- Associated Press - Friday, June 13, 2014

WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) - The closure of a major bridge in Delaware due to tilting support columns is not just a state problem, but a national issue, said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who used a visit to the site Friday to push Congress to replenish diminishing federal highway funds.

The Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River in Wilmington was closed June 2. Traffic is being shunted onto already-congested I-95 through downtown Wilmington as crews begin a $20 million repair project that officials hope will have the bridge at least partially reopened by Labor Day.

“This isn’t just a Delaware issue, it’s a national issue,” said Foxx, who stopped at the bridge site during a previously arranged trip to Wilmington for a Friday evening speech. “When this bridge goes down, the ability of folks to travel all the way south into Miami, all the way up the Eastern Seaboard, is impacted. So it is a big deal that we get this bridge back up and going.”

Federal taxpayers will pick up 90 percent of the cost of permanent repairs to the interstate bridge. The state already has been approved for $2 million in federal emergency funding.

Engineers believe that a massive dirt mound dumped next to the bridge may have caused underground soils to shift, damaging several nearby bridge columns. Part of the dirt mound, estimated at 50,000 tons, encroached on the government right of way underneath the bridge.

But Foxx would not say whether federal bridge inspection standards should be revised to require that states ensure that rights of way are clear.

“The reality is we’ve learned from lots of things that happen around the country,” Foxx said. “This is a situation perhaps we do have things to learn from. … We’ll have time to do after-actions, but the main thing right now is getting this thing back up and going.”

Foxx and members of Delaware’s congressional delegation used the bridge crisis as an opportunity to call for replenishment of the federal highway trust fund. President Barack Obama’s administration has said the fund could run out of money in August if Congress does not act, and that critical transportation projects around the country could be slowed down or stalled as a result.

“One of the challenges we face right now as a country is that we have much more infrastructure that needs to be repaired, much more infrastructure that needs to be built, than we have the dollars available to do,” Foxx said.

State 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.

Delaware Transportation Secretary Shailen Bhatt, who will appear before a joint legislative committee next week, has said his agency’s response to warnings about the bridge will be reviewed, but that the focus now has to be on getting the bridge repaired and traffic flowing again.

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