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White Paper #5
A Pragmatic Solution to Our Transportation Funding Dilemma
A White Paper by LifeSpan Technologies
Morton’s Fork is an expression that describes a choice between two equally unpleasant alternatives, or two lines of reasoning that lead to the same unpleasant conclusion.
We believe that the Morton’s Fork of raising Federal gasoline taxes or State taxes to resolve our transportation funding is clearly unfavorable, no matter which entity increases taxes. Worse yet, we’re in serious trouble if both entities decide to raise taxes in concert. And we have been bombarded with ONLY these two options over the past several years.
Unfortunately, the current mainstream media coverage does not mention a very favorable option that can help effectively close the infrastructure wallet of every U.S. taxpayer if fully implemented. Importantly, this alternative is commercially available, proven over the past ten years, and has already saved early adopters millions of dollars.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), Transportation for America and other infrastructure organizations would have us believe that nothing short of a boatload of money will solve our infrastructure problem. We don’t agree.
What Congress and the state legislative bodies do not appreciate is that infrastructure condition is primarily determined by well-intentioned technicians who make subjective assessments of condition based on visual observations. It is rare indeed that visual inspection findings are challenged, even if they are unusual or questionable, simply because the process is expensive and time consuming and not required by Federal regulation.
So Who Really Determines Spending?
In essence, visual inspection findings by technicians form the basis of U.S. spending on bridge infrastructure.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) admitted in a study completed over ten years ago that visual inspection is subjective and highly variable. In addition a follow-on document stated that reliance on the visual inspection process makes it virtually impossible to optimize spending, particularly for bridges.
It’s time we used our engineering expertise more diligently, especially during this period when increased Federal and State spending on infrastructure is problematic.
The alternative we are suggesting is structural monitoring, which is the 21st century combination of sensors, wireless communication, cloud computing, and the Internet of Things. Structural monitoring has been proven to reduce infrastructure repair financial pressures, enhance safety, reduce load postings/detours, and improve compliance with the required GASB #34 accounting regulations.
The Medical Analogy
Let’s start with a simple analogy. Suppose you are not feeling well and make an appointment with your internist for an evaluation and diagnosis. You enter the room and the doctor walks around you without asking questions (remember: infrastructure doesn’t talk). Immediately you are struck by this question: “How can my doctor figure out what’s wrong with me if he doesn’t ask about my symptoms?”
Next, your doctor uses a blood pressure cuff, a tongue depressor, and a reflex hammer. All good you think, but this is just a start, right? NO. The doctor now determines you need emergency surgery to remove your spleen. WHOA DOC!!! After a long pause, you ask your doctor how he came to this conclusion without blood tests, an X-ray or MRI, and perhaps some lab work from a biopsy.
Here’s how this analogy plays out with highway bridges — visual inspection teams use their eyesight, a hammer, a steel rule, perhaps a chain drag, or similar test devices to ascertain the condition of a bridge. Inspectors may enter data on computer tablets, but the basic process hasn’t changed much over the past forty years.
And what is not being captured is objective, precise and timely performance data (using highly accurate sensing devices) for diagnosing the actual condition of highway bridges, especially for those bridges that carry more than normal risk. That would include all 8,000 or so fracture critical, structurally deficient bridges like the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis.
In addition, bridges where substantial detours are required if closed or posted, and those bridges with high replacement costs are excellent candidates for monitoring; where an accurate diagnosis of actual condition might allow another ten to twenty years of safe operation while the bridge owners work through the inventory of confirmed deficient bridges.
The Good News
Our industry, most frequently referred to as advanced condition assessment technologies, has found that 30 to 40% of bridges evaluated using objective and precise performance data from sensors are in better to much better condition than visual inspection findings.
Taken across the entire spectrum of U.S. bridges, the nation does not have 60,000+ structurally deficient bridges that need immediate repair. Rather, our industry’s conclusion is that the judicious utilization of advanced technology will result in substantial savings for U.S. taxpayers, the real owners of U.S. infrastructure.
Here are some example savings:
- A 100 year old structurally deficient bridge across the Mississippi River was carefully monitored, analyzed and determined to be safe. Estimated deferral of planned replacement costs – over $75,000,000.
- A sixty year old structurally deficient bridge on a critical roadway was carefully monitored and kept open while a replacement bridge was completed. Closing the existing bridge would have caused a forty mile detour for commercial traffic. Estimated savings – over $800,000 by avoiding an unnecessary repair.
- An elegant repair to a fifty year old signature bridge was verified at a single location before wide scale deployment of the solution. Savings versus the traditional repair – $10,000,000+ and no disruption during the heavily trafficked tourist season.
It is our opinion that we can live within our financial means while repairing our transportation infrastructure. And we pray that Congress is listening as they continue debating the next Transportation Bill, due in a few months.
In conclusion, we are not suggesting that the nation ignore the infrastructure condition – it is certainly in need of repair. Rather, we are suggesting that with unbalanced budgets and taxpayer stress; why not use all of the available technology to implement less expensive solutions to safely extend the useful life of as many bridges as possible?
Using commercially available advanced condition assessment technology, all fifty states can develop financially optimized, long-range asset management plans that factor in currently available tax funding without resorting to more taxation.
Making the government bigger and more pervasive is not the right answer.
The right answer is to use the combined abilities of forward-thinking engineers and dedicated technology suppliers.
Let’s get started.
For more information, contact LifeSpan Technologies on the Web at www.lifespantechnologies.com,
or by calling 770-234-9494.