DOVER, Del. (AP) — A wide-ranging inspection has found that vehicles and materials are being stored under several of Delaware's bridges, conditions similar to those at a major interstate bridge closed after shifting soils caused structural problems.
It was not immediately clear what, if any, hazards the materials present, but officials have ordered some of them removed. Inspection results shared with The Associated Press on Wednesday did not contain an analysis of possible risks. Department of Transportation spokesman Geoff Sundstrom said in an email that he would try to obtain additional information from bridge officials on Thursday.
Transportation Secretary Shailen Bhatt ordered the review after engineers determined that a massive dirt mound dumped next to the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River may have caused the movement of underground soils, resulting in damage to several bridge columns and the emergency closure of the bridge on June 2.
The bridge, which normally carries an average of 90,000 vehicles daily around Wilmington, will be closed indefinitely as engineers figure out how to brace it after they found columns tilting. Most of the detoured traffic is on already-clogged I-95, which passes through downtown.
The results of the latest inspection show that 14 of 29 bridges reviewed had materials or vehicles stored underneath or within 100 feet of them. Among the vehicles were military vehicles, construction equipment, trucks and buses, some belonging to the transportation department. Among the materials were dirt, sand and stone piles, although their volume was not quantified in the results. Following the inspections, some private firms were told to move vehicles, equipment or stored items, Sundstrom said.
"Parking vehicles beneath bridges is a common practice," Sundstrom said in his email. "Whether or not that practice will continue is based on the conditions for each specific bridge site." Sundstrom noted that while heavy, the weight of a single vehicle "is not remotely comparable to the weight" of the dirt pile under the 1-495 bridge. Officials have estimated the weight of that dirt at 50,000 tons.
The review also found that 21 of the 29 bridges have no right of way fencing, and that others have only "some" fencing. "Where fencing is needed for security or safety reasons it should be installed or reinstalled," Sundstrom wrote. "Many of our structures were erected years ago and the right-of-way adjacent to them has not been reviewed for some time."
Officials said the review involved bridges more than 500 feet long. The state owns 59 such bridges, but 30, such as those that are overpasses or that span wetlands, were immediately eliminated from the review because nothing is stored beneath them.
In addition to the site reviews, officials are examining archive plans and documents to compile information on soil conditions, foundation types, and rights of way for each of the 29 bridges. Meanwhile, officials acknowledged Wednesday that the state Transportation Management Center was alerted after a motorist called 911 on April 15 to report a problem with the I-495 bridge. The motorist, Charles Allen Jr., told a 911 dispatcher 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.
Sundstrom said details surrounding the 911 call, including who in the transportation department responded to Allen and when Bhatt learned about it, are still under investigation. Bhatt's office also is still investigating his agency's response to a notification from a private engineer who was working near the bridge on Thursday, May 29, and reported to state officials that it appeared to be tilting. State officials did not send out a crew to examine the bridge until the following Monday.