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Del. Memorial Bridge to be fortified with barriers

Katie Tabeling
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Delaware River and Bay Authority started work on a project that could prevent a cargo ship from colliding into Delaware Memorial Bridge.

The Delaware Memorial Bridge will be fortified by eight cylinders designed to withstand the impact of a vessel by 2025. | PHOTO COURTESY OF THE DELAWARE RIVER AND BAY AUTHORITY

NEW CASTLE — Long before the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore collapsed, the Delaware River and Bay Authority (DRBA) started work on a project that could prevent a cargo ship from colliding into Delaware Memorial Bridge.

Last July,  R.E. Pierson Construction Company contractors started work on a $95 million ship collision protection system for the dual span bridge that crosses the Delaware river. About $22 million was funded through the U.S. Department of Transportation Better Utilizing Investment to Leverage Development (BUILD) grant.

The project includes installing eight stone-filled “dolphin” cylinders, each measuring 80 feet in diameter. Each of these barriers are driven into the river bed.

Four will be installed at piers supporting the eastern and western towers of the bridge, serving like a bumper on a car. The  system is designed to protect the bridge from being hit by cargo vessels designed to travel the Panama canal, or at least 960 feet long and 190 feet tall. 

The stone barriers are designed to absorb the impact of a ship, preventing it from hitting one of the bridge’s support towers. As of early April, two cylinders have been installed. Work is currently paused for the Atlantic Sturgeon reproduction season.

First built in the 1950s, the Delaware Memorial Bridge sees tens of thousands of vehicles cross it on a daily basis, be it trucks transporting consumer goods or commuters headed to the office from Interstate 295 and U.S. Highway 40.  But as time passed, the cargo and tanker ships got bigger, and the bridge’s protection system — steel fenders — stayed in place.

“Today’s vessels are much bigger, faster, and can carry a larger load than those of decades past,” DRBA Public Information Officer James Salmon told the Delaware Business Times. “What brought the need for additional protection even more to the forefront in our thought process was the expansion of the Panama Canal and the huge cranes that were transported up the Delaware River to be assembled at the Port of Philadelphia prior to the pandemic.”

Those two cranes were 21-stories tall and capable of unloading the world’s largest container ships. They cleared the Delaware Memorial Bridge with just six feet to spare.

The Delaware Memorial Bridge has already withstood at least one collision in the past. In July 1969, the “Regent Liverpool” struck the fender protection system, causing $1 million in damage — or at least $7 million in today’s dollars.

DRBA’s ship collision protection system project is expected to be finished by 2025.

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