DOVER, Delaware — Delaware transportation officials on Thursday partially reopened a bridge on a key East Coast interstate that was closed in early June because several supporting columns were tilting.
The southbound lanes of the Interstate 495 bridge over the Christina River were reopened shortly before 5 p.m., about a month earlier than expected.
Officials said a jacking operation to realign the south side of the bridge was completed about midday, and six heavily loaded dump trucks were used to weight-test the bridge before the southbound lanes were reopened.
The northbound lanes are expected to reopen by Labor Day.
"There is still a lot of hard work to do to fully reopen this bridge, but we've reached an important milestone in the effort to safely complete repairs as quickly as possible," Gov. Jack Markell said in a hastily called news conference shortly before the bridge reopened.
Once workers finish stabilizing the bridge with temporary jacking towers, new concrete supporting columns will be erected as part of the permanent repairs. Federal taxpayers will cover almost all of the estimated $35 million cost.
The bridge is part of an 11-mile bypass around Wilmington that helps alleviate congestion on heavily traveled Interstate 95, which runs through downtown.
Delaware Transportation Secretary Shailen P. Bhatt said he did not want to keep motorists waiting any longer than necessary once officials determined the southbound lanes could reopen.
Several drivers honked their horns and cheered as traffic began flowing on the bridge.
"We've already noticed an improvement in 95-southbound traffic," Bhatt said early Thursday evening.
Bhatt praised the engineers and contractors who designed and implemented a repair plan for the bridge. He said potential setbacks in drilling and jacking operations that officials were prepared for have not materialized.
"Literally, all the things that we thought could potentially cause a problem, didn't," Bhatt said.
The 4,800-foot bridge, which normally carries an average of about 90,000 vehicles daily, was the subject of an emergency closure on June 2 after state officials learned that several supporting columns were tilting.
The damage has been blamed on a large dirt mound dumped next to the bridge by a soil contractor, apparently without the knowledge or consent of state transportation or environmental officials. Officials have said the weight of the dirt, estimated at about 50,000 tons, caused soft underground soils to move, damaging the concrete footers and underground pilings that support the bridge columns. The state DOT has hired a law firm to represent its interests in any potential liability actions.
Meanwhile, Bhatt has acknowledged that his agency should have reacted quicker to citizen warnings about problems with the bridge and closed it sooner. An internal report released by the Delaware transportation department on July 3 documented a series of missteps leading up to the bridge closure.
The report says DOT officials did not respond appropriately to two 911 calls, one in April and the other in May, suggesting something was wrong with the bridge. They also took several days to act after receiving a private engineer's warning in late May that the bridge columns appeared to be tilting.
Bhatt refused to say Thursday whether any DOT employees were disciplined, reprimanded or fired.
"We conducted a human resources investigation and took the appropriate action. ... We don't discuss HR actions publicly," he said.
Meanwhile, the state DOT has implemented new procedures to ensure a timely and appropriate response to problems both with bridges and other infrastructure, including overhead signs, dams or dikes, and lighting structures.