After bridge closed, Delaware inspecting all spans

RANDALL CHASE
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A sign marks a state property line in front of a pile of dirt next to the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River near Wilmington, Del., Thursday, June 5, 2014. Signs and fencing were installed around the site after the bridge was closed Monday due to the discovery of tilting support columns. Officials suspect that the dirt dumped next to the bridge over several years shifted the ground underneath the span and caused the columns to tilt. Delaware Department of Transportation Secretary Shailen Bhatt said his agency was checking under bridges across the state to make sure the state's property is properly marked. He also ordered immediate inspections of major bridges in the state on Thursday to see if they might have any problems similar to the I-495 bridge. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WILMINGTON, 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 in 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.

Gov. Jack Markell walked the bridge Thursday with Bhatt, who said the northbound lanes were clearly tilted. In addition, the walls separating the northbound and southbound lanes, which are supposed to be level with each other, are displaced in some spots by as much as 18 inches.

"This is unbelievable," the governor said.

Bhatt said inspectors will first look at bridges of similar design in similar soils throughout the state.

"I want eyes on all those bridges immediately," he told the AP.

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.

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.

"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.

Bhatt said he doesn't know what happened to the fence, but the agency was going to find out. The agency so far has not contacted law enforcement.

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.

Markell said federal highway officials have pledged to pay 90 percent of the cost of repairing the bridge.

While the total cost of repairs is unknown, the Federal Highway Administration has approved $2 million in emergency relief funds for the initial response, Markell said. The bridge qualifies for federal emergency relief because it's on an interstate highway.

Transportation officials from more than a dozen states told AP that they did not plan any special inspections in light of the Delaware trouble. A few states — including Illinois, Mississippi and Tennessee — said they already went beyond the federal guidelines and routinely inspected the land underneath bridges.

Tripp Shenton, who chairs the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Delaware, said that while it's rare for bridges to be damaged by debris on the ground, inspectors probably should be instructed to note anything unusual. In 1996, a large pile of tires caught fire beneath a bridge on I-95 in Philadelphia, damaging the span and closing it briefly.

The governor praised the engineer who first reported the potential problem to state officials last week. The engineer, an employee of a private company on the site for an unrelated project, saw cracking in the soil around the dirt pile and then spotted the leaning columns.

"He was highly observant that something didn't look quite right," Markell said.

The contractor who dumped the dirt 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.

Officials have said a system to shore up and brace the bridge will have to be designed, which will take weeks.

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