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White Paper #8
Infrastructure Policy Must Be Fact-Based
A White Paper by LifeSpan Technologies
Remember Chicken Little’s cry: “The sky is falling”? It didn’t happen then and it won’t happen tomorrow or even next year with regard to our national inventory of 615,000 highway bridges. You may be thinking that Chicken Little was referring to those bridges classified in poor condition, recently numbering fewer than 50,000. In both contexts, Chicken Little was wrong.
Knowing our elected officials are anxious to fix what they believe is broken; Chicken Little would be more relevant if he investigated what infrastructure policy would be most effective to remedy that “all-but-certain” disaster he trumpets. Depending on whom you think provides a factual account about the condition of U.S. bridges, you might believe we should be spending a trillion dollars tomorrow, OR you might believe there may be more to this story than what the press is reporting. Skepticism is good, especially when facts are readily available to challenge what passes for indisputable truth.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) developed a clever “report card” some years ago to alert citizen taxpayers, state legislators, and our Congress about bridge conditions. While ASCE’s aggregate bridge grade has somewhat improved over the years (now C+), the political mind is still energized to spend assuming that will raise the grade. After all, isn’t an “A” grade worth striving for? And who wants to drive over a bridge that’s considered structurally deficient?
Nearly twenty years ago, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) studied the impact of a bridge owner’s sole reliance on National Bridge Inspection Standards’ (NBIS) visual inspection to determine bridge condition, which drives an owner’s decision to repair or replace a deficient bridge. The results of that study confirmed what many of us have long suspected.
That FHWA study was followed by a Transportation Research Board (TRB) paper authored by two highly respected bridge engineers (Walther, R.A. and Chase, S.B.: “Condition Assessment of Highway Structures”, Transportation Research Circular E-C104, September 2006). FHWA’s study and the TRB paper concluded that visual inspection was “subjective”, “highly variable” and sub-optimal for supporting investment decisions. We can reasonably conclude that the FHWA and bridge owners expect inspection technicians to be intentionally conservative in their assessment of condition. The conservative bias is understandable and not surprising.
However, that same conservative bias leads to overstating the number of problematic bridges across the U.S. And that bias then distorts transportation policy and funding demands to repair or replace bridges that are presumed deficient based on NBIS visual inspection.
We recognize state legislators and Congressmen often gravitate toward increased funding to remedy presumed problems. Besides, what’s better than a ribbon cutting for a new bridge in your state or district? And so, relying on ASCE’s Report Card, FHWA’s biennial Conditions and Performance Report, and supported by mainstream press stories that thrive on angst, politicians and key lobbyists continue to advocate increased infrastructure funding (federal and state) despite out-of-control budget deficits.
A Better Approach
Fortunately, there’s a commercially available, proven technology solution, known as structural monitoring, that a few enterprising companies have been offering to bridge owners for over fifteen years. This technology is a unique blend of sensors, wireless communication and the Internet (generically known as the Internet of Things, or IoT) that delivers excellent returns on investment for bridge owners by safely deferring major bridge replacement projects and reversing restrictive weight limits.
LifeSpan’s efforts over the past decade have supported the safe deferral of over $500 million in unnecessary projects and we’re only getting started. Our industry has also provided the data for safe removal of many restrictive weight limits that hinder trucking firms, fire and safety equipment, and in some cases, school buses. These results were possible because owners and their consulting engineers could now reach more informed, objective conclusions about bridge condition when they fully understood how a bridge reacts to applied traffic loads instead of overestimating those impacts using NBIS visual inspection results.
Unfortunately, there are still many state DOTs and local governments that have not implemented this technology and consequently are forfeiting the cost saving benefits of these proven solutions in exchange for tax increases to fund unnecessary bridge repair and replacements.
Congratulations are due to those state DOTs and counties who have utilized this technology and are now starting to implement long-term programs to reduce the number of deficient and weight restricted bridges by capturing and using objective condition-related data.
To those bridge owners who lag, we can confirm that (1) the technology is proven, (2) commercial solution providers are readily available, and (3) the FHWA acknowledges the use of technology for bridge preservation. Additionally, the Association of American State and Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) characterizes extended service life for bridge preservation as a strategic priority and has since 2005.
It’s time that those who have funding responsibility for bridges in the U.S. (state DOTs, FHWA, local governments, state legislators and Congressmen) to stop listening to Chicken Little’s squawking. Increased spending is NOT the most effective solution to a problem that’s been manufactured and continues to be characterized as a crisis.
Bottom line: it’s not a crisis.
For more information, contact LifeSpan Technologies on the Web at www.lifespantechnologies.com,
or by calling 770-234-9494.