Q&A: Donnie Drewer is the king of our highways

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Tony Weeg Photos

 

If you’ve ever ridden on any state road, bridge or highway on the Lower Eastern Shore, you need to thank Donnie Drewer.

The Salisbury Bypass? He built it. Route 50 from Salisbury to Berlin? He helped build it. Salisbury Boulevard through the heart of the city? He’s going to fix it up and make it look beautiful.

All of the road signs, and painted lines and patched holes and guardrails and exit ramps and overpasses — they’re his responsibility.

And when it snows — like it has a lot in recent years — it’s his job to make sure it’s all plowed away.

For more than 50 years, Drewer has served as the District 1 engineer for the State Highway Administration.

The Crisfield native is about to turn 73 and is known for not only being engineer-smart, but for having a manner that engages people.

Over the many years, it has been up to Drewer to work with politicians to get local projects funded, to work with contractors to get them built and to communicate with citizens why a massively disruptive construction effort will actually make their lives better.

Q. It might be just me, but I think you have the hardest job in the world. Do you?

A. No! The job is not hard at all because I have the best employees. All I am is the orchestra leader.

Q. You were 19 when you first went to work at the State Highway Administration. Did you ever imagine you’d still be here more than 50 years later?

A. I wasn’t looking ahead to 50 years later. I was just looking for a paycheck. I just thought I would retire the closer I got to retirement. But I am still here and I still enjoy what I do.

Here I am 53 years later and I could have retired 23 years ago. When will I retire? Maybe tomorrow, but I still think I can add value.

I don’t want to stay here until I’m crippled and can’t enjoy life. The time will come and I will know when it is that time.

Q. Your first project those many years ago, was the dualization of Route 13 through Princess Anne.

A. I was young and inexperienced. My first job was summer work in the 11th and 12th grades in High School working for A.V. Williams Construction Co. They were constructing the bypass around Pocomoke.

I did everything from checking grades to making concrete cylinders. One of my first jobs was working on the original U.S. 13 Bridge over the Pocomoke River when that highway was dualized. I am still here and now we are rebuilding the decks on both bridges!

Things were really breaking on highway work here on the Lower Eastern Shore. In my early years I worked on the dualization of U.S. 13 from Princess Anne to Pocomoke; Salisbury to Berlin; Salisbury to Cambridge; Pocomoke to Snow Hill and from Berlin to the Delaware State Line.

There’s just one small area left to dualize and that’s a section between Snow Hill and Berlin.

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Q. I remember well when there was no Route 50 from Salisbury to Berlin; we took either Mount Hermon Road through Powellville or Old Ocean City Road through Pittsville and Willards. What was that life-changing roads project like to work on?

A. That project was finished in 1965 and it cut the travel time from Salisbury to Ocean City by more than a half-hour.

Prior to the dualization of U.S. 50 it took a little over an hour to travel to the beach from Salisbury. That project was a major improvement for anyone headed to Ocean City or Assateague.

In the early 1970s I worked on the construction of Route 90, which included two separate bridges, the first over the St. Martin River and the second over the Assawoman Bay into Ocean City.

This was a big improvement for motorists headed into Ocean City, particularly the northern part of town.

Another major improvement also was in the 1970s with the construction of the first interchange on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, at the intersection of U.S. 50 and U.S. 113 just north of Berlin.

Q. How do you manage so many projects at once? Right now you have things ranging from the Ocean City drawbridge to the Salisbury Boulevard drainage to the Pocomoke City overpass.

A. It’s called delegation and you can do that if you have good people working for you.

If you have good people you can delegate to, and have confidence in, you know the work is going to be done right.

Q. What is the most challenging part of your District to manage?

A. No doubt about it…Worcester County. That’s because of Ocean City. Northern Worcester particularly has so many unique requirements and characteristics, including the prohibition that we can’t work there in the summer, plus the constant challenges in dealing with a mechanical bridge on U.S. 50 into Ocean City that is constantly busy and a very important gateway.

Ocean City is such a high profile place, not just locally but throughout the state and region, it requires a lot of attention.

Q. You’re close to completing the new intersection at Walston Switch Road serving Wor-Wic Community College. How will that help traffic?

A. The left-turn lanes off of U.S. 50 will be similar to the intersection just west at the crossing of U.S. 50 and Hobbs Road. At both intersections you will be able to make left turns simultaneously to the side roads from U.S. 50.

This allows for increased green signal time to both side streets without reducing any green signal time in either direction on U.S. 50.

Altogether, this reduces the potential for any back-ups from any access at either intersection.

Q. I recall that about 15 years ago, you had a really nice plan to improve Salisbury Boulevard through Salisbury. The plan included vegetated medians. What happened to the plan?

A. We had several meetings with a task force founded by Mayor Barrie Tilghman made up of stakeholders along U.S. 13 Business and other interested citizens. After much deliberation it was decided it was not the right time to proceed.

Hopefully, sometime in the future, we can revisit the issue and see if conditions warrant such a change.

Q. Sixty Foot Road seems to be gaining a reputation as the scene of some horrific accidents, including some fatals. Any plans in the works to improve safety there?

A. Over the past several years we have installed rumble strips, oversized stop signs, ‘look again’ signs, stop ahead painted on U.S. 50, a painted island with flex posts and a continuously flashing yellow and red light.

We are now in the process of requiring mandatory headlight usage along U.S. 50 from the area where it crosses under MD 90 in Worcester County to the U.S. 50/U.S. 13 Salisbury Bypass.

From my personal perspective, I don’t think a signal is the answer. People will run through a red light, just as they now run through the stop signs.

We take safety very seriously. Whenever there has been a fatal crash we look to see if there is anything we can do to prevent something like that from happening again.

It appears drivers are misjudging entering into or crossing over US 50 at this location.

Q. The Route 50 stretch between Hebron and Rockawalkin Road seems to have become an accident prone stretch. True?

A. It has been and still is in some cases. There are some issues at White Lowe Road next to the Royal Farms Store.

We are looking at various improvements at that crossing, but have not decided which is the best to take at this time. SHA has instituted j-turns at several intersections along this corridor.

At these locations traffic accidents have decreased by 70 percent.

Q. You built the Salisbury Bypass, the last phase of which opened in 2002. Has that road fulfilled its potential?

A. Absolutely! When we finished the final leg in 2002 it opened up U.S. 50 Business through Salisbury and cut down travel time from motorists out of the area headed to Ocean City.

It relieved a lot of traffic congestion and related problems. It was money well spent.

Q. Will Salisbury ever have a beltway, with a southern bypass across the Wicomico River?

A. It is doubtful because of the environmental issues that must be addressed.

It’s unlikely to happen because of the high cost versus the limited benefits of creating a complete beltway around Salisbury. There would also be high costs associated with impacts on existing residential housing.

Q. I was fascinated by the technological changes that allowed so many lights to be removed from the Vienna Bridge.

A. SHA decreased the number of highway lights on both the Vienna and Choptank River bridges. We are now using LED lights that provide as much light as before. SHA has also converted to LED lighting on the MD 90 and U.S. 50 bridges but at significant energy and maintenance savings every year. Eventually, all state roadway lighting be converted over to LED lighting.

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Q. You’ve been taking some heat lately for the slowness of draining projects along Salisbury Boulevard.

A. The first thing that needs to be understood is ultimately all stormwater must progress to the Wicomico River. This is a project that started in the oldest neighborhoods in Salisbury.

There are very limited records of what is already underground. Until we started putting shovels in the ground we were not sure what all we would find.

As a result every phase of this project has had to be redesigned as we go block to block. It has been a nightmare, but the neighborhoods that have been directly impacted have been understanding and fantastic to work with.

Hopefully, we will have the stormwater work in the Newtown neighborhood finished by the end of this summer. Then we can concentrate all of our efforts on U.S. 13 Business.

There were six phases to this major project. We have five of the six phases either under way or completed. That will leave only Phase 6 to complete.

We are holding off starting the final phase so that all of U.S. 13 Business will not be disturbed by stormwater construction at the same time.

The severe weather of the past couple of winters has also taken a toll on the progress of the project.

I apologize to all users of U.S. 13 Business in Salisbury. I don’t know any other way to build it.

Businesses have been very understanding. When we are finished, motorists traveling on U.S. 13 Business, especially during heavy rainstorms, will no longer be dealing with flooded out sections of the highway.

I know it has been inconvenient, but it is a project designed to handle the really bad storms along that corridor.

Q. What do most people not know about the SHA and its employees that they should know?

A. Everyone should know SHA has a group of dedicated employees that are people the public can depend on even when the weather is at its worst.

If people had the opportunity to follow along any of our crews during a winter snowstorm, they would find out just how good and dedicated they are.

They’re just good people and I am confident taxpayers are getting their money’s worth.

Q. I know you’re proud of a pedestrian project you did — the student tunnel under Route 13 at Bateman Street.

A. That project is among the top and most-proud if I had to rate where it stands from the many, many projects that SHA has completed since I became district engineer.

I took a lot of heat from some citizens before it was built. Some members of the public thought we should build an overhead pedestrian bridge, but I am confident we made the right decision.

The underpass has exceeded my expectations and I admit I had high expectations for the project.

It appears in hindsight, with the athletic fields and housing for Salisbury University that has expanded since the building of the underpass, it has been a Godsend.

Sometime in the future, it probably would be a good idea to build a second underpass under U.S. 13 Business in the vicinity of Dogwood or College Avenue.

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Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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