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Infrastructure Outlook: The Mysterious Breakdown of America’s Bridges

Rajika Jayatilake on July 6, 2020 - in Articles, Column

Alarm bells are ringing desperately as disasters are waiting to happen on America’s bridges. According to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, more than 47,000 of the country’s 616,087 bridges are “structurally deficient” and need urgent repair.

In addition, four out of every 10 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 shortens the lifespan of bridges.

It’s Not Just About Money

The state of disrepair of the country’s bridges has little to do with lack of money. On the contrary, the United States spends billions of dollars on bridge repairs every year.

The blame for this state of affairs falls squarely on America’s bureaucrats, specifically on the unwillingness of the federal government, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) to change with changing times.

Bridge inspections take place along federal and state guidelines provided by FHWA as well as specific U.S. and state DOTs. These guidelines haven’t changed for more than 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, this still is how bridge inspections are conducted.

Doug Thaler, president of Florida-based robotic engineering firm Infrastructure Preservation Corp., says, “We are still dragging a chain across a bridge deck to listen for potential issues, and it just seems so archaic.”

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 inspections.

He asks, “How can you repair something if you have no understanding of what is wrong?”

Subjective Inspections

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 “gut feeling.”

As business magnate Warren Buffet says, “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 don’t address the problems. Conventional techniques, by their very nature, can’t expose problems until it’s too late to prevent a disaster.

If USDOT bureaucrats replace conventional inspection methods with modern technology and robotics, inspections will be taken to a whole new level of objectivity, all-encompassing precision and timeliness, therefore spotting irregularities before issues become problems.

Time Is of the Essence

Infrastructure deterioration is similar to 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 they’re 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 more convenient to all, especially road users. There will be fewer lane closures and less heavy equipment on bridges and roadways, and it will cost less for greater accuracy and efficiency.

Then why is USDOT unwilling to embrace technology for bridge inspections?

American photojournalist Steve McCurry says, “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 USDOT’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 United States should be setting standards for the rest of the world to follow. Instead, other nations use technology, and the United States blissfully continues with obsolete methods of 50 years or more ago.

“Bridge inspection firms can easily assure it is meeting the antiquated guidelines,” adds Thaler. “But does this help our infrastructure recover its health and ensure the traveling public’s safety?”

Why Use Obsolete Methods?

Engineering firms currently have almost no incentive to engage technology in bridge inspections and change the status quo. Why should they, when most USDOT contracts are based on billing 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 USDOT 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, ultimately holding no one accountable when disasters happen.

Needed Change

The “billable hours” system of awarding contracts must be replaced, otherwise engineering firms will never use technology for inspection. And yet managers desperately need the quantitative data that robotics can provide for repairs.

The USDOT can retract any part of a contract not in the public’s best interests. This alone should prod asset managers to engage technology. What’s more, engineering companies make most of their money on design, build and repair contracts. Therefore, exposing more problems and issues through technology will lead to larger maintenance and repair contracts for these firms.

Public safety aside, squeezing every dollar in man-hours to maximize inspection revenues is undoubtedly short-sighted. From a state’s perspective, there’s 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, the inevitable can only be postponed for so long. The advantages of technology are realized sooner rather than later, as recently happened in New York. 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.

“The opposition to this new idea was an explosion,” he notes. “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. “People don’t like change,” he reflects. “We like control more than anything, but if you don’t change, you don’t grow.”

It’s imperative the federal government and USDOT urgently replace obsolete bridge inspection methods with robotic engineering technology. By so doing, they can achieve actionable results to better allocate budgets and personnel. Politicians can save money in their state budgets during this time of COVID-19 and also keep their local economies relevant. And as the “writing on the wall” proclaims, it’s in the overall interests of engineering companies to leave their comfort zones and embrace change.

American author Stewart Brand says, “Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.”


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About Rajika Jayatilake

Rajika Jayatilake is a journalist currently engaged in research and writing on issues facing the national construction industry; email: [email protected].

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