What's under a bridge: Risks, opportunities

Dividers, once even, separating the north- and south- bound lanes of the I-495 bridge are marked to show height differences.
Dividers, once even, separating the north- and south- bound lanes of the I-495 bridge are marked to show height differences.
Posted: June 09, 2014

Bridge safety can depend as much on what happens under a bridge as on it.

A giant pile of dirt stored beneath an I-495 bridge in Wilmington is the chief suspect as the cause of tilting that forced the closure of the span last week.

The episode is reminiscent of a 1996 fire in stacks of discarded tires under I-95 in Port Richmond that closed a section of the interstate for a week and forced traffic restrictions for months.

In 2012, traffic was restricted for six weeks on I-195 near Trenton after a dump truck on the New Jersey Turnpike struck a pillar supporting an I-195 overpass and burst into flames, killing the driver and damaging the structure.

Bridges are the most vulnerable sections of a highway, and their support structures can be undermined by activities, installations, or accidents, engineering experts say.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation prohibits large storage areas, flammable materials, or big installations beneath bridges, said Charles H. Davies, the assistant district executive for design for PennDot's Southeastern Pennsylvania district.

PennDot typically owns the land beneath its bridges or has "aerial easements" that permit it to control what is built or placed under the spans.

"Bridge inspectors need to report on any use under the highway," Davies said. Bridges are required to be inspected every two years.

PennDot restrictions were tightened after the 1996 arson under I-95 in Port Richmond, where thousands of tires had been allowed to accumulate illegally for years.

In the current closure of the I-495 bridge in Wilmington, investigators are looking at a contractor's stockpile of dirt that was legally placed just east of several support pillars that are now leaning in that direction, tilted as much as four degrees out of vertical alignment.

The contractor and state highway crews were removing the hundreds of feet of dirt last week.

The tilting of the bridge near the Port of Wilmington forced the closure Monday of the span that carried about 90,000 vehicles a day, disrupting travel throughout the region.

The closure caused backups of as much as seven miles on I-95 south of Philadelphia.

By week's end, though, motorists were finding alternate routes and travel times, and rush-hour delays on I-95 were down to three-tenths of a mile Friday morning, said PennDot spokesman Eugene Blaum.

In the spaces beneath bridges, there can also be harmless, even beneficial, uses.

Think of the Rizzo Rink ice-skating facility under I-95 at Front Street and Washington Avenue in South Philadelphia.

Or the nearby public parking lots under the interstate that serve the Mummers Museum and the Gloria Dei (Old Swedes') Church.

Now, as PennDot crews rebuild I-95 and its bridges through Philadelphia, planners are rethinking how under-bridge spaces can be used.

And there are lots of them.

There are 210 bridges on I-95 in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Their spans total 10 million square feet, about 40 percent of all the PennDot bridges in the five-county region.

Incorporating the once-isolated areas under I-95 into local communities is now part of the plan for reconstruction that will last at least another decade.

Trails, bike paths, and parking lots under a bridge can "make it part of the neighborhood instead of an uninhabited area where things happen and no one is looking," Davies said.




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