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Indian River bridge suffers unsettling setback

Shifting, settling render $20 million job untenable

By Ron MacArthur

Cape Gazette staff

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The massive dirt ramps built as approaches for the new Indian River Inlet Bridge took more than a year to build, but soon most of the material making up the ramps will be removed.

As the bidding process for the beleaguered bridge prepares to start for the second time, the Cape Gazette has learned the 50-foot high north-south roadway approaches, which were completed earlier this year at an approximate cost of $20 million, are not settling properly.

The embankments are drifting and leaning toward the west, according to a Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) document.

DelDOT officials are also changing the design of the bridge – for a third time – to allow for a span of 2,600 feet without the huge roadway ramp approaches. The new design resembles the William V. Roth Jr. Bridge over the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal in New Castle County.

Darrel Cole, director of DelDOT public relations, said advertisements for requests for qualifications from design-build teams are set to go out, as the bidding process gets under way. Fearing litigation, DelDOT officials withdrew an earlier round of bids this past April.

Cole said the time lapse has worked in the department’s favor in one regard. “We have concerns with approaches to the new bridge,” he said. “We knew there would be settlement, but the approaches are settling more than anticipated, but not as quickly as anticipated. You can’t build a bridge when the road is still settling.”

Because of the weight of the approaches and their westerly movement, nearby roads were damaged, requiring Route 1 pavement Bridge

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repairs and the current Route 50A reconstruction project.

DelDOT officials maintain the delay does not impact safety to those who travel over the bridge. “The existing bridge is in no immediate danger of failing, and in fact is the most monitored bridge in the state,” the document states.

Legislators have questions

Plans call for the most of the massive ramps, which have become landmarks in the region, to be removed.

“Before the end of the year, we expect to begin taking down the majority of the approaches – approximately 600 feet on each side. We will be exploring economical ways of disposing of this material either for use on other roadway projects or other public works initiatives,” the document states.

Unconfirmed reports are that are at least 146,000 cubic yards of dirt will be removed.

On the subject of blame for the settling problem, DelDOT provides the following answer: “Projects with geotechnical issues such as this are difficult to predict. We are reviewing the original design for a possible claim. As such, it would be premature to comment on any design flaws and associated responsibilities.”

Rep. Joe Booth, R-Georgetown, said he was aware of the settling problems seven months ago. “As a member of the Bond Bill Committee, I think we need to demand some answers before we pour more money down this hole,” he said.

Booth, who has been a critic of DelDOT consultants, said someone needs to be held responsible for the flawed approaches, and it’s probably an outside consultant.

“What happened to the consultant? Who has been held accountable? Or is an engineer at fault? How did we blow $20 million?” he asked. “I have no names, and as a legislator I should.”

Booth said he has lost track how much money has been wasted on the Indian River Inlet Bridge project. “All our money is going to the bridge. It’s no wonder we can’t get road projects done in the county.”

Sen. George Bunting, D-Bethany Beach, who rides over the bridge at least twice a day, said he is not an engineer, but he questions why pilings were not part of the roadway approach project. “Why wasn’t hard structure used in this project?” he asked. “There is 60 feet of clay under these approaches that is compressing down and out. This troubles me because we all know the history with the old bridge. There has always been settling with the old bridge.”

Bunting said he would like to know who did the core borings. “Should there be some recourse there?” he asked.

He said the new design would provide for less pressure on the soils and surface leading to the bridge.

“People are asking if DelDOT is capable of doing these kind of projects. I tend to think they still are. But, when something like this happens, I don’t think it makes our whole process look professional,” Bunting said.

$150 million estimate

Cole said a short list of firms would be selected from those in the first round of the process to submit requests for proposals in the second stage of the bidding process. Officials are hopeful a bid can be awarded in the spring of 2008 and construction can be completed sometime in 2011.

“The overriding theme is getting the project done as soon as possible,” Cole said.

The estimated cost of the new bridge is $150 million, which is a $20 million increase from the previous design estimate, but still below the $200 million estimate for the original design.

“We have the resources to build the bridge even though it will not be a $130 million bridge anymore,” Cole said.

Eighty percent of the project will be paid with federal funding and 20 percent will be paid with state funding.

A portion of the project was bid out and work progressed on the north and south roadway approaches in 2005. Kuhn Construction of Hockessin won the bid at $34.5 million. Work on both embankments was completed in February 2007.

The contract included work on the approaches, retaining walls, wetland mitigation sites, new access for Delaware Seashore State Park and new stormwater and drainage facilities.

A phone call to Kuhn Construction for comment was not returned.

Bridge background

Ground was broken for the project more than three years ago, on Oct. 18, 2004, with a gala celebration. At the time, the design for the bridge was one proposed by former DelDOT Secretary Nathan Hayward with an estimated price tag of at least $200 million.

“The new bridge will be the longest single concrete arch cable-supported bridge in the world. So now, not only is Delaware again the first in the country, but now first in the world,” Hayward said during the ceremony.

When legislators realized the price tag for the bridge, and the state of DelDOT finances, the design was scrapped for a more conservative, less costly design, causing the first delay in the process to build a new bridge.

Then three years later in the final stage of the long bidding process to award a contract to build a new bridge, trouble surfaced again. In late April, DelDOT Secretary Carolann Wicks announced that all bids were withdrawn and the process would start anew.

Legislation was required to amend the DelDOT design-build bidding process to place more emphasis on the actual dollar amount bid.

“While the internal procedures for this project were open and based on professional standards, the 2006 Bond Bill provisions authorizing this design/build project are ambiguous. Such ambiguity renders it impossible to assess the legality of the process. To avoid protracted litigation, I believe the best approach is to set aside the bids and initiate a new process as quickly as possible,” Wicks said.

This should get real interesting as the different parties involved start pointing fingers.....stay tuned

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