Why are the nation’s bridges on the verge of collapse, with billions of dollars spent on inspection and repairs every year?
Clearwater, FL – Alarm bells are ringing desperately as disasters are waiting to happen on America’s bridges.
The reason, as the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, says, is that over 47,000 of the country’s 616,087 bridges are “structurally deficient,” and need urgent repair.
Then again, four out of every ten bridges, are at least 50 years old and are endlessly subjected to traffic loads and vibrations greater than intended in their initial design capacity. Extreme weather conditions multiply the problem. All of this inevitably shorten the lifespan of bridges.
Only days ago, President Donald Trump, during of one of his daily White House briefings, mentioned a $2 trillion infrastructure plan because roads and bridges are “in bad shape.”
However, the state of disrepair of the country’s infrastructure has nothing to do with lack of money. On the contrary, the U.S. spends billions of dollars on bridge repairs every year.
But still, the bridges are, as President Trump said, “in bad shape.”
The blame for this state of affairs, falls squarely on America’s bureaucrats, specifically, on the unwillingness of the Federal government, Federal Highways and the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S.DOT), to change with changing times.
Bridge inspections take place using federal and state guidelines provided by Federal Highways and specific U.S., State and local DOTs. These guidelines have not changed for over half a century. Once upon a time, bridge inspections focused on what was seen on the bridge surface with the naked eye, and problems were discovered by pinging a bridge cable with a hammer, or dragging a chain across the surface. In most cases the this is still how bridge inspections are conducted.
Doug Thaler, President of a Florida-based robotic engineering firm, Infrastructure Preservation Corporation (IPC), said, “We are still dragging a chain across a bridge deck to listen for potential issues, and it just seems so archaic.” Close the lane and send an inspector up in a bucket truck to look at one side of the sheathing on a cable stayed bridge. The sheathing protects the steel that holds up the bridge. ” I wouldn’t consider that inspecting the safety and integrity of the bridge.”
Thaler, whose technology-based bridge inspection methods directly contrast with the antiquated ones currently in use, is frustrated by the apparent refusal of federal and local authorities, as well as giant companies, to incorporate available technology into their inspections.
He asks, “How can you repair something if you have no understanding of what is wrong, to begin with?”
Apart from being unrefined and incomplete, manual inspections are subjective and inaccurate. Thaler says 10 different inspectors could give 10 different reports upon inspecting the same bridge. Decision-making on critical bridge repairs, is thus, left to guessing or to gut feeling.
As a business magnate once said, “Risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing.”
This is exactly the scenario with bridge repairs. Millions of taxpayer dollars are wasted on repairs that do not address the problems on the infrastructure. Conventional techniques, by their very nature, cannot expose problems until it is too late to prevent a disaster.
If, U.S.DOT bureaucrats replace conventional inspection methods with modern technology and robotics, they will find that inspections are taken to a whole new level of objectivity, all-encompassing precision and timeliness, cluing in on irregularities before issues become problems. They will then realize that manual inspections are just out of this league.
Indeed, time is of the essence, as infrastructure deterioration is like cancer, progressing relentlessly towards a lethal end, unless discovered early, and nipped in the bud. The technology-based Bridge Condition Assessment Inspections available today provide quantitative data on the components of the bridge that they are inspecting, categorizing bridge conditions and evaluating specific repair needs.
This can save billions in premature replacements, prolong serviceability of bridges, and avert potential catastrophe. Furthermore, robotic inspections will make the whole process so convenient to all, especially to road users. There will be fewer lane closures and less heavy equipment on bridges and roadways, and will cost less for greater accuracy and efficiency.
Then why do U.S.DOT seem unwilling to embrace technology for bridge inspections?
American photojournalist, Steve McCurry, once said, “Technology changes, times change, but the essence of the culture and the people basically stays the same.” This sums up the Federal Government, States and U.S.DOT’s stance on using technology for inspections. But the country is paying an unconscionable price for this obstinacy, wasting gigantic budgets and losing innocent lives, as bridges crumble to the ground.
The U.S., as the world’s only superpower, should be setting standards for the rest of the world to follow. But instead, other nations use technology, and the U.S. blissfully continues with obsolete methods of 50 years or more ago.
As Thaler says, “Bridge inspection firms can easily assure it is meeting the antiquated guidelines. But does this help our infrastructure recover its health and ensure the traveling public’s safety?”
Yet, currently, engineering firms have almost no incentive to engage technology in bridge inspections, as there is no incentive to change the status quo. Why should they, when most U.S. DOT contracts are based on the billing of man-hours. The more man-hours an engineering firm can bill, the more money it will make. That is taxpayer money.
If robotic devices are employed instead, the number of man-hours required for inspection will reduce drastically, and engineering firms fear the loss of revenue. Therefore, Project Managers handling U.S.DOT projects resist the advent of robotic engineering as an alternative methodology to manual inspections.
And so, the system passes the buck from federal, to state, to local governments, to large corporations, and ultimately holds no one accountable when disasters happen.
Thus, the entire concept of bridge inspection needs to change. The “Billable Hours” system of awarding contracts must be replaced. And yet, managers desperately need the quantitative data that robotics can provide for repairs.
In any case, the U.S.DOT can retract any part of a contract not in the best interests of the public. This alone should prod asset managers to engage in technology. What is more, the engineering companies make most of their money on design, build, and repair contracts. Therefore, exposing more problems and issues through technology will actually lead to larger maintenance and repair contracts for these firms. So, public safety aside, squeezing every dollar in man-hours to maximize inspection revenues, is undoubtedly short-sighted. From a state’s perspective, there is very little political gain connected to inspections. Building a new bridge certainly raises awareness and gives the current politicians a boost. More modern inspections, not so much.
Then again, one can postpone the inevitable only for so long. The advantages of technology are realized sooner rather than later, as happened in New York recently. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, during a recent daily briefing on the pandemic, related how he proposed using technology in repairing New York’s Canarsie Tunnel damaged by Superstorm Sandy.
Cuomo said, “The opposition to this new idea was an explosion. I was a meddler. I didn’t have an engineering degree. They were outside experts. How dare you question the bureaucracy; the bureaucracy knows better.’ It was a thunderstorm of opposition, but we did it anyway.” He achieved it under budget and ahead of schedule. He reflected, “People don’t like change. We like to control more than anything… but if you don’t change you don’t grow.”
Thus, it is imperative that the Federal Government and U.S.DOT urgently replace obsolete inspection methods with robotic engineering technology. By so doing, it can achieve actionable results, to better allocate budgets and personnel and keep the traveling public safe.
Politicians can save money in their state budgets during this time of COVID-19, and also keep their local economies relevant which cannot be done without a working infrastructure. And, as the writing on the wall proclaims, it is in the overall interests of engineering companies to leave their comfort zones and embrace change.
American author Stewart Brand said, “Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.”
Company Name: Infrastructure Preservation Corporation
Contact Person: Public Relations
Phone: 727-372-2900 Ext.24
Address:5520 Rio Vista Drive
State: FL 33760
Country: United States