A major north-south highway through Wilmington, Del., connecting Philadelphia suburbs to Baltimore, has been indefinitely shut down because a tilting span of bridge could have fallen 50 feet under a full traffic load.
"This is the sort of thing that is sort of a DEFCON-1 for a transportation system," state Transportation Secretary Shailen P. Bhatt told reporters, referring to code for a severe military alert. "This is a really serious situation."
FOR THE RECORD:
Delaware bridge: An article in the June 5 Section A about a highway through Wilmington, Del., being shut down because of a tilting bridge quoted Delaware Transportation Secretary Shailen P. Bhatt as saying the situation "is sort of a DEFCON-5 for a transportation system." After the story was published, Bhatt said he meant to say the situation deserved DEFCON-1 status, code for the most severe military alert. DEFCON-5 is the least severe military alert, or a normal state of readiness. —
Four out of 37 pairs of columns support a nearly mile-long bridge over land and a river. Like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the columns have begun to tilt as much as 4% out of alignment.
From 75,000 to 90,000 vehicles that rely on I-495 each day have been forced to detour to either I-95 through downtown Wilmington or I-295 farther to the south, adding gridlock to the region's commute. Even public transit routes were expected to be delayed 20 to 30 minutes as the number of major freeway lanes dropped from 16 to 10.
The bridge was closed Monday night after an inspection earlier in the day confirmed the misalignment. The inspection was prompted by a Friday complaint from a crew working on another project. On Tuesday, state officials said they didn't check out the issue over the weekend because such complaints are routine. But when they realized the severity of the tilting, they pulled I-495 offline from the Pennsylvania-Delaware border through the Port of Wilmington.
By Wednesday morning, Google Maps had erased the stretch and crews were digging into the earth near the bridge trying to figure why the columns are shifting.
"Even Google knows how screwed we are," one Wilmington resident wrote on Twitter. "Done went and removed 495 altogether from the map!!"
The state's transportation agency said the six-lane Bridge 1-813, as it's officially known, was built over the Christina River 40 years ago. It passed an inspection two years ago.
Officials outlined a couple of possible causes. A giant pile of dirt nearby might have put pressure on the ground, shifting the soft earth in the area. Or the metal pilings below the support columns may have corroded.
The state plans to build a temporary brace for the bridge and level the actual roadway. But the work could take weeks or months, and officials planned to start detailing a time line as early as Wednesday afternoon.
One online commenter suggested Delaware put up a sign that says "Closed for business," since trucks heading to the port, a top importer of bananas, have been diverted to the freeway through downtown. Another called the state a joke, with wall-to-wall traffic leading to headaches.
"I-95 truck city on my late-night drive home from work. Guess they're usually all on 495," one woman said.
The state is hoping to tap federal emergency funds to cover the cost of the repair work, but money for crumbling infrastructure has itself been eroding. Sometime this summer, the federal government is expected to fall off a "highway cliff" as its pool of money for highway repair dries up.