Delaware 495 bridge to stay closed ‘weeks to months’; fed money on the way to help [video]

 Titlted span on I-495 in Delaware. (John Mussoni/WHYY)

Titlted span on I-495 in Delaware. (John Mussoni/WHYY)

Federal highway officials are sending $2 million in emergency funding to Delaware to help with some of the costs associated with the closing of the I-495 bridge in Wilmington.

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell and state Transportation Secretary Shailen Bhatt made the announcement as Markell toured the damaged bridge structure Thursday afternoon. 

It could take weeks or months to come up with a permanent solution to repair the bridge and reopen it safely to traffic, Bhatt said.

“I have ruled out options that this can be reopened in days or that it will take years,” said Bhatt.  More testing will be necessary to determine what caused the tilting in order to find a solution, he said.

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Gaps in bridge spans

Del DOT officials escorted the governor and reporters Thursday afternoon on an inspection tour of the bridge.  Bhatt said there has been no new shift in the bridge structure in the 60 hours since it was closed down because of tilting supports.  Clearly visible, however, were gaps between the northbound and southbound lanes.

The bridge spans are supposed to be even. But Markell said the first thing he noticed is the separation of the walls. 

“There is one 18-inch gap.  I was told one side of the bridge may have sunk by 10 inches while the other side tilted up by 8 inches,” he said.

Bhatt said he believes the cause for the tilt will be found underground. 

“We have dug around four of the pilings that hold up the bridge.  We have ruled out corrosion.  That could mean the problem is in the soil,” he said.

Dirt that had piled up against the bridge supports continues to be a focus of the investigation.  The dirt has now been removed, and Bhatt said engineers are studying Google Earth maps to determine when the dirt first started to show up.

“We know there were small dirt piles in 2012.  They grew a little larger in 2013 and, in 2014, they are the size you see now,” said Bhatt.

While careful not to assign blame or pinpoint a date when the bridge might have started to tilt, Bhatt did say he believes it was a “rapid event.”

“It could have happened in the last 180 days,” he said.  He said a complete inspection will determine that.

Federal funds and the future

The Emergency Relief Fund money from the Federal Highway Administration was good news for Delaware. Mary Ridgeway of the Federal Highway Administration attended the briefing.  She said the initial $2 million will cover items including police overtime for traffic control and the costs associated with finding a repair solution.  

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told Markell the funds had been approved just after the governor finished his bridge inspection.  The government will also pay for 90 percent of the bridge repairs when they begin.

Markell and Bhatt said safety remains the No. 1 concern as they keep the bridge closed and look for a repair solution.  They said traffic jams are easing as drivers learn to navigate around the closing.  They cited the removal of the bridge from Google maps as a ways to keep motorists using GPS to say on I-95.

Markell said there was no way to assign a dollar amount on the impact on people and bridges.  “We know that some people and businesses are inconvenienced, but our priority is safety.”

Bhatt said engineers are considering everything from seismic activity to the placement of utility lines. As that investigation continues, he said engineers will be looking to see if repairs can begin before an exact cause is found. 

He said an inspection would begin over the next week of the 30 insterstate bridges in Delaware which might be built on soil similar to the 495 bridge over the Christina River.  He said there are 1,600 bridges in the state and 60% are built with corrigated metal and not concrete.

Bhatt said he would know more about that in the days to come.  He promised additional briefings as the work goes on.

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