Bridges Inspection Methods Are Failing the Public

Dated inspection methods are why our nation’s bridges are in a state of disrepair, and putting the public at risk.

Here’s the Solution

America’s bridges are in a state of disrepair, and this is no exaggeration. According to a recent report by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, over 55,000 of our nation’s bridges are damaged and require repair.

From broken bridges to bumpy roads, the transportation infrastructure of our country is in a state of disrepair, and this is costing Americans time, money, and even their lives. A heavy price is being paid for these deteriorated structures, and something needs to be done—quick.


Broken Bridges Everywhere

As of 2016, the United States had 614,387 bridges. 55,963 or 9.1% of them were said to be structurally deficient. On paper, 9.1 % doesn’t seem like a big number, but in the grand scheme of things, this number is worrying to say the least. It indicates that there is something fundamentally wrong with how America’s bridges are being built and inspected.

Standards have been lax about how our nation’s bridges are being built and inspected, with the latter being utterly and nonchalantly disregarded. 85% of the nation’s most traveled bridges requiring repair were built before 1970. These include:

  • 4,968 bridges in Iowa
  • 4,506 bridges in Philadelphia
  • 3,195 bridges in Missouri

Maintenance of these aging bridges is a big problem, a problem that can only be solved by employing new and innovate methods for inspection and repair.

Where Does the Problem Lie?

Why are our nation’s bridges in such a bad state? Building a bridge can get votes but repairing a bridge is just not sexy.  So, spending money on repairs is not a political priority. The Department of Transportation outsources most of their inspections to 1 of 20 asset management firms around the country. These firms have little incentive to improve their methods or utilize new methods or technologies.  Billing is typically in man hours.  New technology will reduce man-hours and take money out of the pockets of these firms.  The asset owner (Department of Transportation) needs to change the way their billing works and should outlaw the use of visual inspections where technology can provide a commercially viable alternative.

Case Study: Post Tension Tendons in Bridges

Post tension tendons hold up our nation’s bridges, and these bridges are inspected with taxpayer money every two years. For the past five decades, these inspections have been conducted visually or by sound. The team performing the inspection hits a tendon with a hammer and then listens for differences in the sound. Holes are drilled through the tendons where issues are thought to be heard. Drilling causes a further weakening of the structure and exposes the tendon to air and moisture which can further progress deterioration.

Our nation’s bridges are in a state of disrepair. Considering the inspection methods have not changed in 50 years, this should not come as a surprise.  IPC’s technology peers through the concrete and steel and finds section loss or corrosion in the steel. When the engineering firm needs to drill you can be certain there is an issue that needs to be fixed.


Case Study 2: Bridge Deck & Bridge Approach way Inspections

VS  Bridge Decks and Bridge Approach way Inspections are currently conducted by walking a bridge deck and finding suspicious areas. Then dragging a chain over that area to see if you hear a difference in the sound of the chain dragging. IPC’s BridgeScan uses electromagnetics to scan the entire bridge deck and approachway.  BridgeScan peers through the concrete and locates areas that are an issue like delamination, debonding, rebar placement, void formation, water intrusion, gravel compactness, etc.  BridgeScan does this for the same price that the current visual inspection is done. There is no coring or repairs by trial and error.  Bridges can be ranked in order of the most severe that repairs need to be attended to first. The asset owner or DOT has a baseline to show deterioration progression over time.

The Problem with Visual Inspections

Since 1920, visual inspections have been the primary method to assess the serviceability of our nation’s bridges. The problem with visual inspections is that they can only help in pinpointing obvious damage to the structure such as the spalling of concrete, corrosion of metal and fungus or insect attack on timber parts and many underlying faults which are not apparent can’t be detected by them. By the time issues become available to the naked eye, it is typically too late.

Another problem with visual testing is that it doesn’t provide quantitative data. This means that the final verdict of the inspection team will be completely subjective, i.e., not based on quantitative data or reading. If you sent a different inspection team, you would receive a different result. This is a real problem and one of the reasons America’s bridges are in a state of ‘disrepair.’

Preserving Infrastructure

As revealed by official stats, our nation’s bridges are in a state of disrepair. Making necessary repairs to these bridges is not just paramount for public safety, but it is essential for preserving national infrastructure. For this reason, it’s crucial that we steer away from the dated inspection methods and embrace the new and innovative ways of inspecting bridges and other infrastructure components to ensure a thriving economy and the safety of our public. It will be up to the department of transportation to force the markets to change.  They have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayer and the safety of the public. Not adopting the best available inspection methods and tools for the same dollar does a disservice to both.

About the Author:

Doug Thaler is president of Infrastructure Preservation Corporation (IPC). He is the former CEO and investment manager at Cambridge Capital Partners. After joining IPC, Thaler’s responsibilities have grown to include all aspects of overseeing financial and risk management, marketing and business development.

Guest post by Doug Thaler- president of Infrastructure Preservation Corporation

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