Less than two weeks after a tanker truck crash and fire destroyed an Interstate-95 bridge in northeast Philadelphia, the highway reopened to traffic on a temporary road surface June 23. The hastened work to reopen the highway, which has an average daily traffic count of nearly 160,000 vehicles, including about 13,000 trucks, was the result of collaboration between contractors, material suppliers and union workers with local, state and federal officials, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) said.
“It’s a great road,” he said. “I just drove over it to get here.”
The emergency project to rebuild the bridge after the June 11 crash and fire continues.
The fire caused the northbound side of the 104-ft-long welded steel I-beam bridge to collapse and left the southbound side of the span over the Cottman Avenue exit structurally unstable, according to the Pennsylvania Dept. of Transportation. The truck driver, Nathan Moody, was killed.
While it took firefighters hours to get the gasoline-fueled fire under control, a contractor had its equipment ready at the site the same day to begin round-the-clock demolition work. PennDOT officials enlisted two contractors working on its other projects nearby to take on the emergency project. Sewell, N.J.-based C. Abbonizio Contractors Inc., which had been working on an interchange project in the area as part of PennDOT’s “95 Revive” program, completed demolition of the old bridge in just four days.
Just south of the site, Philadelphia-based Buckley & Co. Inc. had been working on ramp improvements at the interchange of I-95 and the Betsy Ross Bridge, which crosses the Delaware River to Camden County, N.J. PennDOT hired the contractor to lead the emergency reconstruction of the destroyed bridge. Carroll said the company “checked all [the] blocks” of what the agency needed.
Chad Lavallee, a Buckley engineer and land surveyor, notes the firm had previously worked on PennDOT’s 1996 emergency project to repair I-95 after a massive tire fire. He said owner Rob Buckley moved personnel and equipment from three other jobs to get the accelerated work done.
“Rob pulled everything we had,” Lavallee said.
Shapiro said experts at the scene on the day of the fire predicted it would take months to reopen I-95. However, PennDOT staff worked with the contractors and engineering firm Benesch to develop a plan to reopen the highway sooner. They decided to support a temporary road surface by filling in a section of the crossing with 8,000 cu yd of foamed glass aggregate.
The material is made from recycled glass by Aero Aggregates of North America, a material supplier based outside Philadelphia in Delaware County, Pa. The lightweight material was needed because there are two sewer lines running under the road, and normal backfill could have caused settlement on those, Lavallee said. It has other advantages too, like being workable even in the rain because it does not become muddy. The contractor used a pair of Telebelt conveyors and two tracked Bobcats to spread the fill.
To keep the fill in place, state Transportation Secretary Mike Carroll said crews built walls made of dozens of 13,000-lb panels. Lavallee said they used two cranes to set Gravix precast parapet and moment slabs from supplier H&K Group Inc.
“That sped up the process by weeks, because normally you’d have to pour a moment slab and then pour a parapet on top of it,” Lavallee said.
Those walls are reinforced with a high tenacity polyester geogrid supplied by Huesker North America.
Philadelphia-based SJA Construction then paved the 14-in. asphalt on top of the fill in about a day, and Faddis Concrete Products supplied precast median barriers, Lavallee said. Rain threatened to slow paving and striping of the temporary road surface, as they needed a 12-hour dry weather window. The state sought help from Pocono Raceway, which provided its pickup truck-mounted jet dryer to keep the surface dry.
Progress continued on 12-hour shifts under the gaze of a live camera feed that drew thousands of viewers. The video was played in local bars and on the scoreboard at Citizens Bank Park during a Phillies game.
More than 200 building trades workers participated in the project, with work continuing 24/7. Shapiro said Carroll “has literally not left.” Rob Buckley spent 18 hours per day at the site ensuring that work progressed, according to Lavallee.
“They did it day in and day out,” Shapiro said. “They worked through the rain, they worked through the night, they worked through the heat, and a bunch of dads worked on Father’s Day.”
With the road reopened, Buckley can now move on to rebuilding the bridge. Lavallee said there is still some fire damage to the abutments, concrete and rebar, but it appears that the entire abutment will not need replacement. Crews plan to begin hydrodemolition of the damaged area and then immediately move on to reconstruction.
The plan calls for the contractor to work from the outside toward the center, allowing three lanes of traffic to continue in both directions throughout the project. Crews will use precast concrete sections to replace the destroyed span with a bridge similar in style to what was there before. Lavallee says code updates since the original project mean the new steel will have some improvements.
Crews can then remove the fill, rebuild the center of the bridge and reopen the Cottman Avenue exit.
Federal transportation officials have pledged to cover costs of the repairs. The Federal Highway Administration has issued $3 million in quick-release emergency relief funds, which Administrator Shailen Bhatt estimated would account for about 10% of the total cost. The agency would reimburse Pennsylvania for the additional costs, officials said.
PennDOT records show the bridge was completed in 2016 as part of a $212-million earlier phase of the same 95 Revive project that Abbonizio is working on nearby. It had been rated in “good” condition at the time of its last inspection before the fire.
Officials have not given an estimate on the timeline to complete the remaining work. Carroll noted that the temporary lanes are “a little tighter than normal” at 11 ft. and encouraged drivers in the area to stay at safe speeds.
“While they do that, PennDOT and our team and the Buckley team will continue our efforts to construct the facility on either side of this structure in an effort to restore 95 to its full capacity in the very near future," he said.