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DelDOT proposes modest budget increase, raises prospect of major DART changes

Courtesy of DelDOT

Delaware’s Department of Transportation presented its proposed 2024 budget to the Joint Finance Committee Wednesday, raising the possibility of fundamental changes to Delaware’s public transit operations in the coming years.

For an agency faced with several crises – New Castle County paratransit operations regularly failing to meet federal standards for on-time arrivals, dozens of vacant DMV positions and the highest number of traffic fatalities in decades – DelDOT’s budget proposal is relatively modest.

The $385 million budget would entail a roughly four percent increase, compared to the more than seven percent increase in the state's total 2024 budget proposed by Governor John Carney.

Inflation is the largest driver of the proposed increase: insurance premiums for I-95 are rising, and with a shortage of in-house mechanics, the agency has to hire more expensive contractors for fleet repairs. DelDOT is also beginning new contracts with its employee unions, bringing pay increases for drivers, maintenance staff and others.

But Secretary Nicole Majeski signaled more significant changes to operations will come as DelDOT begins its comprehensive study on how to rework DART service. Ridership has plummeted in the past three years, making each ride less cost-effective. Majeski told lawmakers that may push DelDOT to scale up its use of on-demand transit in smaller vehicles.

"The days of having a 40-foot bus that travels on a continuous loop throughout the day is not as efficient as it once was," she said.

DelDOT has touted its pilot microtransit service in Sussex County as the future of public transit since its launch in 2021. But some lawmakers urged DelDOT to consider other, more basic improvements to DART service, including faster east-west service in Sussex County and dedicated bus shelters in rural areas.

“Unlike in Wilmington, these stops are in a ditch," said Representative Ruth Briggs King. "They’re on a secondary road where there isn’t even a shoulder."

DART CEO John Sisson noted that basic upgrades to bus stops — namely to bring stops into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act — will be a priority as DART begins a comprehensive study on ways to revamp or rework its services in the coming months.

But DelDOT's budget presentation did not include details on possible changes to DART's services; the agency doesn't plan to finalize its plans until the end of the year, with implementation of any changes scheduled for fiscal year 2025.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.