cut to $125,000 in Gov. Jack Markell's fiscal year 2013 proposed budget.
At the same time, there are negatives to having subdivision roads dedicated for public use. In addition to allowing anyone to drive on the roadways, residents will also have to pay for their own snow removal and submit the bill for reimbursement up to 75 percent from the state.
History of Delaware's roads
How Delaware arrived at a road network maintained almost completely by the state dates back nearly 80 years, Schranck said. In 1935, the state took over what were recognized as the county road systems. During the '30s, the state also began the first steps toward the suburbanization of much of the state. He said of the 320,000 people who lived in the state in 1940, about 120,000 of them lived within the city limits of Wilmington.
“This was a remarkably rural state once you stepped outside of the more industrialized areas of New Castle County,” Schranck said.
In the 1960s, a massive part of the area around Dover began to go suburban, and the state assumed ownership of all county and suburban roads in whatever condition they were in, which in many cases was still dirt or gravel.
About a decade later, the state set June 30, 1978, as the final day it would take over responsibility for the roads, so long as they were dedicated for public use and had at least a 30-foot or more right of way. Schranck said the deadline resulted in a mad scramble to have roads ready to dedicate to the state.
Nowadays, the state will not take over any roads for perpetual maintenance unless they are built to the standards of the agency responsible for them.
By the numbers
State maintained lane miles overall
New Castle County – 2,600
Kent County – 2,400
Sussex County – 4,000
Acres of grass mowed by DelDOT annually
New Castle County – 3,300
Kent County – 3,600
Sussex County – 7,000
DelDOT maintains nearly 300,000 signs in the state