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DE Discovers Bridge Storage Issues

Friday, June 13, 2014

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Cars, dirt and even military vehicles are being stored under major bridges in Delaware—conditions similar to those recently found near damaged supports of an interstate span that had to be closed.

Transportation officials discovered the storage under nearly half of the state's longest bridges, which were inspected in a two-day emergency sweep.

Transportation Secretary Shailen Bhatt ordered the inspections after several support columns of the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River were found to have shifted nearly two feet out of alignment. The Delaware Department of Transportation ordered the six-lane highway closed June 2.

Images: DelDOT

Transportation Secretary Shailen Bhatt ordered inspections on Delaware's largest bridges after the state ordered an emergency closure of the I-495 bridge in Wilmington.

Engineers suspect that a massive amount of soil stockpiled next to the bridge caused the piers to tilt.

Now, DelDOT says that nearly half of the bridges it checked June 5-6 also are hosting heavy items.

Prioritizing Inspections

DelDOT maintains nearly 1,600 bridges; more than 500 are beam bridges with supporting columns.

To prioritize the inspections, the agency identified bridges more than 500 feet long. It eliminated those adjacent to wetlands and those built on embankments because "stockpiling is unlikely to occur in these areas."

Of the 29 bridges inspected, 14 had materials stored under or within 100 feet of them.

The agency said it was also compiling a second list of bridges 200 to 500 feet long supported by columns and located away from wetlands and embankments. Those structures will be inspected next.

Rebounding Columns

After receiving phone calls about issues with the I-495, officials discovered that four of the 37 pairs of reinforced concrete columns that support the bridge were leaning. The worst was 4 percent out of vertical alignment.

As DelDOT started removing the piles of soil, some affected piers started rebounding to their original alignment, suggesting that the weight of the dirt was contributing to lateral displacement of the soil, the agency said.

The shifting columns also caused the concrete pier caps to move, resulting in a height difference of about one foot between the bridge deck's barrier walls.

Engineers originally thought that either corrosion of steel pilings or soft soil settling under the bridge had caused the movement.

As DelDOT started removing the piles of soil, some affected piers started rebounding to their original alignment, adding evidence to the theory that the weight of the dirt contributed to the lateral displacement of the soil, the agency said.

The soil is being tested, and no contamination has been found so far.

Reopening Months Away

DelDOT contracted construction firm J.D. Eckman to build the elements necessary to reopen the bridge, and the project is being managed by AECOM.

The companies "have a history of successful collaboration of rapidly reopening other bridges on the U.S. interstate highway system," DelDOT said.

The total repair cost of the I-495 bridge is not yet known; the first phase is estimated at $20 million.

On Tuesday (June 10), the agency announced that the bridge "could be open as soon as Labor Day this year."

The repair project calls for building new concrete-filled shafts down to bedrock beneath the tilted columns. The concrete shafts will be tied together with a reinforced concrete grade beam.

Temporary jacking towers will be erected on the grade beam to restore the superstructure to its original position and lift the weight off the existing piers. Once the bridge is deemed safe for traffic, permanent new concrete columns will be erected to replace the jacking towers.

Bhatt said the first phase of construction was estimated at $20 million, but the overall cost of permanent repairs is not yet known.


Tagged categories: Bridges; Concrete; Department of Transportation (DOT); Failure analysis; Roads/Highways; Steel

Comment from Stephen Dobrosielski, (6/13/2014, 8:35 AM)

Thank you for updating on this bridge's “status”. Good to know that it is not a corrosion problem. I never realized that soils behaved elastically which is what the DOT would have us believe when they claim that removal of the soil surcharge resulted in the bridge moving back toward it's original "design" position.

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (6/13/2014, 9:13 AM)

That’s a nice cross-section sketch of the issue. Is there a higher-resolution version available? Stephen: I went and talked to some soils guys, and they agree that it's not surprising the soil is behaving with some elasticity once the stockpile weight is removed. Lots of caveats about type of soil, density of the stockpile, can't make a real analysis without more information, et cetera. Nobody is expecting it to rebound 100% just from removing the stockpile.

Comment from Karen Fischer, (6/13/2014, 9:54 AM)

The behavior of the pier in this case doesn’t surprise me. In my very early years in the road and bridge industry as a concrete and soils technician I am acutely aware of the impact the soil density and type has on the integrity of any substructure. The pier is not likely to rebound 100% owing to the effect of it's own weight upon the soil around it as well. I am just glad that this was caught in time before a major disaster occurred.

Comment from Andrew Piedl, (6/13/2014, 10:25 AM)

I wonder who will end up paying for the remediation work. This reminds me of an incident that occurred some years ago at an I-78 bridge in Newark NJ, where a fire at an 'illegal' pile of trash beneath a bridge took out half of the traffic lanes.

Comment from Karen Fischer, (6/16/2014, 11:32 AM)

It begs the question... should owners of such structures allow private use of ROW land beneath the bridge or, at least, exert some control over what is allowed to happen there? There are many cities and towns that utilize the land under viaducts and bridges that could be called into question now.

Comment from William Feliciano, (6/16/2014, 4:40 PM)

Most DOT’s have a real estate group. But with minimal government staffing and ownership of thousands of bridges, I can see where such a department can lose track of what is going on under each of their structures. Biannual inspections don't always flag landuse improprieties. It would take a trained engineering eye to "eyeball" subtle uses that could result in bridge damage. Many moons ago, i worked as a bridge maintenance engineer for a state DOT. Can't tell you how many times we responded to structural damage stemming from intense heat from fires whose ignition sources ranged from junked cars set ablaze to homeless shanty towns going up in smoke. In many cases access to such areas were already restricted through use of strong barrier fencing or even masonry walls, only to be vandelized and circumvented. Our infrastructure needs investment - not only for repairs, replacement and reconditioning, but as you can see,for security and proper land use/permitting/etc. The current pie cuts only so many ways.

Comment from M. Halliwell, (6/17/2014, 10:41 AM)

Another problem is when different departments don't talk. City and State (or Provincial) departments don't always communicate well and that leads to one group or department seeing an opportunity ("Hey, we've got all this land over here we can store some stockpiles and equipment at.") while the other has no idea it's being used until a bridge decides to tilt or a retaining wall fails, etc.

Comment from Stephen Dobrosielski, (6/18/2014, 8:38 AM)

Tom and Karen, Thank You for your insight. It's good to learn more from your remarks.

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