‘Missed opportunities’ over Delaware 495 bridge bring changes to DelDOT [video]

 The southbound section of the I-495 bridge seen here about 18 inches lower than the northbound lanes. (John Mussoni/WHYY)

The southbound section of the I-495 bridge seen here about 18 inches lower than the northbound lanes. (John Mussoni/WHYY)

Delaware’s Department of Transportation had three opportunities to close Interstate 495 for repairs.  The first chance was April 15, but the bridge wasn’t closed until June 2.

“I will say that we clearly missed opportunities to close the bridge earlier, but I am grateful we got it closed before there were any injuries or loss of life,” said Shailen Bhatt, DelDOT secretary, Thursday during a news conference..

He outlined a new high priority response team, which will be put in place for questions about bridge structures, overhead signs, lighting, as well as issues concerning a dam or a dike.  Two district representatives will be included in the review process when a call on any of those issues comes to the agency.

As first reported in the News Journal, Charles Allen of Elkton, Maryland, tried calling 411 and then 911 to report the cement barriers dividing the northbound and southbound lanes of the bridge on April 15.  DelDOT released photo copies of the phone call and the emails and documents that were sent by other people and contract inspectors who noted the bridge tilt. It outlines very specific concerns by Allen about the bridge.

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A crew sent to check out the report traveled on the northbound lane and focused on the road bed. The tilt is more noticeable on the southbound side.

The dirt is the cause, but it isn’t contaminated

After investigating the bridge condition, Bhatt said 50,000 tons of dirt piled against the structure caused the tilt. However, he added the city of Wilmington controlled the access to the underside of the bridge off Christina Avenue.  

That fact spurred another change he intends to make — having DelDOT buy more land around transportation easements. Better coordination with Wilmington officials also will also be implemented, he said. 

David Small, the newly sworn-in secretary for the Department of Natural Resources and Evironmental Control, confirmed the dirt at the base of the bridge does have some contamination, but it did not go into the subsoil.  

Bhatt said the source of the dirt still isn’t known, but it was put there from several locations by Keough Construction. He said his agency has retained the law firm of Ober Kaler to determine if legal action should be taken as a result of the dumping.

The biggest mistake

Bhatt called the May 29 report of the bridge shift in the form of emails with DelDOT another mistake.  It prompted a series of inspections with one taking place at 4:15 pm on May 30.  In the report, Bhatt says an inspector reports: “I don’t see what they are talking about, I just went over both directions.”

Another set of inspections occurred midday June 2.  Bhatt was sent pictures of the shifting spans at 2 p.m. He notified Gov. Jack Markell at 3 p.m. who told Bhatt to take whatever steps were necessary to insure public safety.  The bridge closing started at 6 p.m. and was completed by 9 that night.

Reopening by Labor Day

Even though federal dollars will pay for 90 percent of the repairs, Delaware will still have to come up with $1.5 million. Bhatt said that will impact DelDOT road projects.  Bhatt added that crews have finished their work on the support needed for the footers on the southside of 495.  “I am hopeful one span will be open by Labor Day with the other span to open a couple months after that,” he said.

Crews are working around the clock at the site with heavy machinery used to put temporary support columns in place while the new repairs are made.

Here is the transcript provided by DelDOT of the April 15 conversation between Charles Allen and the DelDOT dispatcher.


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