Bridge industry buoyed by TEA-21

Dec. 28, 2000

There are 501,000 bridges in the U.S. and 31.4% of them are deficient or structurally obsolete, according to a 1997 report to Congress on the state of the nation's bridges.

There are 501,000 bridges in the U.S. and 31.4% of them are deficient or structurally obsolete, according to a 1997 report to Congress on the state of the nation's bridges. The Transportation Efficiency Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), should support efforts to reduce that percentage.

Because of TEA-21, the bridge industry stands to gain a much- needed influx of funding over the next six years, and with it will come an added emphasis on the research and use of new bridge- building materials aimed at improving the durability of bridge structures.

TEA-21 allocates a total of $20.4 billion for the Bridge Program portion of the act's Federal-aid Highways Program alone. The figure represents a 25% increase in funding over the previous long-term transportation act, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA), which authorized $16.1 billion over its six-year life. Broken down by year, TEA-21 provides an average annual funding level of $3.4 billion.

An additional $131 million ($22 million a year) is authorized to be allocated for bridge- and structure-related research, technology and construction projects.

Bridge builders react

Most bridge industry professionals are optimistic about the impact of the act. The mood among structural engineers at the International Bridge Conference (IBC) in Pittsburgh, which took place in June just after passage of TEA-21, was upbeat. States are in line to receive significant gains in funding for their bridges.

"For fiscal year 1998, we'll receive about a 15% increase in funds," said Ed Wasserman, civil engineering director of the structures division of the Tennessee DOT. "There may be a slight adjustment up from there because of the technical corrections to the bill. We'll receive somewhere between 15% and 17% additional funding each year for the remaining years of the bill, which we're appreciative of. It means we can continue to reduce our deficient and structurally obsolete bridges even more.

"It's good for us in that it allows us to plan ahead and it's good for the contracting industry because it will enable them to forecast their market potential."

"It certainly is a welcome increase in funding for replacing our deficient bridges," said Dave Densmore, chief of the Bridge Division at the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). "It should go a long way toward reducing the number nationwide. That number has been going down."

Streamlining needed

Some contractors are taking a more cautious approach to the act. "I haven't read the bill, but, in general, I'm encouraged," said Ron Crockett, vice president of American Bridge, a specialty general contractor, which concentrates on large projects. "However, it still doesn't go far enough to address the problems that the American infrastructure faces. The dollars don't get spent soon enough. As a result deterioration sets in and gets worse."

David Pope, P.E., highway and planning engineer for the Wyoming DOT, and chairman of the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials' Subcommittee on Bridges, shares Crockett's views. "From Wyoming's perspective, it's a fairly favorable bill," he said. "We'll realize about a 35% average increase over the life of the bill with respect to bridges and structures on the highway system. But frankly it can be a struggle to spend the money. Many times we don't have the man power or the resources to get the job done. Of course you can use consultants and we do, but it's still difficult. There are a lot of hoops you have to jump through in the permitting process. It impacts your ability to get a project done."

Pope said that there is a heading in the bill titled "Streamlining," which addresses the environmental process. A passage reads, "The secretary will establish a coordinated environmental review process for DOT to work with other federal agencies ensuring highway projects are advanced according to cooperatively determined time frames. Anything they can do to get agencies working together will help," said Pope.

In a presentation delivered at the IBC by Tony Kane, executive director of the FHWA, he said the Bridge Program is divided into two categories: apportioned funds and discretionary funds.

The act provides approximately $19.9 billion of apportioned funds under the Highway Bridge Replacement and Rehabilitation Program for deficient bridges located on any public road. According to the FHWA, the funds are annually apportioned to the states based on the square footage of deficient bridges within each state.

As for discretionary funds, TEA-21 provides another category of funds for the replacement and rehabilitation of high-cost, deficient bridges that is available for distribution to the states at the discretion of the Federal Highway Administrator.

A total of $525 million in discretionary funds is provided for the funding of high-cost, deficient bridges located on federal-aid highways. "It's an important provision and represents a different step then we've taken in the past," said Densmore. A large share of this money is concentrated on seismic retrofit. In FY1998, $25 million is earmarked for seismic retrofit, while a total of $100 million is provided in FY1999 through 2003 for seismic retrofit and high- cost rehab and replacement projects. The provision will particularly benefit states in the mid-section of the country along the New Madrid Fault, Densmore said.

Changes and additions

Several changes of note affecting the bridge industry are included in the act. However, under Section 1109 of TEA-21, the Highway Bridge Replacement and Rehabilitation Program (HBRRP) is continued as a separately funded program and remains unchanged for the most part from previous years. Also remaining in tact are the apportioned and discretionary program components.

One change in TEA-21 is the elimination of the Timber Bridge Program, which was set aside from the HBRRP under ISTEA. This eliminates the dedicated funding source for timber bridges, however they are still eligible for federal aid.

Eligibility for bridges under the HBRRP is broad based. Deficient bridges located on any public road are eligible for funding under the program, according to FHWA. This includes bridges located on federal-aid highways or bridges located on off-system highways not classified as federal-aid highways.

Proponents of anti-icing on bridges and scour countermeasures will be happy with new eligible project activities added to the Bridge Program. The activities involve the application of anti-icing and de- icing compositions to bridge decks to assist in preventing cold weather accidents on structures, as well as the installation of scour countermeasures at bridges sites. Scour caused by floods is one of the most frequent, if not the most frequent, causes of bridge failures, according to the FHWA.

Flexibility, a component of TEA-21 that is seen as a possible detriment for the highway safety segment of the industry, also is a component in the HBRRP as it was in ISTEA (see Onus for Roadway Safety Set Squarely on Shoulders of States, July 1998, p 30). States continue to have the option to transfer up to 50% of available funds out of the HBRRP to the National Highway System (NHS) or Surface Transportation Program (STP) categories.

Caution should be taken by states considering the movement of funds out of the HBRRP. "States now have to realize that there is an additional price to pay for transferring funds," Densmore said. Section 1109 of the new act adds a penalty if the program's funds are transferred. According to FHWA, a state transferring funds from HBRRP to the NHS or STP categories will have an equal amount of funds deducted from its bridge needs in the apportioning of the subsequent year's HBRRP funds.

The federal state matching funds for eligible projects remains the same at 80% for the federal funding share and 20% for the state matching funds.

Research and implementation

The interests of Congress dictate the major portion of funding directed toward various bridge technologies, according to FHWA. The development and refinement of innovative materials and technology such as coatings for corrosion protection, high-performance concrete and steel, advanced fiber- reinforced polymer composites and intelligent stiffeners, are the focal points in this area.

"There is a lot of money involved in research and demonstration projects for these technologies," said Walt Podolny, senior structural engineer for the FHWA. "They are looking for improved materials with the primary emphasis on developing materials that are more durable and user friendly. Current materials leave a lot to be desired in their durability."

Earmarked projects included in the $131 million allotted under the congressionally specified programs are:

• $102 million for innovative bridge restoration and construction programs. According to the FHWA's Kane, a solicitation process will be conducted for states to compete for the funds.

• $1 million for corrosion research.

• $12 million for seismic research to be conducted at the National Center for Earthquake Engineering Research at the University of Buffalo, Buffalo, N.Y. According to the FHWA's Densmore, money was allotted to the center in the previous ISTEA act and this is a continuation of the funding.

• $4 million for seismic research at the University of California-San Diego.

• $6 million for innovative research and development.

• $2.5 million for research on intelligent stiffeners at the University of Oklahoma. "Intelligent stiffener" is a fancy name for a simple device. According to Densmore, an intelligent stiffener is a dampening device developed to reduce impact loads of heavy trucks as they move across a bridge.

• $2.5 million for research on geothermal heat for smart bridges at Oklahoma State University.

• Title V of the act focuses on transportation research in the area of innovative bridge research and construction.

According to FHWA, the intent of the legislation is to encourage the deployment and demonstration of new and innovative materials technology into bridge engineering practice. According to Kane, these activities are designed to help bring new cost-effective materials into use; reduce life-cycle costs; develop design criteria for innovative materials and new non-destructive evaluation (NDE) technologies. Research and construction comprise the two components of the program. The research component is geared toward making grants available to states, government agencies and academia to conduct research for the development of new materials for use in bridge construction.

As specified in the provision, the construction component would contribute funds to states to cover the federal share of the repair, rehab or construction of bridges that use innovative materials.

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