Transportation Research Board

Safety and Security of Bridges and Structures Subcommittee

Washington D.C.



The Stress of Mr. Steele

Peter J. Vanderzee

President and CEO


Frank B. Wingate, P.E.


LifeSpan Technologies

Atlanta, Georgia



When your world is changing and you are in the fog of action, sometimes it’s difficult to fully appreciate why the changes are occurring and how those changes will affect you. Increased stress is often the result.  However, in our economy, change is more often a precursor to better, not worse, as some might believe.  Value creation and financial optimization require innovation and adaptation, not maintenance of the status quo. Never has this been more true than now.

Over the past decade, the 20th Century process of bridge management has been challenged by academia, commercial innovators, and even its regulator – the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).  Terms such as asset management, advanced condition assessment, sustainability, and bridge preservation have been tossed around in meetings sponsored by AASHTO, FHWA, and the TRB.  Yet despite all the high-level discussion and ardor surrounding the search for better methods to survive in a constrained funding environment; few bridge owners have embraced changes that promise lower life cycle costs, higher safety margins, and less political intrusion.

As reported by Roads & Bridges in its September 2010 edition, Valeo and Capers professionally summarize the results of a scan tour to several European countries to assess their policies and procedures for bridge management.  Sponsored by the FHWA, AASHTO and an NCHRP grant, the article clearly shows that Europe is well on its way to enhanced bridge management. So, why aren’t U.S. bridge owners enthusiastically embracing such changes?

To answer this question, let’s consider an analogy.  Imagine Mr. Steele, a bridge inspection manager for a state DOT, who owns a six year old car with 94,000 miles that may need new tires, has intermittent squealing brakes, and idles rough.  In addition, the exterior paint is starting to oxidize and a rear brake light is out. Mr. Steele is also very concerned about his job, since several of his colleagues were “down-sized” last week and the mood in the office is decidedly negative.  Finally, his real estate taxes went up 8% last year and the grocery bill keeps inching up as his kids get older, making saving for his kid’s college much more difficult.  He wonders …

“Is is time to buy a new car”?

At the state DOT, Mr. Steele’s team inspects about 12,000 bridges biennially and currently has 1,287 bridges in the state classified as structurally deficient, a typical percentage across the U.S.  About 450 of these bridges have sufficiency ratings below 50, meaning they are eligible for replacement using the Federally-funded Highway Bridge Program (HBP) which pays for 80% of the replacement costs. He wonders …

“Is it time to buy a lot of new bridges?”

In these two situations, the common thread is money.  Our mythical bridge inspection manager has some personal financial issues to consider before he applies for a new car loan.  He also knows that his state, and the counties and cities that own the bulk of the structurally deficient bridges, are struggling with funding for schools, police, fire, and other essential services; much less replacing bridges that keep on functioning, despite having visible defects.  So how can Mr. Steele make optimal decisions in matters so complex and stress inducing?  Fortunately, there are some common considerations in both situations that help our mythical bridge inspection manager make the best decisions.


First, for car owners and transportation professionals, safety must be the highest priority.

There is no acceptable excuse for driving an unsafe car or allowing the public to use a bridge known to be unsafe. Unsafe cars must be repaired and unsafe bridges must be closed, promptly repaired or replaced. Period.


Second, consider what Mr. Steele knows and what he doesn’t know.

For his car, he knows he has probable safety issues, including tires, brakes and a tail light.  He assumes that a tune up will probably resolve the idling problem and provide better gas mileage, but that isn’t a serious problem.  And, he can subjugate his pride to avoid the cost of repainting the car. Deferring unnecessary expenditures may be the best course, given his financial circumstances.

For the 450 low sufficiency bridges Mr. Steele is concerned about, safety could be a problem, but he’s not sure how to assess the risk.  Several years ago, after the I-35W collapse, his DOT executive management told every local newspaper and magazine that “structurally deficient” doesn’t mean the bridge is unsafe to use.  Confusing for the public perhaps, but our mythical DOT manager knows that bridges have substantial reserve load carrying capacity which is not typically utilized to extend its life span and defer replacement costs.

He also knows from experience and an FHWA study that visual inspection isn’t all that accurate.  However, replacing a bridge classified as structurally deficient is the easiest decision to ensure public safety, especially if Uncle Sam is paying 80% of the costs.  So, unlike his car, Mr. Steele can’t be all that sure about how much risk these 450 bridges represent.  He does know that it will cost millions to replace them all – which the State and local owners simply don’t have.  And since he isn’t sure about actual condition, he has no way to objectively prioritize which of the 450 bridges should be replaced first.  Mr. Steele is experiencing significant stress to make appropriate recommendations with so little objective information.


Third, Mr. Steele decides it’s worthwhile to get a more objective understanding of actual condition, for both his car and a representative sample of the low sufficiency bridges.

For his car, Mr. Steele brings it to his local mechanic and asks for a thorough condition review and diagnosis.  His mechanic tells him the following:  The tire tread is OK for 5,000 more miles; the brake pads and tail light must be replaced, but the idling problem is a software glitch that the manufacturer will correct at no cost.  However, the finish is failing and repainting is the only option.  The total cost to correct safety issues is $275 for the brake pads and tail light, about the same as one new car payment.  Considering his uneasiness about job security, Mr. Steele opts for fixing only the safety items and swallows some pride for its outward appearance, not letting perfect be the enemy of good.  After all, isn’t this type decision the essence of sustainability?

After his car experience, Mr. Steele decides to talk with his boss about advanced condition assessment for the 450 structurally deficient bridges his state inspects.  After much discussion, he convinces his boss that a third party review of bridge condition using advanced technologies is essential to help him make more precise, timely and objective recommendations regarding repair or replacement.

To demonstrate the concept, Mr. Steele picks a representative sample of 45 low sufficiency bridges; 10 long-span and 35 short-span.  Next, his DOT hires a trusted engineering firm who in turn hires competent subcontractors to furnish condition assessment services for the 10 long-span bridges and 35 short-span bridges.  Since these bridges all have a sufficiency rating below 50 and are eligible for replacement, the DOT previously estimated the costs for replacement of all 45 bridges at approximately $110 million, for which the local share will total $22 million.  Costs for the condition assessment services are contracted at $2.5 million, paid directly by the state and local bridge owners.

After a thorough evaluation of all 45 bridges, the engineering firm tells Mr. Steele the following: 16 of the 35 short-span bridges are capable of handling expected loads and their postings safely removed.  Nine more should continue to have load postings, but their replacements can be safely deferred.  The remaining 10 short-span bridges should be replaced.

Four of the ten long-span bridges evaluated are in good condition; two others should continue to have load restrictions, but should also be continuously monitored to assure heavy loading is not exacerbating the deterioration rate.  The remaining 4 bridges need to be replaced. In addition, the engineering firm estimates the total cost for replacing the 10 short-span bridges and 4 long-span bridges to be approximately $40 million for which the local share is $8 million.

That represents a total cost deferral of $70 million over the earlier DOT estimate, of which 20%, or $14 million, is the local share cost deferral and $56 million of cost deferral accrues to the HBP.  When calculating a return on investment, Mr. Steele figures the local owners, who paid for the use of advanced condition assessment technology, deferred a net $11.5 million and see an immediate dollar for dollar payback from their investment in condition assessment services of nearly five times, or, using interest-only savings at 5%, a simple payback of their investment in about 3 ½ years (about 25%), a terrific financial return by any standard.

However, Mr. Steele also wonders why the HBP didn’t participate in the costs for his condition assessment program, since they safely deferred four times what the local owners deferred.  It doesn’t seem right to him, or his boss.  In bringing this car and bridge analogy to a conclusion, here’s what Mr. Steele and his state DOT learned from this demonstration program:

The FHWA mandated visual inspection process for bridges results in an overstated need for funding, both Federal and state, that can be substantially reduced by the judicious use of technically appropriate, commercially available advanced condition assessment technologies.

If a sample of 45 bridges (10%) resulted in the safe deferral of $70 million, perhaps his state can safely defer over $500 million in unnecessary bridge replacement costs and maybe a lot more by safely deferring rehabilitation actions too.

Since the HBP garners four times the financial benefits compared to individual states, they should probably incentivize this process by offering to pay their fair share for use of various advanced condition assessment technologies.


Mr. Steele’s stress is now reduced, knowing he can optimize his bridge management program with timely, precise, objective knowledge of asset condition to quantify risk, minimize investment, develop alternatives, and prioritize expenditures.  He and his boss decide to forward the following recommendations to their state DOT Commissioner, hoping for discussion and evaluation by high-level decision makers, including the state DOT’s Board of Directors, AASHTO, FHWA and USDOT executives, and Congressional legislators who sit on transportation committees and subcommittees that determine HBP funding:

The FHWA and AASHTO need to take a stand by actively and aggressively supporting use of advanced condition assessment technologies.

Publications and industry seminars on sustainability, bridge preservation, and asset management are feckless until these organizations fully and actively support the technically appropriate use of commercial assessment technologies as a supplement to NBIS visual inspections. State DOTs cannot optimize their bridge management programs or the HBP assure taxpayers that limited funds are being spent in the most advantageous way to reduce risk and lower life cycle costs with continued sole reliance on visual inspection.

State DOTs should fully implement hard-nosed asset management programs that generate the necessary information to support risk reduction and cost optimization.

Sustainability and bridge preservation are opposite sides of the same coin, but neither objective will be efficiently realized until objective condition information allows generation of engineering options that are not routinely considered today. Given increased talk of privatization and taxpayer concern about spending, state DOT asset managers must be able to show that every capital investment dollar was essential and provided the taxpayer with an acceptable return on investment.

Tone down the R&D emphasis on structural monitoring and complimentary advanced condition assessment technologies.

Most of these technologies are commercially available and have been effectively used for years by a few pioneering state DOTs, Asian and European transportation agencies. With the potential for substantial returns on investment, the safe deferral of billions of dollars in unnecessary bridge replacement funds, and the ability to manage overall system risk and effectively eliminate political prioritization, aggressive adoption of commercially available off-the-shelf technology, not more R&D, is the only sensible answer.

Congress and the Administration have a role to play by incentivizing use of technically appropriate advanced condition assessment technologies in the HBP.

Based on specific project experience, a substantial percentage of bridges evaluated using such technologies will have repair or replacement actions safely deferred. Given limited transportation funding, which is expected for decades, the highest and best use for the funds should be spent on the most critical projects — providing financial and risk reduction benefits for all U.S. taxpayers.