Delaware inspecting all major bridges

RANDALL CHASE, Associated Press
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Surveyors work below the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River near Wilmington, Del., Tuesday, June 3, 2014, after it was closed due to the discovery of four tilting support columns. The closure created heavier-than-normal traffic conditions for motorists on Interstate 95, a major East Coast artery. The bridge normally carries about 90,000 vehicles a day. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Surveyors work below the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River near Wilmington, Del., Tuesday, June 3, 2014, after it was closed due to the discovery of four tilting support columns. The closure created heavier-than-normal traffic conditions for motorists on Interstate 95, a major East Coast artery. The bridge normally carries about 90,000 vehicles a day. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

DOVER, Del. (AP) — Delaware’s transportation secretary ordered immediate inspections of major bridges in the state on Thursday to see if they might have any problems similar to an interstate bypass that had to close Wilmington.

Delaware Department of Transportation Secretary Shailen Bhatt also told The Associated Press that his agency was checking under the bridges to make sure the state’s property is properly marked.

The action comes after the Interstate 495 bridge was closed because of tilting support columns. The bridge, a bypass that helps alleviate congestion on I-95 and normally carries about 90,000 vehicles daily, has been closed since Monday, snarling traffic on the crucial north-south artery. It will be at least several weeks before it is reopened.

Officials suspect that a large mound of dirt dumped next to the bridge over several years shifted the ground underneath the span and caused the columns to tilt. Bhatt said at least part of the pile was on the state’s property.

In this June 3, 2014 photo, workers stand between the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River, left, and a dirt pile near Wilmington, Del., after the bridge was closed due to the discovery of four tilting support columns. Delaware Transportation Secretary Shailen Bhatt said engineers are looking at all geotechnical issues and have determined that the dirt pile, which appears to be partly in the transportation department's right of way, could be a factor. "We don't know what the effect of that weight is" underground, he said. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

In this June 3, 2014 photo, workers stand between the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River, left, and a dirt pile near Wilmington, Del., after the bridge was closed due to the discovery of four tilting support columns. Delaware Transportation Secretary Shailen Bhatt said engineers are looking at all geotechnical issues and have determined that the dirt pile, which appears to be partly in the transportation department’s right of way, could be a factor. “We don’t know what the effect of that weight is” underground, he said. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

He said inspectors will start by looking at bridges of similar design in similar soils that might be at risk.

“I want eyes on all those bridges immediately,” he told the AP. “We’ve literally got folks going out today. This is something that folks will be working around the clock.”

In all, there are 1,600 bridges in Delaware, including 91 that are on interstate highways. Bhatt said he couldn’t immediately say exactly how many bridges would be inspected or how long it would take.

Inspectors will look at every major bridge to see whether the state land beneath them is marked. The disappearance of a fence that cordoned off the state’s property underneath the I-495 bridge has exposed a possible gap in the state’s inspection program, he said.

A worker inspects the underside of the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River near Wilmington, Del., Tuesday, June 3, 2014, after it was closed due to the discovery of four tilting support columns. The closure created heavier-than-normal traffic conditions for motorists on Interstate 95, a major East Coast artery. The bridge normally carries about 90,000 vehicles a day. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

A worker inspects the underside of the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River near Wilmington, Del., Tuesday, June 3, 2014, after it was closed due to the discovery of four tilting support columns. The closure created heavier-than-normal traffic conditions for motorists on Interstate 95, a major East Coast artery. The bridge normally carries about 90,000 vehicles a day. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

“We need to get an inventory of all of our bridges and make sure right of way fencing is intact, and it needs to be part of our two-year inspections. If it isn’t, it needs to be,” he said.

The Federal Highway Administration does not ask states to examine government property around bridges as part of its guidelines for inspections every two years, an agency spokesman said.

Bhatt said he doesn’t know what happened to the fence. The agency so far has not contacted law enforcement.

“We’re going to determine when and who took it down,” he said.

Gov. Jack Markell planned to visit the site later Thursday.

Surveyors stand near a tilting support column, front right, that is holding up the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River near Wilmington, Del., Tuesday, June 3, 2014, after it was closed due to the discovery of tilting support columns. The closure created heavier-than-normal traffic conditions for motorists on Interstate 95, a major East Coast artery. The bridge normally carries about 90,000 vehicles a day. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Surveyors stand near a tilting support column, front right, that is holding up the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River near Wilmington, Del., Tuesday, June 3, 2014, after it was closed due to the discovery of tilting support columns. The closure created heavier-than-normal traffic conditions for motorists on Interstate 95, a major East Coast artery. The bridge normally carries about 90,000 vehicles a day. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The contractor who dumped the dirt next to the bridge is working with state officials to remove it. He was allowed to use the site under an arrangement with a company that leases land next to the bridge.

“I have absolutely no idea what happened, I really don’t,” said James Thomas Jr., 60. “I’m not a structural engineer. I’m not a bridge engineer.”

Officials have said a system to shore up and brace the bridge will have to be designed, which will take weeks. State officials do not have an estimated price tag but have indicated that they might seek federal funds to help pay for the repairs.

Meanwhile, Bhatt said the tilt sensors placed on the bridge Monday have shown very minimal movement, consistent with daytime expansion from heat.

Experts also are looking at the possibility that huge steel pilings supporting the bridge columns have rusted.

In this June 3, 2014 picture, a pile of dirt stands behind a surveying team working underneath the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River near Wilmington, Del., Tuesday, June 3, 2014, after the bridge was closed due to the discovery of tilting support columns. Delaware Transportation Secretary Shailen Bhatt said engineers are looking at all geotechnical issues and have determined that the dirt pile, which appears to be partly in the transportation department's right of way, could be a factor. "We don't know what the effect of that weight is" underground, he said. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

In this June 3, 2014 picture, a pile of dirt stands behind a surveying team working underneath the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River near Wilmington, Del., Tuesday, June 3, 2014, after the bridge was closed due to the discovery of tilting support columns. Delaware Transportation Secretary Shailen Bhatt said engineers are looking at all geotechnical issues and have determined that the dirt pile, which appears to be partly in the transportation department’s right of way, could be a factor. “We don’t know what the effect of that weight is” underground, he said. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

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

 

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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