For many New York City bridges, the past 40 years have not been the best of times. In 1973, a portion of the elevated West Side Highway collapsed in Manhattan. In 1981, a cable snapped on the Brooklyn Bridge, killing a tourist. In 1986, most of the city's Dept. of Transportation staffers were fired for alleged corruption and ties to the mob. "The secondary scandal was the fact that we weren't taking care of our bridges," says Samuel Schwartz, who became the deputy city DOT commissioner that year. "We were reporting they were just fine when, in fact, they were in desperate shape."
That same year, half the Manhattan Bridge was closed to traffic. In 1987, the same year the Schoharie Bridge collapsed on the New York State Thruway, Schwartz began to deal with warnings of failing cables on the Williamsburg Bridge. After a flurry of expert reviews and investigations—including the then-rare use of strain gauges—Schwartz discovered the biggest risk to the bridge's safety was not in the cables but due to rapidly disappearing eyebar steel and a splitting column. Ultimately, Schwartz had to make a potentially career-killing decision to shut down the entire Williamsburg Bridge for two months.
When Mayor Ed Koch (D) tried to fire him amid the political furor that followed, Schwartz took his story to the media. "I said, 'The enemy is us,' " he recalls. The media came to his defense. Now the bridge, which firms had been salivating to replace entirely, is the linchpin for one of Brooklyn's most vibrant neighborhoods.
Schwartz's cautionary tale is told in detail in Barry LePatner's 2010 book, "Too Big To Fall." LePatner also analyzed the 2007 Minnesota bridge collapse, contending that its combination of design flaws, faulty maintenance, lack of funding mirrors and, above all, lack of urgency reflects a larger national problem of crumbling bridges and other infrastructure in need of critical maintenance work.
He has since launched a website called SaveOur Bridges.com. Using a Google Earth program, he has added pinpoints for every U.S. bridge that is classified as "structurally deficient" and "fracture-critical" as well as the bridge's daily user rates.
A construction lawyer, LePatner is one of the most vocal advocates for bringing the declining state of U.S. infrastructure to public attention. He wants to see maintenance issues addressed first, followed by new capacity projects. Some engineers appreciate his passion but are troubled by his take on bridge data. For example, his claim that "structurally deficient and fracture-critical is a toxic mix" gives them pause. The two terms don't take into account other safety factors, such as redundancy and compression members, they say.
"The problem with the term 'fracture-critical' is that it assumes a tension member, " says Ted Zoli, national chief bridge engineer with HNTB Corp. "We need to begin classifying bridges as 'failure-critical.' " He points to the New York State Dept. of Transportation as an example of an agency that has maintained a comprehensive database of bridge failures. That, he points out, can help identify when bridges fail from events for which they were not designed.
Engineers, too, are concerned about sending out a balanced message—that is, while bridges do need more maintenance funding and lots of it, agencies are doing a good job with what little resources they have. "We don't want to come out with the message that the sky is falling," says Andrew Herrmann, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Nevertheless, the nation's roads and bridges need attention. He cites the ASCE's 2011 "Failure To Act" study on surface transportation, which warned that, by 2020, merely retaining the current levels of funding will add up to $430 billion in added transportation costs for businesses. Further, a lack of efficient transport will cause American export values to fall by $28 billion, according to the report.
Assessing Better, Building Faster
In 2010, NYSDOT officials shut down the Lake Champlain bridge—the only link for 100 miles for thousands of commuters in New York and Vermont, after judging the risks involved. "Our regional bridge engineer noticed that the lake level had dropped, and there was more deterioration on the piers than we'd thought," recalls George Christian, former NYSDOT structural director. "They laid out all the facts." As with Schwartz's experience, it helped to tell the public the truth. It also helped to have an expedited design-build replacement plan.
The Minnesota Dept. of Transportation, under whose watch the Interstate I-35W bridge collapsed, has adopted a risk-based approach to bridge management and ramped up technological augmentation of visual inspections (see sidebar, p. 30). "We've done a better job of taking condition assessment data, identifying and prioritizing needs, documenting maintenance and addressing high-priority needs right away," says Tom Styrbiki, MnDOT bridge inspection manager.
That approach echoes efforts by the Federal Highway Administration to improve the National Bridge Inspection Standards. Previously, FHWA would prepare a written assessment of a state's bridge inspection program based on general reviews of key inspection areas. Now, FHWA uses 23 specific inspection areas—for example, load limits, sediment loss and inspection frequency—to identify potential safety issues more easily.
Bruce Johnson, Oregon Dept. of Transportation's state bridge engineer, notes the "most critical" prioritization of the state's 2,800 bridges includes a bridge's impact on the economy, efficiency of traffic and the desire to maintain a "uniform capacity" of load, height and traffic-volume capability throughout a given corridor.
Oregon also worked with 11 other states and federal agencies to create a single set of standards for accelerated bridge construction (ABC), including expedited environmental permitting and the ability to allow contractors complete flexibility in design. For every $1 spent, the program yields a return of $3.19, the state says. That savings has meant Oregon has avoided $73 million in costs in the past few years alone.
Four years ago, Missouri pushed to upgrade 800 bridges in five years with its Safe and Sound plan. With a budget of about $685 million, the program is heading for completion one year ahead of schedule, with 20 bridges still to be addressed.
Missouri Dept. of Transportation state bridge engineer Dennis Heckman says, "Our most successful effort on building bridges faster is giving flexibility to the contractor and incentive for the low bidder to get it done quickly." With an early-finish incentive of $40,000 per day, for example, Heckman says bridges that would have traditionally taken 90 days to construct were done in 19 days.
he Trillion-Dollar Question
But for all the improvements in systems to monitor, maintain and replace bridges, funding remains a thorny issue. The obsolete federal fuel-tax formula, the recently passed two-year federal re-authorization, a lack of political will to enact a miles-traveled fee for vehicles, public-private partnerships and design-build projects, infrastructure banks—all are now part of any policymaker's transportation lexicon.
Offering a scenario to policymakers, LePatner says, "Take 2,000 bridges out of the 8,000 [structurally deficient and fracture-critical bridges] and allocate $60 billion over two years to address them. One third comes back in the form of income taxes. One million jobs are created."
Schwartz offers a specific New York City take on the user-fee model: a so-called equitable transportation formula that tolls the four untolled East River bridges and adds two tolled bicycle-pedestrian bridges. He says a quarter of the $40 billion raised in 30 years would go toward highway improvements, bus rapid transit from the suburbs and a truck-only expressway.
The Obama administration has pushed for some infrastructure improvements in the stimulus package and for more in the "We Can't Wait" program. The latter aims to streamline permitting processes for certain projects (see chart, p. 29). "That's great for these major projects. But at the end of day, who is pushing these?" says Tom Rademacher, chief executive officer of Flatiron Corp., referring to the politics involved.
That wariness of government toward infrastructure funding is a huge hurdle in making the case to the public. "We have to emphasize that this problem is solvable," says Peter Vanderzee, founder of the bridge- sensor firm LifeSpan Technologies. "But getting started requires building up the level of public trust with the unvarnished truth."
That truth includes making the public understand that funding infrastructure is about investment, not just about incurring debt. "Leaving our next generation with debt but with good infrastructure is preferable to it being the other way around," says Robert Dennison, former NYSDOT chief engineer.
Industry officials also agree on the need to present a truly unified front, including not only the myriad internal organizations but other groups such as mayors, businesses and supply-chain parties. And at least some of these groups are already aboard. For example, the Soy Transportation Coalition is offering to subsidize half the cost for 11 DOTs if they choose to employ sensors—preferably using LifeSpan's kits—on their rural bridges on crucial soybean shipment routes, says Mike Steenhoek, the coalition's executive director. "It is a perfect time to not just focus on more funding, but also to actually advocate for greater stewardship of scarce resources."
Some state politicians are displaying the will to tackle the situation. "For two decades,Oklahoma provided no funding for capital improvements," says Gary Evans, ODOT's deputy director. In 2004, a survey found 1,168 bridges—17% of the total inventory—to be structurally deficient. In 2005, legislators restored funding. In 2011, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin called for ODOT to incorporate all structurally deficient bridges into its eight-year construction work plan and for lawmakers to increase funding for Rebuilding Oklahoma Access and Drivers Safety (ROADS), created in 2006. In June, Fallin signed legislation to increase ROADS funding by $480 million. "The program marks a complete change in direction for us," says Evans, "and one that's largely attributable to the governor, Legislature and taxpayers recognizing that we have huge problems with our infrastructure."
ODOT and its design and construction teams currently are "ramping up for a program of unprecedented scale," says Evans "We're also working with the public to address the inconvenience of work zones. All the pieces are in place. All we need to do is execute."
With reporting by John Gregerson and Tim Newcomb