The Delaware River turnpike bridge, shut down after a fracture was discovered in a steel truss two weeks ago, will be closed for at least eight more weeks, officials announced Friday.
The 60-year-old structure, which connects the Pennsylvania Turnpike with the New Jersey Turnpike and is used by 42,000 vehicles a day, could be reopened in April in a "best-case scenario," officials said.
The closure for emergency work has caused traffic nightmares for commuters who rely on the toll bridge, the only structure that directly connects the turnpikes. The detours take motorists miles out of the way.
"We recognize that those who travel through, live, or work in this region have been considerably inconvenienced by this closure, and we are as excited as anyone to see it reopen," said Sean Logan, chairman of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, which jointly owns the bridge with the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.
"But please remember, this is an emergency situation; we're working around the clock to resolve it. It would be reckless to put a single vehicle back onto this structure before we trust its stability," Logan said in a statement.
The I-276 bridge connects Bristol Township, Bucks County, and Burlington Township, Burlington County. The fracture was discovered Jan. 20 below the riding surface on the westbound Pennsylvania side of the 1.25-mile bridge.
The break caused the section of the bridge between two supporting piers to drop about two inches, officials said. The load from thousands of tons of concrete and steel shifted to adjoining structural components that were not designed to carry the weight.
The New Jersey Turnpike Authority this week awarded $9.15 million in contracts to, among other things, build eight 80-foot towers to hold jacks, each capable of lifting 600 tons.
The jacking towers are intended to support the entire weight of the impacted section of the bridge to allow for a repair splice to be installed on the damaged truss and tested. Other parts of the bridge also will be tested, since so much weight shifted.
Crews last week began drilling piles to create a foundation for the jacking towers.
"The goal of the jacking operation is to return the bridge to its original position and allow us to complete a permanent splice of the fracture," said Brad Heigel, chief engineer for the Turnpike Commission.
"As the jacking operation occurs and load is transferred within the bridge, instrumentation will monitor the actual loads, stresses and displacements, which will be compared to estimated outcomes from computer models," Heigel said.
"This monitoring — which involves affixing about 50 sensors to the structure — is the only way we can confirm that the splice is successful before we reopen the bridge."
The work is being overseen by an emergency engineering task force that includes about two dozen public and private engineering design, construction, and transportation entities.
If the repair is unsuccessful, officials could not rule out a more complex partial reconstruction or possibly replacing the bridge, which opened in 1956 after two years of construction.
"If more extensive repairs would be required, it is not possible to offer even a rough estimate on the scope or duration of further construction because we simply do not have adequate information to make that projection," Heigel said.