Official: Bridge response could have been quicker


DOVER, Del. -- Delaware’s top transportation official said Friday that he would have preferred his agency moved more quickly to inspect a major highway bridge that was closed because supporting columns are tilting.

Transportation secretary Shailen Bhatt told The Associated Press, however, that the Interstate 495 bridge in Wilmington was not in danger of imminent collapse.

An engineer working on an unrelated project near the bridge first reported problems with the bridge May 29. Bhatt said senior managers in his agency became aware the next day and ordered an inspection Monday. The bridge was closed immediately.

"We closed the bridge in time. We did not have a failure. That bridge is still standing and nobody has been injured," Bhatt said. "I’m happy to accept responsibility for this agency’s actions."

The bridge, which normally carries an average of 90,000 vehicles daily around Wilmington, will be closed indefinitely as engineers figure out how to brace it. Most of the detoured traffic is on already-clogged I-95, which passes through downtown.

The federal government has pledged to pay 90 percent of the cost of permanent repairs and has already approved $2 million in emergency funds. The cost of fixing the bridge hasn’t been determined.

Engineers working with Delaware officials suspect that a massive mound of dirt dumped near the bridge, partly on the government’s property, might have caused the ground underneath the span to shift and four pairs of columns to tilt. The contractor who stored the dirt there is working with the state to remove it.

Officials said Friday that the weight of the dirt mound has been estimated at 50,000 tons. That’s equal to about 1,250 18-wheel tractor-trailers at the maximum gross vehicle weight of 80,000 lbs.

Officials also said Friday that tilt sensors placed on the bridge Monday have shown no additional significant movement.

Engineers have completed inspections of all eight affected columns and found cracking consistent with the lateral displacement of soil, in all the concrete footers. No corrosion was found in the tops of the underground steel piles anchored to the footers.

Agency consultants are reviewing design options to create a new foundation for the damaged section of the bridge, officials said.

Dave Charles, the geotechnical engineer who first reported the problem last week, said he returned to the bridge on Tuesday and saw that the columns had shifted even farther. His account suggests the potentially catastrophic problem may have unfolded quickly over a short period of time and raises questions about why transportation officials waited until Monday.

"Would I prefer that somebody had gone out and checked on the bridge on Friday? Absolutely," Bhatt said. "But I will not say that we would have closed the bridge any sooner than Monday, simply because we don’t know what the condition was."

Kelly Bachman, a spokesman for Democratic Gov. Jack Markell, said the governor "has full confidence in Secretary Bhatt." She said the state’s focus was on finding a way to fix the bridge, and once that’s done, officials will fully evaluate the agency’s response.

Charles said after he and a colleague working on an unrelated project near the bridge noticed May 29 that it appeared to be tilting, he sent matter-of-fact emails with cellphone photographs about 6 p.m. that day to an employee of the Delaware transportation department’s bridge unit. Charles said the employee, whom he declined to name, acknowledged about 90 minutes later that he had received the emails.

"I think the person who received it took it seriously," Charles said.

State Sen. Greg Lavelle, the Republican minority whip, said the four-day period between the agency being notified and sending out an inspection team on Monday, when Bhatt was informed, is concerning.

"You think somebody would run that up the chain of command pretty darn quick," Lavelle said.


Associated Press Writer Ben Nuckols in Washington contributed to this report.


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