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Bridging the Divide

Keeping technology at bay is endangering innocent lives and America’s bridges

By Doug Thaler
America’s infrastructure, once a symbol of national pride, is aging and poorly maintained. The
years have taken their toll on steel and concrete, and the bridges, in particular, are on the verge
of collapse.
Of the country’s total of 614,387 bridges, almost 4 out of 10 bridges are at least 50 years old.
20,808 are flagged as “fracture critical,” – meaning, if a critical component of the bridge gives way,
the whole bridge collapses. 65,605 bridges are categorized as “structurally deficient”, and a
further 7,795 bridges are tagged as both “structurally deficient” and “fracture critical.” They are
considered to be in greater danger of collapsing. Despite these warnings, life goes on as usual,
and 88 million trips on average are made across structurally deficient bridges every day. There
appears to be little apprehension that so many accidents are just waiting to happen.
The nation first became aware of how dilapidated its infrastructure is, when the Silver Bridge
between Virginia and Ohio caved in during rush hour, on December 15, 1967. Forty-six people
died and two bodies were never recovered. The ensuing investigation determined that a crack in
a single link led to the collapse. It also found that apart from poor maintenance, there was an
overload of stress on the bridge, as it was, on a daily basis, carrying traffic far heavier than its
design permitted.
In 2011, a disaster was miraculously averted in Indiana when an enormous crack on a busy bridge
was discovered in the nick of time. But, on May 24, 2013, a bridge north of Seattle collapsed when
a truck crashed into it, sweeping away a number of vehicles. The Frederick Douglass Memorial
Bridge into Washington DC, built in 1950, was neglected to a point of being beyond repair. The
steel support was worn out, the bridge span was rusted and the concrete was crumbling. In August
2017, the DC Mayor Muriel E. Bowser unveiled the design for a replacement bridge.
When the imminence of collapse is not understood early, people have to suffer the consequences.
The collapse of the Interstate 35W Bridge over Mississippi River near downtown Minneapolis,
during rush hour on August 1st, 2007, killed 13 people, injured 145 others and destroyed 111
vehicles. An investigation conducted by the National Transportation Board traced the cause to a
design error involving steel connectors known as “gusset plates.” The gusset plates, which should
have been 1” thick were only ½” thick. This design flaw was overlooked because it was apparently
not standard practice for bridge inspections to seek out design errors. If technology had been
used instead, quantitative data would have indicated an abnormality, for what should have been
the strongest part of the bridge, was in fact, one of its weakest.
Indeed, design flaws, material deterioration, fatigue, vibrations, foundation integrity issues, and
consistent loads and overloads on bridges weaken their serviceability and lifespan. Extreme
weather conditions add to the problem. Intense heat warps concrete and steel, while salting of
bridges in harsh winters, will corrode steel.
Conventional technologies that have been used over the years up to the present, will not expose
these problems until it is too late to prevent a disaster. Many inspections are done using the naked
eye, or archaic methods such as pinging the bridge’s surface with a hammer or dragging a chain
across the surface, listening for abnormal sounds. On the other hand, technology such as IPC’s
BridgeScan® allows checking of concrete and steel for 12 levels of deterioration across the bridge
deck. The BridgeScan® inspection, which costs the same as the current manual inspection,
includes prioritizing repairs according to deterioration and providing action plans for repair.
Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) in drones also can easily access all areas of a bridge. On the
other hand, antiquated manual methods require lane closures, night inspections to allow
uninterrupted traffic flow and expensive equipment to access the under bridge. So, employing
technology will actually trim costs and enable authorities to redirect more funds for repair and
maintenance.
Bridge inspection guidelines have been revamped to strengthen early detection of issues, but the
main inspection instrument, still, is visual inspection. Furthermore, federal records show many
bridges go beyond the stipulated two years without safety inspections. The existing system
passes the buck from federal to state to local governments. Those who ultimately put the public
at risk are not penalized, either. So it is business as usual, with antiquated methods, until the next
catastrophe.
Over a decade ago, professionals were nonplussed as to why America is not deploying better
technologies to inspect its aging infrastructure. Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Oral Buyukozturk, said, “We need to carefully
evaluate and implement into our engineering and management practices the already existing
high-tech methods for monitoring and testing bridges and other structures, and we must
encourage the development of new technologies as needed.”
With the benefits of technology being so obvious, why the unwavering allegiance to outdated
inspection methods? American design expert Donald A. Norman was apt in his observation,
“Technology may change rapidly, but people change slowly.”
Yet, the safety of the public should be top priority, and to that end, change must be initiated at
federal, state and local levels of government. The “Billable Hours” system of awarding contracts
must change, otherwise engineering firms will never use technology for inspection.
Dismissing the imminent risk to innocent lives is untenable. Marcus Cicero, the Roman politician,
once said, “The safety of the people shall be the highest law.”

Doug Thaler is President of Infrastructure Preservation Corporation, a nondestructive testing and


robotic engineering firm that has developed patented robotic technology to provide asset managers
(department of transportation) with quantitative assessments for better allocation of assets and to
preserve service life of critical infrastructure assets. These technologies update 50 year old manual
inspection services.

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