Despite elevated material prices, fuel costs and other headwinds, the U.S. bridge construction market is still reaping the windfall of the $1-trillion federal infrastructure act (IIJA), which will continue to support market growth over the next decade, according to an industry sector economist.

For highway construction in general, June fuel prices were up 111% from a year earlier, asphalt prices rose 77% and prestressed concrete beams were up 55%, said Alison Premo Black, chief economist for the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, addressing attendees of the International Bridge Conference, held July 18-20 in Pittsburgh.

“If we didn’t have IIJA, it would be a different market,” she conceded. But the $5.5 billion a year available to states in formula funding and $2 billion in discretionary grants will keep the market robust, she added.

With construction employment at a low and labor at a premium, “the technology role will be crucial,” she said.

Along that line, Scott Becker, depute administrator for regions for the Wisconsin Dept. of Transportation, described a pooled fund study by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.of digital delivery of projects involving 24 transportation departments  The study goals include a building information delivery manual and a national standard for exchange of structural data. 

Becker, vice chair of AASHTO’s Committee on Bridges and Structures, said that new specifications were coming out for load and resistance factor design, moveable bridges and fabrication. The Federal Highway Administration is also updating specs for the National Bridge Inventory inspection standards, including taking use of drones into consideration.

He said interest in materials such as ultra-high-performance concrete fiber-reinforced polymers and polyester concrete overlays is growing—as reflected in a number of sessions at the conference.

Use of methods such as accelerated bridge construction “will eventually become regular practice,” Becker added.

Indiana Innovations

Transportation officials from the conference’s featured state described some major initiatives and projects. Louis Feagans, Indiana Dept. of Transportation’s managing director of asset management and planning, said that as part of its long-term maintenance plan, the state is identifying corridors and similar project types for contract bundles, using criteria such as specialty equipment, paint, culverts, union-vs non-union locations and plant locations.

The first five miles of the 26-mile, $728-million I-69 Finish Line program opened last fall.

Jim Lesh, INDOT bridge engineering team leader, said the 2027 completion date was moved up to 2024 using design-build best-value contracting. “We wrote prescriptive provisions on pavement designs,” he said, but otherwise contract provisions are performance-based. The work connects I-69 between Evansville and Indianapolis