A bridge for this century: Charles W. Cullen Bridge opens at Indian River Inlet

After months of limited traffic, the Indian River Inlet Bridge appears on track to fully open all four lanes by Memorial Day weekend.

Coastal Point • File Photo: Pedestrians and bicyclists enjoy the trip over the new Charles W. Cullen Bridge over the Indian River Inlet during the opening day ceremonies on Sunday, May 6.Coastal Point • File Photo
Pedestrians and bicyclists enjoy the trip over the new Charles W. Cullen Bridge over the Indian River Inlet during the opening day ceremonies on Sunday, May 6.

The southbound lanes have been open for two-way traffic since January, with one lane open in each direction. By Monday, May 21, two lanes of traffic flowed on the northbound travel lane, and DelDOT was one sunny day away from painting road markers on the last southbound lane.

Once all four lanes open, the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) will consider the actual bridge to be complete. However, motorists should observe the changing traffic patterns as additional work on side roads continues. Demolition of the old bridge will take some months.

Done at last

Like its predecessor, the new bridge is officially named Charles W. Cullen Bridge, honoring a Delaware lawyer and judge who served as chairman of the State Highway Department during construction of the first modern bridge at the inlet, which opened in 1940 as a replacement for a deteriorated wooden bridge.

Throughout the years, multiple governors, legislators and transportation secretaries have overseen the project, and Gov. Jack Markell, U.S. Sen. (and former governor) Tom Carper and DelDOT Secretary Shailen Bhatt all trekked down for the May 6 dedication ceremony.

“I drove over the new side today,” state Sen. George H. Bunting Jr. told the Coastal Point Monday, May 21. “It feels great, retiring from public office to see it finally accomplished after so many years of working on it.”

From safety to economic factors, the bridge is responsible for important movement across Sussex County. The construction itself brought numerous jobs and revenue to local subcontractors, restaurants, hotels, caterers and more.

“It’s hard to even calculate how much economic value can be placed on that,” said Bunting, noting that highway congestion throughout the area would only worsen if traffic had to drive around the inlet to get from Bethany Beach to Rehoboth Beach via Millsboro.

Throughout the design and building process, DelDOT and Bunting said it was important to keep the public involved, from citizens to emergency responders.

“A lot of people participated. I think it’s probably one of the best communities working-through that I’ve ever seen,” Bunting said. “I told them, in the future, during the Route 26 [Mainline] Project, they need to have that. It’s critical.”

From taxpayers who paid for the bridge to the U.S. Congressional representatives who secured funding, the entire state of Delaware is responsible for the new bridge, he noted.

“It’s done, and it’s beautiful, and it’ll outlast us,” Bunting said.

Many students from nearby schools and distant universities have toured the site, and some engineering students even found jobs at the bridge site.

“It’s quite a relief to be at this point,” said Doug Robb, DelDOT project engineer, at the dedication. “People seem really excited to see the bridge.”

Safeguarded at the Delaware Public Archives, a time capsule contains actual construction materials from the new bridge, including concrete samples, stay-cable strands and tubing, steel bars, technical documents, signatures of school children who toured the site and more.

“This is what government’s all about, to make investments for long after we are gone,” said Markell at the dedication. “In 2062, when this time capsule is opened up, the Delawareans of that day will not know our names … but they will know that we made.” an investment for the future.”


Two of state Rep. Gerald Hocker’s grandfathers were tenders for the inlet bridge, long ago. He recounted a history of the bridges at the dedication ceremony, which included a devastating collapse due to ice floes in 1948 that caused several deaths.

From the first wooden bridge built at the inlet in 1934 to the concrete-and-steel swing bridges of 1938 and 1952, the prior bridges did not last long in the shifting waters, winds and sands found at the inlet.

The steel-girder bridge the new bridge replaces was built in 1965 and widened in 1976. Heavy tides washed around the base of the bridge and scoured 100-foot holes into the inlet seabed, threatening the bridge’s future stability. By the 1980s, the bridge’s 23-foot support pilings were becoming compromised. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers installed protective riprap around the bridge piers as a temporary measure, and the State highlighted the inlet bridge as needing replacement. By 1999, the shallow inlet was scoured to 100 feet deep, and estimates of the end of the bridge’s safe lifespan were as early as 2008.

While design work continued for a new bridge, the public became increasingly concerned in August 2007, when a bridge in Minneapolis, Minn., that had been undergoing roadwork collapsed, killing 13 people. The Indian River Inlet Bridge did not suffer another tragedy, but DelDOT kept a close eye on it.

“I will say it was the most-monitored bridge in Delaware,” Hocker joked, reflecting recurring statements from DelDOT that began after the Minneapolis collapse.

The trouble with bridges

In 2003, DelDOT was finally designing a new bridge, which was initially planned as a cutting-edge single-arch, radial-tied bridge. But only one company bid on the project, and the $200 million bid was $50 million more than was originally budgeted for the project.

In 2005, the State downsized the project and requested bids for a less-flashy bridge. By 2007, DelDOT had received more bids, but the 2006 Bond Bill that authorized the project was deemed by some to be ambiguous, so the bids were again set aside, to avoid litigation.

In June of 2008, contractor Skanska USA Civil Southeast emerged as the best-qualified and least-expensive option to replace the Indian River Inlet Bridge.

Construction of earthen embankments leading to the bridge began in early 2006. But by 2007, the embankment walls were seen to be bulging and tilting as a result of excessive soil settlement. The embankments had to be dismantled, and DelDOT filed a lawsuit in 2011 against bridge design firm Figg Bridge Engineers Inc. and its geotechnical sub-consultant MACTEC Engineering and Consulting Inc.

DelDOT asserted that, among other things, MACTEC had failed to account for the nature and extent of settlement of soil under the earthen roadway embankments constructed as roadway approaches over the inlet.

DelDOT sought over $19.6 million in damages, for the costs to construct the original earthen embankments and their partial removal. The litigation in that case continues to this day.

Construction impacted traffic and fishing

While the new bridge is now considered a jewel in Delaware’s crown, construction was at times frustrating for motorists and residents. Ambulance response time slowed in heavy traffic, and drivers today still drive in loops to access certain nearby roads as work on the roadway and restoration phases of the project continues. During the construction, when the bridge deck form travelers crossed the inlet, fisherman Rich King said, tall boats had to be cautious at high tide or risk losing a top.

“They did actually accommodate the fishermen pretty well,” said King, a member of Delaware Surf Fishing. “The cool thing is that the fishing kind of improved … at night with all the lights.”

King said he heard that bright lights, a new moon and high tide all contributed to a strong rockfish season in 2011. In the future, the bridge will glow with blue light, instead of blinding with white light, so it is less likely to scare fish.

Some watermen have also been disappointed to lose temporary parking lots with prime waterfront access during the course of the project.

“It affected the fishing, good and bad,” King said. “For a while, you couldn’t walk under the bridge. We’re very lucky to able to fish right under the bridge [in general]. … It hadn’t bothered me, and I’m there all the time.”

The new bridge

After the false start of the failed embankments, DelDOT chose engineering firm Skanska to both design and build the new bridge — a process that allowed the company to make changes quickly when needed. Under Skanska, construction of the new bridge began in 2008. It was originally expected to finish by the end of 2011, though weather and other delays pushed that date back by more than a month. Still, the cost of the project has remained roughly the same.

“Nothing has changed from what we’ve always said. It’s a $150 million project,” said Jason Lang of DelDOT.

One-of-a-kind construction equipment was designed just to create the bridge. Starting on opposite shores, two sides of the bridge span over the inlet were built simultaneously on form travelers, which themselves hung from the already constructed bridge ends. Construction moved toward the middle of the inlet, with the two sides meeting and connecting with a closure pour on Oct. 18, 2011. The equipment used in the process was to be salvaged for recyclable scrap metal.

Construction itself was an adventure as the new bridge was built next to the old. Within a single week workers endured both Hurricane Irene and a rare earthquake – based in central Virginia and registering 4.8 on the Richter scale – that shook the East Coast in August 2011. Both bridges withstood the elements and quickly reopened.

The new bridge is designed to last more than 100 years, withstanding hurricane-force winds and corrosive salt air. A state-of-the-art fiber-optic system will monitor weather, and the impacts of salt and other deleterious elements.

At a total length of 2,600 feet, the new Cullen Bridge has a 900-foot span traversing over the inlet, with 1,700 feet of its bridge decking over land. All of its supports are out of the water, avoiding the scour problems its predecessor endured. Its foundations are supported on 36-inch-square piles. The bridge has two 240-foot high towers (pylons) on each side of the bridge, with single-plane cable stays that spread outward to support the bridge.

The new bridge is also 45 feet above the inlet waterway, compared to the former bridge’s 35-foot clearance. A 12-foot-wide pedestrian walkway follows along the northbound lane, fully barricaded on the ocean side, allowing pedestrians a safe view over the ocean. Although it is higher than before, the road still provides an incredible view of the inlet and ocean.

The blue stay cables holding up the new bridge will also feature blue aesthetic lighting — the color scheme selected through public input early in the design phase of the project. Late at night, only the outer cables will be illuminated, producing the effect of a sailboat and reducing electricity and light pollution for nearby campsites at the state park. The full illumination is expected to be visible Memorial Day weekend, if a trial planned for Thursday, May 24, goes off without problems.

Finishing touches

Now, Skanska is packing up and finishing minor housekeeping details, including clean-up, electrical repairs, inventory and inspection. Other crews are still busy with roadway approaches, surfaces and more. As work on the bridge itself finishes, contractors George & Lynch will continue work on nearby roadways — a separate project, bid at more than $11.6 million.

Although a new connector road just opened under the bridge’s south side, northbound traffic wishing to access the oceanfront areas of the state park must detour until work under the bridge is complete — likely sometime in July. Vehicles cannot turn right to enter Delaware Seashore State Park from Route 1 northbound but will have to proceed over the bridge, make a U-turn, travel southbound over the bridge again, and exit right onto the access road leading to the beach, bathhouse and parking area.

Maps of the access configuration can be found online by choosing “Project Phasing Maps” at the project’s Web site at www.deldot.gov/information/projects/indian_river_bridge_approaches/index... and clicking “Phase 3B – Access Road A & B.”

Pedestrians and cyclists are being encouraged to follow any detour signs along the bridge as the roads are being completed.

Demolition of the old bridge will take several months, after the existing sand-bypass system is attached to the new bridge. Because the inlet jetties disrupt natural tidal flow, the bypass system pumps sand across the inlet to the north shore, preventing erosion there.

The old bridge will be entirely disassembled, with the concrete to be deposited at a reef site 10 miles off the coast, and the structural steel to be sold for salvage.

The bridge is nearly done, but DelDOT won’t leave the construction site behind in the dust. In 2013, DelDOT will begin park improvements to Delaware Seashore State Park, located in the shadow of Cullen Bridge. After borrowing parkland for construction zones, DelDOT will rebuild campground areas, bathhouses and make other improvements on the north and south sides. Normally operated and maintained by the Delaware Department of Natural Resources (DNREC), the park has been limited by the bridge construction.

State park improvements will conclude in late 2014 and should not affect Route 1 traffic as bridge construction did. Only the parks and South Shore Marina community will be impacted by construction in the next few years. Additional information on the park project can be found online at www.IRIB.deldot.gov.