U.S. Transportation Sec. calls I-495 closure a 'national issue'

By Tom Lehman 8:40pm, June 13, 2014 - Updated 2:29am, June 16, 2014
VIDEO: U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx speaks at a press conference on the closure of Interstate 495 in Wilmington. PHOTO: (Tom Lehman/WDEL)
The national transportation chief visited the shuttered Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River in Wilmington on Friday and reaffirmed federal commitment to repairing the 4,800 foot structure.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the bridge, which was closed on June 2 after inspectors discovered four tilting support columns, said restoring uninterrupted travel on the 11-mile bypass would be a major priority.

"This isn't just a Delaware issue, this is a national issue," Foxx said.

State transportation officials hope to re-open the southbound lanes of the bridge by Labor Day, with travel resuming on the northbound lanes in the following weeks.

Many of the 90,000 vehicles that used the highway to bypass Wilmington each day are now using Interstate 95, leading to backups that extended into Pennsylvania on Friday. City roads have also been clogged with vehicles diverted from I-495 during peak travel hours.

Restoring access to the bridge carries an estimated price tag of $20 million, with the Federal Highway Administration paying for those initial repairs. It's not known how much a complete fix will cost, but Delaware will pay for 10 percent of that expenditure.

Money for the project should remain available, even with dwindling resources in the Highway Trust Fund, said Delaware Department of Transportation Secretary Shailen Bhatt.

"If the Highway Trust Fund were to become insolvent, the emergency quick release funds are in a different pot of money," Bhatt said.

The current plan to secure the bridge involves drilling 4-foot diameter shafts as deep 170 feet into bedrock beneath the ground to reinforce the damaged portions of the structure. Officials said that temporary solution may be part of the overall repair process, which could still involve replacing the damaged portions of the highway.

Engineers suspect a 55,000 ton dirt pile dumped next to the bridge caused underground soils to shift, causing the support columns to tilt.

Officials said those columns have shifted slightly back toward their correct positions since the dirt was removed.

"We're going to make sure we do everything we can to make sure this is done quickly and safely, and that's the bottom line," said Governor Jack Markell (D).

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