STATE OF THE BRIDGES: Sounding confident

As MoDOT program comes to close, U.S. as whole makes slow progress on deficient bridges

Bridges Article May 04, 2012
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Most of Missouri’s lowest-rated bridges are now safe and sound, or will be by the end of the year. Beyond that, the state is locked into a house of uncertainty.

Arguably the most effective bridge maintenance efforts in recent memory, the Missouri Department of Transportation’s (MoDOT) $685 million Safe and Sound Bridge Delivery Program is expected to run out of life in September, more than a year ahead of schedule, but not before 804 of the most susceptible crossings were strengthened.

According to MoDOT special assignments coordinator Bob Brendel, in just three years Missouri has reduced the number of deficient bridges by more than 400, reversing a negative trend that weighed heavily on the minds of MoDOT personnel for decades.

“In a short period of time we have taken a big bite out of the apple,” Brendel told ROADS & BRIDGES.

It may be a long time before the Safe and Sound success is duplicated. According to Brendel, MoDOT’s construction budget is about half of what it was seven years ago, and the agency has reverted to maintenance-only mode.

“With this program, we sold bonds and we are paying it back with a percentage of our federal bridge dollars, but we do not have the opportunity to do that again right now.”

At press time, prime contractor KTU Constructors had rehabbed a total of 684 bridges, most averaging 150 ft long and 24 ft wide, and 41 more were currently under construction. The program, however, almost did not make it out of March with federal funding set to expire. The 90-day extension passed by Congress, and criticized by many, actually kept MoDOT’s most important initiative going.

“If they hadn’t passed the extension we were going to cancel our April letting, which probably would have had a much more negative impact,” said Brendel.

Once the learning curve was conquered, the Safe and Sound movement became swift and nimble. At the beginning, KTU Constructors wondered how it was going to move workers, equipment and materials across the state. The strategy was to hit the major routes and work out from there.

The state of the bridge network in Kansas City also helped simplify matters. Since a bulk of the deficient bridges—almost half according to Brendel—were located in northwest Missouri, KTU Constructors spent much of the first two years in the area before branching out.

Transporting equipment also called for some creative thinking. To speed project delivery, precast concrete beams have been used extensively, which require large cranes for assembly. Load-rated bridges often got in the way, and KTU Constructors had to work around them to reach some bridge sites. Brendel recalled one bridge close to the Iowa state line called for the contractor to access from the Iowa side, which required a change in schedule because Missouri’s neighbor has a load restriction on roads until after the last frost of the season.

KTU Constructors also took full advantage of deficient bridges that were close together, sometimes closing down as many as three of them at the same time to make the necessary repairs.

The great floods of 2011 tossed another layer of discomfort on the scene, which required KTU Constructors to be flexible enough to shut a project down mid-stream due to the weather and move to drier working conditions before returning a few weeks later.

The average design-build bridge closure has been 42 days. Traditional bridge repair delivery usually lasts 90 days.

Little by little

Once again ROADS & BRIDGES surveyed bridge owners across the U.S. and asked them about the condition of their span network, and it does appear that state DOTs are slowly chipping away at the deficiencies. Back in 2010, 25% said the number of functionally obsolete bridges had gone up in their state, while 11% indicated they were down and 64% said the figure had stayed the same. This year, just over 22% said functionally obsolete bridges increased, while 16% said the number actually declined. Sixty-one percent reported no difference.

On the structurally deficient side, 32% of R&B survey respondents said the number had gone up in 2010, 17% said it was down and 51% said the number remained flat. Two years later, just over 30% claimed the number of structurally deficient bridges was on the rise, while 21.9% indicated the number was down compared with a year ago and 47.3% said there was no change.

“In terms of bridge conditions, the state of America’s bridges has improved, and the total number of deficient bridges has declined,” Thomas Everett, P.E., team leader for the FHWA’s Highway Bridge Program and National Bridge Inspection Program, told ROADS & BRIDGES via e-mail. “This downward and positive trend is undoubtedly the result of more attention and resources devoted to bridges.

“The greatest challenge continues to be establishing a sustained funding source to adequately address bridge needs.”

The state of New Jersey is aggressively attempting to meet that challenge. For FY 2013, the DOT is proposing a $3.2 billion plan, with $685 million dedicated to bridge repair and rehabilitation. The hope is to cut the 303 structurally deficient spans in half over the next nine years. The plan relies on a combination of federal, state and other sources of revenue. Revenue will be derived from debt issues (bonds) and pay-as-you-go, or cash.

If approved by the state legislature, part of the $685 million will help advance the $1.5 billion Pulaski Skyway rehabilitation project.

Some counties in Texas continue to stretch the dollar, but if they still cannot come up with the necessary funding to repair a bridge it can always use a limber worker or two. Bartering remains an effective tool for the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), which oversees a total of 51,808 bridges and claims more than 80% are in good or better condition.

“If there are bridges on the county system that need some repairs and the county may be a little pressed financially to address them then what we do is work a trade,” TxDOT spokesman Mark Cross told ROADS & BRIDGES. “We may trade for asphalt, materials, use of equipment and man-hours to help them cover the cost.”

A diligent inspection program also helps. Cross said if trouble is spotted on a span, crews will conduct multiple scans to ensure safety.

In FY 2011, contracts totaling $294.1 million were awarded to replace or rehab 364 bridges in Texas, and $363.8 million was used to build 238 bridges. Cross did not know the FY 2012 numbers, but believed they would remain about the same.

TxDOT also is taking a stab at public-private partnerships. The state legislature allowed the agency to look at a handful of projects for potential P3 development. Perhaps the most notable P3 enterprise in the country is the SH 130 project, segments five and six, in central Texas. The $1.3 billion effort will include a heavy volume of bridge work. Beam setting on overpass bridges of the SH 130/IH-10 interchange began in April. R&B

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