Earthquake engineering isn't just for California any more

Paul Muccino, P.E. / December 28, 2000

When an earthquake in San Francisco interrupted a World Series game in October
1989, millions of people across the U.S. saw it live on TV. For most non-Californians, this would be their only firsthand experience with an earthquake. But the event underscored the seriousness of earthquake risk to our transportation systems.

It is only since the late 1950s that seismologists have been able to provide
convincing explanations of earthquakes and why they happen. They now visualize
the earth's surface as being comprised of numerous crustal plates, floating
on a "sea" of molten magma, constantly in motion relative to one
another. Earthquakes are the seismic waves produced by the sudden deformation
of rocks during these plate movements. Slippage along a plate or fault interface
produces both longitudinal push waves and transverse shear waves.

One of the most important lessons seismology teaches is that earthquakes
may be much more widespread geographically than is generally realized. (In
fact, the most powerful earthquakes in American history occurred, not in
the "earthquake-prone" West, but in Missouri in 1811-12; the shocks
were felt from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.) As a result, those responsible
for the maintenance and safety of our roads and bridges are actively exploring
ways to protect the traveling public against possible earthquake hazards-even
in some regions where that threat seems almost unimaginably remote.

Of the many bridges within the New York State Thruway system, perhaps the
most imposing is the Tappan Zee Bridge, a 16,000-ft-long structure that
crosses the Hudson River at its widest point, between Tarrytown and Nyack,
just 10 miles north of New York City. Completed in 1955, the bridge was
well-designed and well-constructed and has been carefully maintained. But
the state of the art in seismic analysis and engineering has advanced greatly
since the 1950s. Given this fact, the New York State Thruway Authority
decided in 1992 to retain an engineering team, headed by Frederic R. Harris
Inc., to conduct a detailed seismic investigation of the bridge and provide
related engineering and design services.

The Tappan Zee has certain unusual design features. In plan, the bridge
describes an elongated S shape as it crosses the river, with a complex design
made up of three principal


  • The main span. A 2,416-ft-long through truss comprises a 1,212-ft-long
    center span flanked by two 602-ft-long side anchor spans. Its piers are
    composed of steel truss towers set on buoyant reinforced concrete caissons,
    which are supported on vertical piles. Pumps are used to maintain the buoyancy
    of the caissons.
  • Deck truss spans. On either side of the main span are 20 simple-deck
    truss spans, varying in length from 235 to 250 ft. Each pier consists of
    two hollow-reinforced concrete-box columns. Four of the piers are set on
    buoyant caissons similar in construction to the caissons of the main span.
    The rest are set on solid, concrete-filled cofferdams. All of the caissons
    and cofferdams are supported on vertical piles.
  • Trestles and approach spans connect the deck truss spans to the banks
    of the river. The longer west trestle consists of 166 spans, typically 50
    ft long. The east trestle has seven approach spans, each 55 ft long. The
    spans consist of multiple steel stringers with composite concrete decks.
    The western spans are set on reinforced concrete cap beams and column bents,
    which are supported on concrete pile caps on timber friction piles. The
    bents of the eastern spans are founded directly on bedrock.

The floating caissons of the Tappan Zee Bridge's main span are the most
uncommon design feature. This foundation supports the bridge's vertical
gravity loads very efficiently. However, the design scheme also eliminates
the piles that are used in many bridge designs to provide resistance to
seismic shear forces.

This part of the Hudson River has a water depth of about 40 ft in the main
channel and the bridge approaches are in water depths of approximately 14

The goals of the seismic investigation were, first, to determine the site-specific
seismic parameters consistent with the geology of the region and, second,
to arrive at existing safety margins and modifications to improve the safety
margins to desired levels.

The size and unusual configuration of the Tappan Zee combine to present
quite a challenge for seismic analysis. To provide the advanced 3-D computer
analyses and modelling that would meet the authority's needs, a powerful
structural analysis program was needed that not only could handle a large
number of structural elements, but would also be "user-friendly."
After studying the various available programs, the team selected GT Strudl,
a widely used structural analysis program that Harris had used successfully
on several extremely complex bridge rehabilitation projects.

To input information to GT Strudl and extract outputs in report form, the
team considered a number of different approaches. It was decided to use
Lotus 1-2-3. This spreadsheet software is user-friendly and relatively inexpensive,
yet able to produce reports and graphics. Moreover, the thruway staff had
used this program and was familiar with it.

To establish seismic criteria for the Tappan Zee, the Lamont Doherty Earth
Observatory was retained as subconsultant to develop site-specific ground-motion
parameters for the area. This made it possible to develop a realistic, probability-based
assessment of expected ground motion. Response modification factors were
developed for all components of the bridge, including values for ductility
and redundancy of specific members. The interaction of the piles with the
soil was considered as well, as was the risk of liquefaction, a phenomenon
that can occur when vibration during an earthquake causes soil to suddenly
lose its shear strength.

The main span of the bridge was analyzed using a 3-D computer model consisting
of the three-span superstructure supported on two anchor piers and on two
center piers, which sat on the buoyant caissons. The superstructure was
modeled as a space truss including major structural components. One key
revision to the static analysis model needed for the dynamic analysis model
was in the connection of suspended span to the cantilever spans to properly
represent the working mechanism under seismic excitation. The deck was represented by equivalent loads, with its stiffness added to truss members as necessary.

The substructure was modeled as follows: The piers were modeled as space
trusses; the caissons were modeled using plate and solid-finite elements;
the piles were modeled as springs with stiffnesses in three translational
and three rotational directions. The deck truss spans were similarly modeled,
and a representative trestle span also was modeled in three dimensions.

A multi-mode, dynamic analysis of these models was performed under base
excitations. Demand-to-capacity ratios were computed and tabulated, and
the possible effect of displacements at the key locations also were investigated.

Investigations showed that the bridge could survive a so-called 50-year
earthquake (i.e., an earthquake with no more than a 10% probability of occurrence
over a period of 50 years) with no major damage. To survive a 100-year earthquake
(maximum 10% probability of occurrence over a period of 100 years) some
improvements were indicated.

In fact, no major seismic event has occurred in the general vicinity of
the Tappan Zee Bridge in all recorded history, and there are no active volcanoes
in the area. However, there was a 5.5-magnitude quake in New York City in
1884-an event that, if it were to occur today, would have potential to cause
significant damage. Because the bridge is such a critical facility, the
authority wants assurance it would be capable of remaining in service after
a more severe, although less probable, seismic event.

The thruway has completed a major retrofit program, involving replacement
of all the main bearings of the bridge with "pot bearings." These
consist of large elastomeric disks (2-3 ft in diameter) placed between the
foundation and superstructure. By permitting the transmission of motion
throughout a full 360 deg, the bearings will improve the structure's stability
in a seismic event. Further decisions must still be made on what improvements
can further be made to minimize seismic risk to the bridge. Meanwhile, the
thruway, with Harris, is implementing modifications to the software that
will allow the thruway staff to continuously monitor and analyze all members
of the structure.

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