Building the bridge


In the Coastal Point office, tacked to a wall, is a diagram of the Indian River Inlet, labeled “Construction Update: Beginning May 2006.” The diagram marks areas of planned closure and construction for the state park, campground and marina area near the bridge over the inlet, as officials prepared for the planned replacement of the failing bridge.

Coastal Point • Submitted: The winning design for the new Indian River Inlet Bridge.Coastal Point • Submitted
The winning design for the new Indian River Inlet Bridge.

Sam Harvey, the reporter who attending the mid-2005 construction meeting at which the diagrams were handed out, long ago moved on to new challenges, but the diagram – and the project itself – linger as a reminder of the slow progress of any major undertaking.

There is no question but that the plan to replace the Indian River Inlet Bridge has seen its ups and downs, stops and starts – and even reverses – in the last five years.

In fact, in the Coastal Point’s farewell to 2005 and welcome to 2006, Editor Darin McCann graded himself on his predictions for that outgoing year, noting the following: “A new span will be thrown across the Indian River Inlet. Verdict: What are we, a joke? F.” On the list of hopes for 2006? “A plan to be agreed upon and finalized for the Indian River Inlet bridge, and the money to be available to get it done.”

Not much better for 2006, and that could be why Coastal Point predictions have fallen by the wayside ever since.

The project to replace the bridge slipped off track the fall of 2005, with a $200 million shortfall in the state’s transportation budget.

Though a variety of studies had suggested that the bridge could fail as soon as 2008 – or as late as 2013 – due to scouring of its support piers by the rushing waters of the inlet, the bridge was one of many state projects to be pushed back due to that financial issue, as well as a trend of bids for projects coming in higher than expected as the price of steel and other materials continued to rise.

In late 2005, with the project still on track, the state closed two lanes of the bridge for a two-phase project to shore up of the eastern side of the existing bridge and make a slight realignment to the highway, to reopen by Memorial Day of 2006. The reinforcement was deemed necessary since the vibration from the new bridge’s construction could have conceivably damage the existing causeways.

Once completed, the new Indian River Inlet Bridge was to have a 1,000-foot “tied arch”-style main span with no piers in the channel.

Plans, and budgets, go pear-shaped

In December 2005, major roadwork continued at the bridge area, whether or not the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) knew who was going to build the new bridge or even what the new bridge was going to look like.

DelDOT had delayed projects all around the state in the 2005 budget crunch and tacked another year onto the bridge project. State officials were still aiming for project completion in 2010, though, despite the setback of opening a larger-than-expected bid on the project, which had been estimated to cost $125 million. The sole contractor willing to tackle the job was going to be far more expensive than originally estimated, it turned out.

“We’re still trying to see what we can do with the existing design, or whether we’re going to go another way, like design-build,” DelDOT’s Dennis O’Shea said on Dec. 13, 2005, suggesting DelDOT would move to re-bid the project perhaps in a new way, with a new design.

With a design-build project, DelDOT would contract with a single entity for both architectural and engineering work. That entity would have greater flexibility, especially on the timeline, because it could make adjustments midstream if design changes became necessary, and the design-build option would provide potential cost savings for all involved.

But, despite sticking to a design concept that had no piers in the inlet, O’Shea said the department was considering the possibility that a different kind of clear span might be more economical.

As proposed in 2005, the bridge would have featured a 1,000-foot “tied arch.” That meant no vertical towers — the bridge is all of a piece, and the girders underlying the roadway “tie” the ends of the arch together.

O’Shea noted rising materials and labor costs, but suggested the additional risk associated with the tied-arch design had been a main factor in the sparse field of prospective bidders. The lone bid they’d received had actually come from two bidders who’d joined into one, O’Shea said, further narrowing the field of competitors, even as the other contractors drifted away.

“This type of structure is kind of unique, and I think their comfort level was the issue,” O’Shea pointed out. And since then, he’d fielded questions about whether the arch design was critical, or whether a more traditional “cable-stayed” bridge would be more economical.

Cable-stayed was the more familiar look, O’Shea said, with the C&D Canal Bridge being a local example. While there are no 1,000-foot tied-arch bridges in the United States, he said there were probably 30 or 40 cable-stayed bridges with this kind of span.

Bid controversy causes further delay

In the end, DelDOT favored the cable-stayed design and re-bid the project with funding in the 2006 Bond Bill. But that bid process was itself fraught with problems, as, in April 2007, one bidder contested the awarding of the project to another, citing ambiguity in the bidding process rules under funding in the Bond Bill. The winning bidder had come in $800,000 higher than the challenger, at $124.9 million, but had been selected as the winner based on technical criteria.

Delaware labor leaders also charged that the bid selection might have been affected by an anti-labor bias, since the challenger had promised to use Delaware union workers if awarded the contract.

State legislators tackled the controversy with the 2008 Bond Bill, scrapping the prior bids and clearing up how officials should grade the bids in technical and price categories, making it easier for officials to choose a winning bid without fearing legal action. The delay set the completion date for the new bridge back another year, to 2011.

Collapse adds urgency to timeline

Then, in August 2007, the fatal collapse of a Minnesota bridge increased already sharp awareness of the ticking away of time on the various estimates of the Indian River Inlet Bridge’s safe lifespan.

In the days after the collapse, which killed at four and injured roughly 100 people, and though the troubled inlet bridge shared the same “structurally deficient” federal rating as the I-35W bridge that had collapsed, Delaware officials were quick to note differences and say the inlet bridge was safe.

“We are saying, with authority, that it is absolutely safe,” said Darrel Cole, spokesman for the Delaware Department of Transportation. “If it were not safe, it would be closed. I don’t know how else to say that. We have a group of professionals here that do nothing but work on bridges. If that bridge were unsafe, it would be closed. They do not take their jobs lightly.”

Officials installed additional sensors on the bridge and increased the regular inspections done on it to ensure that it would remain safe until it could be replaced.

In the meantime, work by another contractor on the embankments leading to the new bridge was ongoing, at a cost of $8.1 million, getting the site ready for the construction of the bridge itself. But in November of 2007, DelDOT officials revealed that those embankments were not settling properly and were, in fact, leaning westward.

While the state investigated the project’s failure and who was responsible, they also made a quick decision to revamp the bridge’s design once more, to compensate for the now-necessary changes to the embankments so the project could move forward with all possible speed. The changes were estimated to cost the state another $30 million, above the $120 million now estimated to build the bridge.

Design-build team selected

In January of 2008, three competing design-build teams were selected to offer bids on the revised project, with its cable-stayed design. In March 2008, work to correct the embankments to the new design standards had begun, and dump trucks of newly excess material from the embankments was hauled away from the site for most of the summer.

In July of 2008, state officials finally declared a winning bidder in the design-build contract for the revised bridge. Skanska USA Civil Southeast Inc. put in a bid of $149,970,400 for the project, just under the project’s cost estimate of $150 million. They had a weighted technical score of 24.9630, with a total score of 24.9837 for the two aspects of the bid combined — with both the lowest bid and the highest in technical scores among the three approved bidders for the project.

With the contract approved, construction was expected to start as early as the fall of 2008, with the new bridge to carry traffic no later than December 2011. The new cable-stayed design was unveiled in September of 2008, and work on the embankments and pre-construction work on the bridge has been taking place ever since. Heavy construction is set to begin early in 2009, with the bridge now estimated to be open to traffic by the summer of 2011.

“The bridge builders have officially arrived,” said DelDOT Secretary Carolann Wicks at the September unveiling. “We have more than two years of construction work ahead of us. There will be ups and downs, there will be issues. But I expect — just like we have in the past — to take them on, address them and move forward.”

The new design is dramatic and functional, officials said. It will have four towers with a single plane of cable stays on each side of the bridge, a narrow profile over the Inlet and an efficient design, they said. For comparison, Williams V. Roth Jr. Bridge over the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal has two towers and a single plane of cable stays down the center of the bridge.

The new bridge will also be 2,600 feet long, including a 900-foot clear span over the Inlet, with 1,700 feet of bridge over land. All supports will be out of the water, eliminating the deleterious conditions that have occurred on the existing bridge.

The new bridge will have a minimum 100-year design life. The foundation consists of 36-inch-square piles to be manufactured by Bayshore Concrete Products, a subsidiary of Skanska Southeast. Skanska had previously used these types of piles on the Escambia Bay I-10 bridges in Florida.

Construction process now under way

Just this past week, on Jan. 30, a “spider frame” was transported across the existing Indian River Inlet Bridge, to do compression testing as part of the load-test pile-driving that Skanska is now conducting.

A project more than 10 years in the making, and only just now beginning to rise up on the horizon, the new Indian River Inlet Bridge is expected to have fully replaced the current one by the time the Coastal Point celebrates its 10th anniversary.

Indian River Inlet Bridge facts:

• The current 860-foot bridge was built in 1965, and was widened in 1976.

• Until 1928, the Inlet functioned as a natural inlet, shifting up and down the coast over a 2-mile range. Between 1928 and 1937 the Inlet was kept open by dredging, and in 1938, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed the jetties.

• The first bridge over the Inlet was a timber bridge constructed in 1934, followed by a concrete and steel movable swing bridge built in 1938. This lasted until 1948 when it was destroyed by ice flow and extreme tides. Another concrete and steel swing bridge built in 1952 lasted until the current bridge was built in 1965.

• Under the new design, the capacity and function of the bridge will not change. The minimum vertical clearance will increase from the existing 35 feet to 45 feet over the navigational portion of the inlet. The bridge lane will remain the same with two 12-foot lanes. Wider shoulders will be used, a 4-foot interior shoulder and a 10-foot exterior shoulder, all in each direction. Additionally, one 12-foot wide sidewalk will be accessed from the east side of the bridge. The reduced embankment limits will result in the elimination of the massive wall surface areas and will provide a more open view.

For additional information on the history of the bridge and project including renderings of the new bridge go to www.irib.deldot.gov. DelDOT is encouraging residents, motorists and others to write to DelDOT Public Relations at dotpr@state.de.us, or 800 Bay Road, Dover, DE, 19903, or call (302) 760-2080 or (800) 652-5600 with questions or input.