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Government & Infrastructure Magazine
Spend Smart – Not Fast
Peter J. Vanderzee
President and CEO
Over the past few years, how many times have you heard this well-worn plea: “We have to raise taxes to replace our structurally deficient bridges”? It sends shudders down the spine of low tax advocates, yet without tax increases, what are public sector bridge owners to do? No one wants another I-35W in their county or state. And, the risk of doing nothing may be just as problematic, exposing the county or state to liability and related catastrophe costs simply because they were aware of a problem and didn’t act to resolve it. The image of a school bus upside down at the bottom of a ravine is everyone’s worst nightmare.
Clearly, our national infrastructure is in poor condition, as the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) reports biennially in their aptly named Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. And, as we all know, infrastructure is not “self-healing”, so its condition continues to deteriorate as well-doers of all political stripes seek answers in an era of insufficient funding. While a simple solution is not likely, the situation can be managed much more effectively than it is today, if asset owners aggressively adopted a variety of technologies used to better assess infrastructure condition. Owners need more accurate, objective and timely information about the actual condition of their infrastructure assets before they start spending millions of dollars on ill-planned and potentially unnecessary capital repair and replacement programs.
You might be wondering what “technology” is used today to assess the condition of major civil assets, such as bridges, highways, tunnels, buildings, walls, etc. In most cases, the answer is visual inspection; one or two trained technicians visually observing how an infrastructure asset appears to their eyes. Sometimes inspectors use low-tech hammers, steel rules, chains, and other devices to augment the visual process, adding to its subjectivity. For bridges, State DOTs have been using this visual inspection process for almost forty years.
About ten years ago, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) conducted a study to assess the efficacy of visual inspection for bridges. Not surprisingly, they found the visual inspection process to be subjective, highly variable, and not sufficiently reliable to support optimization of capital expenditures. Yet the information gleaned from visual inspections is typically not challenged, elevating bridge inspectors to the de facto capital expenditure decision makers. This is not what any public sector executive would consider an appropriate outcome, especially those working for cash-strapped entities who must make difficult spending decisions. Unequivocally, those public sector executives can make more optimal capital expenditure decisions using advanced condition assessment technologies.
So, what are these technologies and why aren’t asset owners aggressively adopting them? Let’s first consider a few technology opportunities that are commercially available today. Ground penetrating radar (GPR) can be used to locate underground utilities, find leaking underground water pipes, or assess the condition of a bridge deck including delaminations between rebar and concrete that causes cracking. Geotechnical monitoring uses a combination of sensors and data collection hardware to assess the condition or movement of ground structures, including slopes, foundations, and walls. Static load testing is used to evaluate the actual load carrying capacity of a small bridge that may be “posted” or load limited, based upon visual inspection. And, finally, structural monitoring, a unique combination of sensors, wireless communication and the Internet, allows owners of bridges, parking decks, stadiums, and buildings to objectively determine, in near real-time, the actual structural condition of an asset. This supports the safe deferral of repairs or replacements for those structures in better-than-expected condition and effective prioritization of maintenance and capital programs within real-life budget constraints. It can also be used to monitor known defects, reducing liability exposure and enhancing the long-term capital forecasting process.
My company and others in our industry are finding that 30 to 50% of bridges evaluated are in better to much better condition than visual inspection initially determined which is not surprising, given the inherent conservatism of the visual inspection process. While inherent conservatism was acceptable when adequate funding was available to replace bridges, such is not the case today. Given political priorities, our mounting debt load, and ongoing costs for interest and entitlement spending, the Federal spigot for bridge repair or replacement has been effectively shut off. However, something has to give – we just can’t keep ignoring the issue of decaying infrastructure.
To answer why infrastructure asset managers aren’t aggressively adopting appropriate, commercially available advanced condition assessment technologies requires an understanding of two very different practical problems. First, public sector engineers are risk averse and like to use standard procedures, typically approved by governing bodies and/or mandated by Federal agencies. It takes fortitude to “buck the system” by suggesting new methods, especially when standard procedures have been used for years or even decades. Yet our economic system works best when innovation is encouraged, allowing more technically effective and economically efficient methods to replace standard procedures. While many public infrastructure owners understand this concept, few practice it.
The second problem is more intractable, but probably the most significant reason why advanced condition assessment technologies are not yet widely used. The engineers who argue for use of advanced technologies are not the same employees who sign the checks. So, no matter the technical merits, the engineer who seeks to innovate must make a strong financial case and get numerous approvals to spend even a modest amount of money. While these decisions may seem simple to most readers, sacrosanct departmental budgets and multiple approval processes often make these simple decisions procedurally complex, frustrating the innovative employee. Some public infrastructure owners have tried to mitigate this issue; most have not.
In summary, this nation’s taxpayers are a weary lot. And it doesn’t look like they’ll get much of a break for decades to come. We must do everything in our power to increase efficiency of government operations and defer unnecessary capital expenditures for infrastructure repair or replacement, while assuring appropriate safety margins for the public. How? The bottom line for public sector executives and managers is this: challenge the status quo; keep asking tough questions until you fully understand the problem; demand consideration of non-traditional alternatives; and continually support adoption of advanced technologies, especially when the economic benefits for taxpayers are so compelling.