Emergency no-bid repairs for the Walt Whitman Bridge were approved Thursday by the Delaware River Port Authority board after holes were found in the bridge's steelwork, including one in a support beam that a worker described as big enough to "put a hard hat in."
The move, which will cost about $2.7 million, came just months after completion of a three-year, $140 million redecking of the 57-year-old bridge between South Jersey and South Philadelphia.
Rusted gusset plates below the new bridge deck were discovered in June during a routine biennial inspection, and emergency repairs at that time forced a six-week ban on heavy trucks on the bridge. The bill for those repairs was $1.5 million.
The board voted Thursday to hire the current contractor, American Bridge Co. of Coraopolis, Pa., to make the new repairs rather than putting the project out to bid, in an effort to save time and money.
Failure of the plates would not have led to a bridge collapse but would have damaged other components and required more extensive and expensive repairs, DRPA chief executive John Hanson said.
"I want to assure you and the public there is no danger of a bridge failure," Hanson told the board Thursday. "It's not a safety issue for our commuters."
He said the worst deterioration had been fixed, and DRPA engineers had a schedule for replacing the remaining gusset plates over the next year, based on the extent of decay.
Bridge worker Charles J. Roberts, a steward for Ironworkers Local 401, urged the board to authorize immediate repairs rather than go through the usual bidding process. The ironworkers are employed by American Bridge to do the work on the Walt Whitman Bridge.
"This is the worst decay I've ever seen," said Roberts, who said he had been doing bridge work for 18 years. "I saw a 15-inch hole in a load-bearing beam . . . that you could put a hard hat in. To me, that's scary.
"These repairs need to be done."
The Ironworkers are well represented on the DRPA board. Richard Sweeney and Al Frattali, two New Jersey representatives on the board, are officials in the Ironworkers union. Sweeney is the brother of State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who is also an Ironworkers union official.
DRPA officials praised the work done so far by American Bridge and the Ironworkers, and argued it would be cheaper and faster to have them continue with the new repairs.
"We can save money for the commuters by moving forward . . . without putting it out to bid," said Philadelphia lawyer William Sasso, who chairs the board's operations and maintenance committee. "I don't want to be thinking about this at night. I think we should move forward."
The repairs are expect to be finished early next year.
In other business Thursday, the DRPA board:
Lifted the veil of secrecy from the political contributions made by DRPA vendors and would-be vendors. The board approved a proposal by board member Eugene DePasquale, the Pennsylvania auditor general, to grant public access to contribution reports. In 2012, the board had blocked public viewing of the reports.
Learned it would take about six weeks to get results of a traffic study that could mean discounts for regular users of the DRPA's four toll bridges: the Walt Whitman, Ben Franklin, Betsy Ross, and Commodore Barry.
Supported a 12-week study to examine the feasibility of reopening the PATCO "ghost station" at Franklin Square, beneath Old City. The station, built in 1936, open intermittently and last used in 1979, lies beneath refurbished Franklin Square at Sixth and Race Streets.