DelDOT talks Inlet Bridge redesign

The Indian River Inlet Bridge is safe, for now. And, devastating impact on local economies notwithstanding, the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) will certainly close it down if that ever changes.
Coastal Point • SAM HARVEY: From left, DNREC’s Ken Farrall, Steve Callanen, DelDOT’s David Duke and Sen. George H. Bunting discuss plans at the Bridge Construction Advisory Board meeting on Oct. 11.Coastal Point • SAM HARVEY:
From left, DNREC’s Ken Farrall, Steve Callanen, DelDOT’s David Duke and Sen. George H. Bunting discuss plans at the Bridge Construction Advisory Board meeting on Oct. 11.

But with the cool response to requests for bids on the construction of a new, flagship Indian River Inlet Bridge in recent months, DelDOT may have to review options. Only one contractor submitted a bid. DelDOT leadership, having received early indications it was going to be much higher than what department engineers had budgeted for, decided to leave the envelope unopened, on Oct. 4.

As DelDOT’s Dennis O’Shea pointed out at an Oct. 11 Bridge Construction Advisory Board meeting, this preserved the contractors’ competitive advantage, encouraging them to resubmit once DelDOT gets a new bid package ironed out.

But first, DelDOT may need to rethink their designs.

Figg Engineering’s first, preliminary sketches showed a more traditional suspension bridge, with main towers at either side of the channel. However, incorporating public input from “charette” (intense, creative work sessions, involving all stakeholders), DelDOT settled on a more graceful main arch, rather than towers.

According to O’Shea, Figg never went any further with the more traditional design than those very preliminary sketches. However — this “tied arch” design rarely gaps such a 1,000-foot span, as would this futuristic Indian River Inlet Bridge.

DelDOT stands firm on maintaining a design that keeps supports out of the channel. Hydraulics churn in the bridge’s shadow, and the pilings can only weather that beating so much longer — channel currents have excavated deep holes immediately adjacent the upright supports. Effectively, the pilings are getting taller, and, proportionally, skinnier.

DelDOT engineers have indicated heightened concern regarding overall system stability, out past another five to seven years. And apparently, there’s no temporary fix.

Sen. George Howard Bunting (20th District) posed the question at a recent Bridge Construction Advisory Board meeting (Oct 11). Could DelDOT fill in the holes by pumping slurry (water plus filler material) from the banks, or build coffer dams around the belabored pilings?

According to DelDOT engineer Jiten Sonije, efforts to fill here or bulwark there would likely just shift the problem to a new location — creating a new hole on the other side of the piling, for instance.

“The water currents are so high — it’s a unique situation,” he said. “We don’t know where we might move the problem.”

Bunting said he’d written the Army Corps of Engineers about a possible temporary fix, in the event DelDOT couldn’t complete the new Indian River Inlet Bridge before the present system entered its final decline. “From a practical standpoint, is a portable bridge even a possibility,” he asked.

As Bunting pointed out, north-south traffic would have to swing inland onto Route 24, over Love Creek. “And I’ve seen that bridge closed, too,” he added.

DelDOT’s Dennis O’Shea said he wasn’t sure if such a portable bridge could span the Indian River Inlet’s width.

At the outset, Bunting had recognized the fishing community would be the first group asking him about the recent developments, or lack thereof. The bridge provides critical access to the Indian River Marina, and numerous ocean-going business ventures (charter boats, services to recreational anglers).

An out-of-commission bridge could possibly be even more devastating to those businesses, than to local land-based businesses. O’Shea recognized the situation — “We all understand the criticality of that bridge,” he stated.

Bunting asked about changes to the day-use parking areas, and DelDOT’s David Duke noted existing and pending improvements.

For the time being, roughly half of the north side parking lot is still open, and Kuhn Construction, contractor for this phase of the work, has created a second day-use parking lot closer to the U.S. Coast Guard station. The oceanside lot south of the inlet should remain as is — however, the road curving under the bridge, looping back toward southbound Route 1 will be closed eventually, as will that smaller parking area.

The access road through that area and to the residential community beyond (bayside, south of the inlet) will be shifted slightly to the south and west, and Duke said. To replace the bridge underpass, he said they’d improve a turnaround for northbound traffic at the “3Rs” park area, about a mile north of the inlet.

Kuhn will shift the existing Route 1 travel lanes eastward (into what is now the median, and slightly closer to the dunes, respectively), in preparation for moving traffic away from the main worksite.

Whether the redesign and rebid will lead to additional demobilization and remobilization costs remains to be seen, but DelDOT’s Natalie Barnhart said they intended to keep Kuhn on site as long as possible. “We intend to keep working as long as we can, just finish everything we’ve started,” she said.

However, that work’s slated for completion by May 2006 — O’Shea suggested redesign might take between six and 18 months. He admitted this would extend the overall project timeline (which has already been pushed back by a year, to 2010).

However, that would be true only if DelDOT continued to pursue traditional low-bid contracting, O’Shea said — if the department sought contractors interested in design-build, the project could likely still make the timeline.

Bunting said the taskforce working on Sussex County’s new Veterans Home had been talking about design-build since day one. “It’s been suggested, maybe we ought to take a look at this here,” he said.

Design-build, or “D-B,” differs from low-bid contracting in that the state (or whoever) contracts architects and engineers from a single firm. Sometimes this leads to cost savings — sometimes it doesn’t. However, in most instances, it loosens up the timeline, by allowing contractors to proceed with early stage work while designing later stages.

While no designs are ever perfect, responsible firms make allowances for such contingencies, and any problems that arise are typically hashed out between the architects and engineers, and internally resolved.