Hole in bridge backs up Beltway 3-by-4 'puncture' blamed on years of winter weather

September 22, 1993|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer Staff writer Alisa Samuels contributed to this article.

A hole the size of a car's trunk opened up on an aging bridge over Benson Avenue near Arbutus yesterday, turning one of the Baltimore Beltway's busiest stretches into a nine-mile-long parking lot.

No one was injured in the incident, which shut down three of the four southbound lanes of the outer loop.

The hole was reported at about 8:15 a.m. and patched less than eight hours later.

Full traffic flow was restored to that section of Interstate 695 shortly before 4 p.m.

State Highway Administration engineers blamed the damage on the effects of years of severe winter weather, culminating with the blizzard last March.

The bridge's deck -- a 9-inch-thick concrete slab reinforced with steel -- was last replaced in the mid-1960s.

Potholes on the bridge were patched as recently as February, state officials said.

The structure carries an estimated 165,000 vehicles a day, making it the Beltway's second-busiest location, exceeded only by the Interstate 83 interchange.

"You can have a problem like this anywhere," said Elizabeth L. Homer, SHA deputy administrator. "We were dealing with one of the heaviest portions of the Beltway and the traffic beats that deck to death."

But engineers said it was unusual for such a large failure -- called a "puncture" -- to open up without warning. Maryland bridges are inspected every two years, and SHA records show the Benson Avenue structure passed its last review in January 1992.

The first sign that something was wrong came when the driver of a dump truck noticed gravel beneath the overpass. Richard Grabenstein, who was heading north on Benson Avenue, slowed down.

"Just as I did, a big chunk of rock fell down and, bang, hit the windshield and cracked it," he said. "It sounded like a body had just been dropped on top of me. I was scared as hell."

The windshield had been struck by a chunk of concrete the size of a softball.

Police said Mr. Grabenstein wisely used his truck to block traffic on Benson Avenue.

The 39-year-old Lansdowne resident, who is a landscape maintenance worker for MIE Investment Co., then called 911 from a nearby phone booth.

Police arrived and rerouted Benson Avenue traffic.

Above them, state highway crews blocked off three lanes of the Beltway, allowing southbound traffic to move in the far-right lane and right shoulder only.

"Debris was still raining down when I got there," said Baltimore County Police Officer Glenn S. Holden.

"It was breaking up in, like, 2- or 3-inch blocks. You looked up and you could start to see daylight," he said.

Within 10 or 15 minutes, the Beltway backup began.

At its peak, the line of cars stretched to Interstate 795 about nine miles away.

Frustrated motorists reported being trapped in the gridlock for 90 minutes or more.

Electronic signs and broadcast traffic reports directed commuters to alternate routes such as Liberty Road or Security Boulevard.

Meanwhile, making rush hour even worse, an accident in Howard County temporarily shut down Interstate 95 just north of Route 100. State police said a Florida man overturned his rental truck and the car he was towing after he swerved to avoid another driver who allegedly cut him off in traffic.

The accident, reported at 8:55 a.m., closed all lanes of northbound I-95 for 20 minutes and "two or three lanes" for another 90 minutes, police said.

Traffic backed up nearly two miles.

"This was one of the worst morning rush hours we've had in a long, long time," said Barry R. King, chief of traffic management.

"If it had happened a little bit later -- not on the tail end of rush hour -- it wouldn't have been nearly as bad," he said.

The traffic jams were a double whammy for Ray Telewicz, 36, of Shadyside, a courier for American Eagle Express Inc.

First, he sat for an hour in the I-95 tie-up starting about 9 a.m. He ran into the Beltway gridlock two hours later.

"It's like a turtle crawling," he said. "I think all these highways are outdated and can't handle the volume of traffic."

Earle S. Freedman, SHA deputy chief engineer for bridge development, said the incident does not mean there are any structural flaws in the Benson Avenue overpass.

Inspectors yesterday discovered no problems with the underlying steel beams and substructure.

The 3-foot-wide, 4-foot-long hole was created chiefly by the effects of age, wear and the salt used in the winter to melt snow and ice, he said. Salt seeps into the road, causes reinforcing steel to rust and expand, cracking the concrete in a cycle that is repeated over and over again.

"When the bridge was built we didn't do much to prevent that kind of deterioration," said Mr. Freedman.

"In newer decks we understand the cycle and do things to prevent it," he said.

Cars and trucks on the Beltway were never in danger of plummeting onto Benson Avenue. The reinforcing steel was still in place several inches below the surface after the concrete failed.

However, there was the potential for a serious accident if a car or truck had run into the hole, officials acknowledged.

A maintenance crew removed loose concrete from the hole, cleaned off the reinforcing steel and poured a patch made of fast-drying concrete. The crew also fixed several other spots on the deck that showed signs of deterioration.

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