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Modernizing Transportation Infrastructure Inspections

March 4th, 2018   Author: Doug Thaler

According to the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card. “The U.S. has 614,387 bridges, (This does not include county bridges of 20 feet or less of which there are many) almost four in 10 of which are 50 years or older. 56,007 — 9.1% — of the nation’s bridges were structurally deficient in 2016, and on average there were 188 million trips across a structurally deficient bridge each day. 

FIU Bridge collapse

While the number of bridges that are in such poor condition as to be considered structurally deficient is decreasing, the average age of America’s bridges keeps going up and many of the nation’s bridges are approaching the end of their design life. The most recent estimate puts the nation’s backlog of bridge rehabilitation needs at $123 billion.”

The FHWA (Federal Highway Association) requires bridge inspections every two years. The average cost of those inspections runs $2.7billion dollars for the US. That does not include lane closures, traffic disruption, loss to businesses or the fact that structurally deficient bridges are again inspected annually or more frequently to insure their safety.

 

So the question presents itself. If all of the bridges are inspected every two years why are so many of them in such poor shape? This question is a lot more complicated. We all know that preventative maintenance is a lot less expensive than replacing a part of our infrastructure so why isn’t more care put into budgeting for these repairs. Federal Highways acts as a guiding light and state budgets tend to get moved around for greater needs, more dire concerns or political gain. Whatever the reason, the budgets to repair what is necessary is just not there, at least that is the current school of thought.

 
Bridge collapse

The Federal Highway Administration estimates an annual investment of $20.5 billion is needed over the next 16 years to repair and replace bridges.

With such a dire need in our nation and around the world to provide better maintenance and repair budgets to protect the public, what approach can be taken to help kick start the process?  When I look at the amount of money that goes into a bridge..to build it, inspect, maintain and repair it the numbers are staggering and yet that money is spent in many cases and our bridges are still in a state of disrepair. 

 

In order to maintain a bridge you first need to know what is wrong with it and it appears that engineering and construction technology has far outpaced the less sexy inspection methodologies used to determine the current condition of these structures.  Current inspections are manual and subjective in nature and have been for pretty much the past 50 years. Wouldn’t a good starting point be for Federal Highways to look at bridge inspection methodologies, modern technologies and methods to conduct less subjective inspections to produce more quantitative data than current methods.

 

Taking a step back at the bridge inspection industry it looks more like a problem of desire or responsibility than an actual unsolvable mystery. Technology has been around for 20-30 years that can peer through concrete, inspect steel girders, locate corrosion and other problems in our infrastructure and the adoption of these technologies has been so slow as to be embarrassing.  

 

It is said that humans will wait to the last tree is standing in the forest and their choking from lack of oxygen before they decide it is time to address the issue. Human ingenuity will then find a way to re-grow the forest over night. Applied to infrastructure, that can cause loss of life and a devastating impact on an economy.  Wouldn’t it be better to address the problem before it has a chance to grow any further, especially since part of the solution is available to us. 

 

How can the Federal government incentivize the Department of Transportation/infrastructure asset owners to review and deploy modern technology to better understand the infrastructure they are maintaining. How to we get the asset managers who have sweet 10 year maintenance contracts or engineering firms who are setup to inspect one way without the cost that may be associated with change or new technology to be forced to utilize proven technologies that are in the best interest and safety of the taxpayer. I can tell you it will be a difficult task. 

 

The handful of companies that have the major infrastructure inspection contracts for the past xx years are 50-80 years old with thousands of employees across the globe and will not change easily.

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