- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 11, 2014

DOVER, Del. (AP) - Delaware’s transportation secretary will appear before state lawmakers next week to discuss the closing of the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River in Wilmington.

The bridge typically carries about 90,000 vehicles a day on an 11-mile bypass around Wilmington. It was closed June 2 because several supporting columns are tilting. Transportation officials said Tuesday that they hope to have the bridge at least partially reopened by Labor Day.

Lawmakers have scheduled a joint session of the Senate and House transportation committees next Wednesday to hear from transportation chief Shailen Bhatt.

“We will get a full update and a full briefing,” said Rep. William Carson, D-Smyrna, chairman of the House Transportation, Land Use and Infrastructure Committee.

Repairs to the bridge are expected to cost at least $20 million and involve drilling new concrete-filled shafts into bedrock to support the structure. The federal government will pick up most of the cost of the repairs.

Engineers suspect that a massive mound of dirt dumped next to the bridge caused the movement of underground soils, which resulted in the cracking of concrete footers supporting the columns and damage to the steel pilings underneath.

Officials have said they ordered the bridge closed immediately after discovering that the columns were tilting.

But a local businessman called 911 on April 15 to report that concrete barriers separating the bridge’s northbound and southbound lanes, which are supposed to be level with each other, had separated in elevation by as much as a foot. Transportation officials also received a separate notice from an engineer working in the area on Thursday, May 29, that the bridge appeared to be tilting, but they did not send out an inspection team until the following Monday.

“The very good thing is that no one was hurt, no one was killed,” Carson said. “It was discovered in time, and the road got closed.”

Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington, said she met with Bhatt on Wednesday and brought up the 911 call.

“He said he was not at liberty to discuss it,” said Henry, whose district includes the area of the bridge. “They were looking into it and investigating it.”

Carson said he believes the transportation department has responded appropriately in closing the bridge and working quickly to get it repaired.

“The number one thing right now is to get the bridge open, and they’ve responded very timely to working to do that,” Carson said. “As far as could it have been found out earlier, who’s to blame, that’s the secondary thing. That’s being sorted out as we speak.”

Meanwhile, Carson is pushing forward with a bill he introduced this week to require that state officials give preference to qualified Delaware-based businesses for emergency public works projects.

“They should be the first ones to get the chance to do it,” he said.

Delaware officials have awarded a contract to Pennsylvania-based J.D. Eckman Inc. for emergency repairs to the bridge. The company, which has substantial experience in emergency bridge repairs, has said it plans to bring in Delaware workers on the project.

“This was the outfit that could hit the ground running, has a national reputation for being the go-to company for bridge failures like this one,” said Sen. Karen Peterson, chair of the Senate transportation committee.

Peterson, D-Wilmington, said she believes the transportation department is doing the best it can under the circumstances to get the bridge fixed and traffic moving again.

“Things have really moved at record speed for government,” she said.

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