Today’s episode is another one on our “America’s Infrastructure Report Card Series”, so to speak. Produced by the ASCE, these report cards are released every four years with the purpose of bringing to light the existing infrastructure problems and limitations in different sectors within the United States, ranging from bridges and dams to wastewater and energy.
Today, Mark Oakeson jumps back on to discuss with Isaac the last report card on bridge conditions nationwide, released in 2017. The overall grade assigned was a C+, which may not seem that bad initially, but according to the report, almost 10% of the nation’s bridges were structurally deficient in 2016, and there were about 188 million trips across such bridges per day. According to the report, 4 in 10 of America’s bridges are 50+ years old, which is highly significant once we factor in that a bridge is designed to reach 50 years of proper functioning at most.
For all civil engineers out there, this is a great episode that will certainly show you that there are plenty of opportunities. According to the report, civil engineers are needed as never seen before to ensure that our infrastructure functions properly, safely, and efficiently. Isaac and Mark dive into how inspections are made and how specialists determine if a bridge is a “pass” or a “fail”, the huge role that funding plays in this discussion, as well as uncovering the States that are doing a good job at taking care of their bridges and the ones that don’t.
America’s Infrastructure Report Card (2017) – https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org
Bridge Infrastructure Report (2017) – https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/cat-item/bridges
I-35W bridge collapse (MN, 2007) – http://www.dot.state.mn.us/i35wbridge/collapse.html
Federal Highway Administration – https://highways.dot.gov
Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act) – https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/fastact
Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) – https://www.udot.utah.gov/connect
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Reach out to Isaac – [email protected]
Transcript of Show
You can download our show notes summary here or get our transcript of the show below!
Isaac Oakeson: All right. Hey, what's up everybody? Isaac here with my brother, Mark. What's up, Mark?
Mark Oakeson: Hey, how's it going?
Isaac Oakeson: We are back at it together on this podcast episode. It's going to be a good one. And I wanted to bring up one of the infrastructure report cards that I thought we could discuss together, because I think it's always fun to kind of go over these, kind of see where we're at and then see, when they redo it, if there's been any improvement. I kind of don't think it's going to happen. So today, we're going to talk about bridges. And if you ever go check out the infrastructure report card for bridges, they actually give it a C+ rating, which is actually better than most that I've seen. Most of them are like --
Mark Oakeson: Yeah. I think it actually improved. They do this every four years as you know, Isaac and it actually improved from the last report card. So, it seems like we're going in the right direction.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah, that's true. Just right off the report, they say 9.1% of bridges rated structurally deficient. So about 10%, I guess, if you're going to go that way. As part of their summary, though, they've listed that in the US, we've actually got 614,387 bridges, almost four in 10 of which are 50 years or older.
Mark Oakeson: Right. And that's significant because that's pretty much the lifespan of a bridge. It's about 50 years is what they design.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. I'm in the transmission world. And that's about the same for that too. And I know we've got stuff that's out there for a hundred years, which is not good.
Mark Oakeson: Yeah. It gets old.
Isaac Oakeson: Actually, in an earlier podcast episode, I did an infrastructure report card on the energy system and it wasn't good. This one looks to be better. Going on, they've got about 5,600 or 9.1% of the nation's bridges were structurally deficient in 2016. And on average, there were 188 million trips across a structurally deficient bridge each day.
Mark Oakeson: That's a lot of trips. That's a lot of trips across the bridge.
Isaac Oakeson: You want to be driving on those bridges?
Mark Oakeson: Well, luckily I happen to live in a state where the infrastructure is in fairly good shape, and we'll talk about which States are the worst. Butyeah, in my hometowns -- I live in areas where the infrastructure is relatively new. So I feel relatively safe.
Isaac Oakeson: That's good. But what about people that don't? We have to improve stuff.
Mark Oakeson: Yeah. But that's not the case everywhere. There's obviously need for improvement. Local DOTs, or Department of Transportation, they're looking for federal funding, of course, to help supplement their own local state funding to help improve the situation. But funding is kind of a big issue, which is another thing that we'll talk about here.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. So it sounds like the increase in deficient bridges is increasing as this age keeps getting older. So what they've stayed as the most recent estimate puts the nation's backlog of bridges, basically the cost, to be about $123 billion to fix that problem.
Mark Oakeson: Yeah. And that's significant. That's a lot of money
Isaac Oakeson: That is a whole lot of money. So, let's talk about the condition and capacity. So, it looks like, generally if you were to see a graph that they produced starting in, basically, 2007, this looks like it's structurally deficient bridges starting in 2007. If you look at it by area or by number, it started pretty high as a percentage, and it has come down over the years, which is, I think, why you're getting a C+ on your score.
Mark Oakeson: Yeah. It seems like everybody's a little more aware about it, especially local municipalities, local governments becoming more and more aware of the situation. And so, they'reallocating the resources to help it get fixed.
Isaac Oakeson: That's very good. If you were to look at America's bridges by age it looks like about 40% of the bridges are 50+ years old, and the rest kind of just chop up into about 15 percentage points, if you break it up each 10 years. And so, you know, brand new bridges is about 8%, and if you go to 10 to 19 years, about 12%, and then on from there. So, it just looks like we got a lot of old bridges, and I'd be curious when they actually release this in 2021, whenever that's going to come about, to see if there's been any improvement in the age group.
Mark Oakeson: Yeah. I would expect that trend to continue to improve. So, we're at 9.1% right now overall that are deficient. In the last report card, we were at 12.3%. So, if we improved by 3% every year if we kept that trend going, I mean, we're going in the right direction. We've got to keep that going.
Isaac Oakeson: And I'm kind of thinking out loud here, but I think of all the report cards that they produce, I would imagine that most people and the public care a lot about the bridges they're driving onIt's kind of a big deal.
Mark Oakeson: Do you remember the I-35 bridge in Minneapolistwin cities, right? Minnesota, Minneapolis-St. Paul area? That I-35 bridge that collapsed. It was a steel bridge. And I'm roughly remembering the details, butthat was an older bridge. It was a steel bridge. And it had some problems with some of the connections which led to a lot of the reasons why it failed. But that one was a big deal. I can't remember what year that happened, Isaac. Maybe you recall.
Isaac Oakeson: I don't.
Mark Oakeson: It's been within the last 10 years. I can't recall exactly what date that was, but that was a big one that happened thatI think, got a lot of peopleaware ofbridgestructural deficiencies, andmaking sure thatwe allocate some of our public resources to fixing bridges and making sure they're safe.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. I think that was the 35W bridge in Minneapolis. It was in 2007.
Mark Oakeson: Okay. So, a little more than 10 years ago. It shows you how. Well I can't keep track of time. I just remember that one a little bit because I had just driven over that bridge probably a month before it fell down. I remember. So, it was something that hit me too when it happened.
Isaac Oakeson: So Mark, let's talk about, I guess, regular inspections, because I know these are supposed to be regularly inspected. What are they determining as what's passing and what's failing on a bridge?
Mark Oakeson: So, bridgesare kind of divided up into sections. And so, there's the mainsupport structure. That's usually, probably, the piers and the abutments that are the underlying structure of the bridge. And then on top of that, what they call the superstructure, is probably the deck and sometimes the plate girders or the precast girders that are on top ofthe piers. And so, when they do these inspections, they're supposed to crawl underneath and actually inspect the joints. You know, bridges, they have to have room for expansion. So there's always expansion joints where corrosion and different things can startcorroding bridges that aresources for problems on bridges, and they have to investigate all of the structure underneath. Sometimes, if just the superstructure is in question, they can use hydro blasting and different methods to remove concrete and the paving off of a bridge and just maybe rehabilitate the superstructure, just the deck. And then they're not doing a full replacement, and those assessments happen all the time. The expensive ones are whenthe underlying structure, the bents, the piers, the supporting structure underneath might be bad and it requires a full replacement, then it gets expensive. But, the Federal Highway Administration and most DOTs require that every bridge is numbered and cataloged, and they have a yearly inspection program that they all go through. And then they prioritize which bridges need the most attention and then, the ones that do need a lot of attention, get obviously put on top of the list as far as allocating funds, and they're supposed to systematicallyget those repairs done as they do those inspections.
Isaac Oakeson: That's interesting. I know also, you know, a big issue with bridges is that they don't actually serve current traffic demands. A lot of places where you're driving on a bridge and then it narrows down to maybe a two lane or something like that. And so I wonder if are we considering those, like, obsolete bridges? Like, we need to update those. I know there's probably a lot of environmental concerns with those. In their report they said bridges that do not serve current traffic demands or meet current standards, whether due to too few lanes or too narrow lanes or shoulders, are considered functionally obsolete. So, I imagine that is thrown ininto this as well.
Mark Oakeson: Yeah. Those kind of things are assessed with these inspections, and there's lots of solutions to that. Sometimes those types of bridges, you can just build another bridge alongside an existing one, if you've got enough room. And sometimes you get into right away issues because, you know, maybe there's somebody's neighborhood right up against a bridge embankment or something, and then they have to come in. And to widen a bridge, maybe you have property line issues, and there's ways to deal with that with MSE walls and different things like that to kind of get that embankment within property lines and those kind of things.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. It's a lot of work. They've listed that one in eight bridges in the US were functionally obsolete in 2016 which is not good.
Mark Oakeson: I mean, modern dayengineering and construction methods really give bridge builders a lot of options to work around some of those issues. Butyeah, it can be a problem. But, usually if you just need to add lanes, I mean, you can add an entirely different, like a tandem structure, that's right next to an existing one, if you have to.
Isaac Oakeson: That makes sense. We've identified the issues. We know we've got issues in the US with bridges. I mean, overall, I think this is a better grade than most infrastructure report cards in general. So, that's a highlight. But this is expensive stuff. Soa big part of their reports is talking about funding and the future need of these. And so, a lot of this depends on federal dollars andthey've stated that the federal government estimates there's about 17 and a half billion dollars spent on bridge capital projects in 2012. I imagine that's a lot higher now that we're heading into 2021. But you've got a lot of dollars to come from from federal money. I imagine this all plays a role into people who you're voting for, or the issues that they care about, but I know that most politicians care about creating jobs for people and funding these kinds of projects. What do you think about all this funding stuff?
Mark Oakeson: Well, what's interesting to me is that a lot of the funding for highway improvement comes from gasoline tax, right?
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. Every time you go fill up the pump, Huh?
Mark Oakeson: Yeah. Well, what's the big push now is for environmentally -- We'll say conscious transportation, right? So, people are looking into electric cars, for sure. Hybrids are making up a lot of the vehicular traffic on highways. And, you know, if you got an electric car, when are you ever filling up your pump or filling up the car with gas? You're just not, right. So, there's a little less revenue for fuel tax and those cars are still using the same bridges and roads that the rest of us are using that maybe don't have electric cars.
Isaac Oakeson: Do you see a time that they tax the electric use? I work for a utility and I feel like we are becoming the gas company.
Mark Oakeson: There's a lot of truth to that. There's a lot of truth to that. The more electric cars we get, the more that's going to be the case. And so, how do we handle that? They're using the same infrastructure as everybody else, and you can't just target gasoline for generating that revenue. So what do you do?
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah, I imagine they'll -- I mean, we're creating charging stations along major freeways already. And I imagine you know, at one point that will be something that they will tax.
Mark Oakeson: Oh yeah. I think they'll have to. They'll have to, eventually,
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah, they'll roll it over intoboth gas and electric fuel types.
Mark Oakeson: Yeah. So, that is an interesting issue that's there.
Isaac Oakeson: Just a little bit more on this, it states that the past decade has been marked with uncertainty for federal surface transportation programs. So, you know, a lot of these programs come and go. They come up with, and they usually give them interesting acronyms, like Fixing America's Surface Transportation or the FAST act.
Mark Oakeson: Yeah. They just came up with that so they they could call it FAST.
Isaac Oakeson: I'm sure they'll come up with more acronyms. So, anyway, that kind of stuff is just going to be around for a long time. Let's talk about the structurally deficient bridges, the top and the five bottom States. So, who's in our top five for the best.
Mark Oakeson: So the top five States that are -- These guys are taking care of their bridges and doing fairly well with their rehab and their new bridge construction. There's DC, district of Columbia. I guess that's technically not a state though. Nevada, Delaware, Hawaii, Utah. Hey Utah!.
Isaac Oakeson: Hey, we're in there.
Mark Oakeson: Yeah. Nevada, Texas, Florida, Arizona. Those are the ones that are on top, and their percentages -- You know, they're in the -- Like Utah, for instance, is in the 3.1% of the bridges are deficient. That's it. Arizona is 2.6%. Florida is 2.1%. Texas 1.7%, and Nevada, you know, 1.6%, just as an example. They're really low. They're keeping on top of it.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. So, what makes them the better States do you think? Is that funding? Is it that they actually care about it? What do you think?
Mark Oakeson: I think it's a combination. I think they care about it, but it's also the -- Some of the States are a little more rural-type States, I would say. So, the ones that are a little more densely populated might have a little more of an issue withdoing bridge rehab that makes it a little more difficult. Some of the issues like we talked about, with right of way issues and property lines. You know, when you're in a dense, urban environment, it's tough to expand, to get things built. But, I don't think that's entirely true as we'll talk about the bottom five here, because some of those are fairly rural-typeStates, and so that line of thinking wouldn't apply. But the other thing is just, like we were talking, it's just: Are the bridges a big priority or not, you know?
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. So, what are ourbottom five?
Mark Oakeson: So our bottom five, we're looking at Iowa, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Missouri, Nebraska. Rhode Island is way off the charts, we'll talk about their percentage. We got Iowa, Pennsylvania, I already mentionedSouth Dakota and thenWest Virginia. Some of these States, like Rhode Island, almost 25% of their bridges are bad. Iowa is at 21%. Pennsylvania is at 20%. South Dakota is there at 20%. It's just -- Yeah.
Isaac Oakeson: Some work to be done.
Mark Oakeson: One in five of their bridges are structurally deficient. That's not good.
Isaac Oakeson: So as part of this, they look at innovation technologies to try to help improve the lifespan of these bridges to keep them going even longer. They talk about some sensors that are being embedded into both new and existing bridges to provide feedback on structural conditions that are going on there. There's also the use of new material, like ultra high performance concrete. Have you used that before, Mark? UHPC?
Mark Oakeson: What UDOT is kind of experimenting in, they've done a lot ofbridge decks withthese polyesteroverlays. Once they get a bridge deck in place they'll come back and put in theseIt's almost like a, if you've seen somebody do maybe an epoxy flooring in their garage or something similar to that, but it's a --
Isaac Oakeson: It's like a polymer?
Mark Oakeson: But it's a polyester. Yeah. They call it a polyester overlay and they've been doing a lot of thatover their decks. There's a lot of good scholarship and research behindthat, being able to stretch out the life of the bridge. And we throw a lot of deicing salts down in Utah. The corrosion is a huge, huge problem. As you know deicing salts get down in the cracks in concrete, gets down into the rebar, rebar rusts, it expands, and then not good. And sothere's lot of good research that this is going to help extend the life of the bridges. But it's fairly new and you really don't know until the bridge has been in service for 10, 15 years, you know? How it's working. But that's one thing that UDOT is doing.
Isaac Oakeson: One of the things I also saw here in Utah when I was in school, and that was relatively new, is building the bridges -- I don't know. I think it's called modular. But they build them basically off site, and what they can do is roll the bridge inon a machine. It can't work for every bridge, but on certain overpasses on freeways, they were building the bridge and then you can like roll it in place.
Mark Oakeson: Yeah. The company I worked forwas very innovative in that effort. We did in 2008 what was called the I-15 core project, which was an expansion down in Utah County of our I-15 Corridor. And we did a lot of bridges. They call it ABC construction, Accelerated Bridge Construction. So, you're saying they construct the bridge -- It's actually the superstructure of the bridge. They construct offsite and then they wheel it in with these little SPMTs, they call them, which are these little hydraulic dollies, for lack of a better word, thatkind of just wheel the bridge into place and they set it down on the abutments.
Isaac Oakeson: I think they're pretty slick.
Mark Oakeson: Yeah. It's really cool construction. And you're right. It takes the right type of bridge. Obviously you couldn't do a big flyover like that, right? A flyover bridge, there's no way to do that way, but if you've just got a little typical bridge and it's over, you know, a six-lane highway, it's a viable option if you've got some real estate alongside that you canpre-build the bridge and slide it in. It's really cool.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. I thought that was some really cool innovation. Just listing some of the things they've also listed as well. They're listing about using composites high-performance stills better resilience, and all those things can add a longer life to yourbridge. So, those are the things we've just mentioned. Yeah. Innovation. Anything else on innovation, Mark? Are you seeing anything else in the industry?
Mark Oakeson: That ABC, Accelerated Bridge Construction, I would say is probably the most currentconstruction technique innovation that we've had. There's other things that are really cool. If you're building over rivers, you know, there's double cantilever type construction, and there's really cool things thatyou can get into. But, as far as like cost-saving and time-saving, and reducing the impact to the traveling public, I think that ABC bridge construction is probably the coolest innovation that's come our way as of late, meaning within the last 10, 15 years.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. I think that's pretty new. At least it was when I was at school. But I look back, I've already been out of school for a while. So, things might've changed.
Mark Oakeson: You're an old man now.
Isaac Oakeson: Let's talk about some recommendations to raise the grade. The first one that they've listed is increased funding at all levels of government. I think that's always going to be a priority for funding these things is trying to get the money to build them. And so just like we talked about taxes and things of that nature, trying to find ways --
Mark Oakeson: And how do you restructure your tax base, you know? How do you -- You know, we talked about the tax on fuel consumption. How do you restructure that to maybe incorporate some of the electric car use, you know?
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. That's coming. I bet. Another thing they talk about is trying to prioritize maintenance and rehabilitation. So you're actually probably getting out there more and looking at the bridge and fixing things that need to be fixed sooner, not waiting too long to let things go. That should be a high priority. They've also listed raising taxes of thosemotor fuel taxes and other ways to really increase funding tied to that again. And also, they state thatthey want to make sure that future mechanisms of funding are sufficient for the future. So, I think -- I'm reading a lot of these and maybe three or four of these out of the five are all tied to funding, right? So, you know, we have to find some long-term solutions in order to fund these programs, otherwise I think you're just going to keep having some problems.
Mark Oakeson: It can be tough because, you know, you don't want to overtax your population of citizens. Butat the same time, if you don't have adequate infrastructure, and bridges are definitely part of that how much does that affect the local economy? If you can't get goods and services delivered to where people are especially goods, if you're talking about stock in grocery stores and whatever else is traveling over the highway that represents some big money, you know? And it affects the economy. So, it's kind of a balance, I think, the balanced approach that needs to happen. You don't want to overtax, butat the same time you've got to have sound infrastructure too.
Isaac Oakeson: One of the things they stated in here is interesting. They said that you should consider looking into further studying a pilot program of mileage-based user fees. What do you think that is?
Mark Oakeson: Well, that's kind of a use tax then, right? Soon its face that makes some sense. Those that use the road should pay for the use of the road, I guess. I haven't thought about that too much, but there may be some valid approaches that way. It's just a use tax. Tax those that drive on the road. They're the ones that are using it.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. I think they're looking at all kinds of solutions to try to improve the infrastructure. And this is just one slice of a whole pie. This is just bridges.
Mark Oakeson: Yeah. 15 other report cards.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. In the future, we'll probably dive into some others just to look at their grades and keep the audiencea price of the issues that are out there, if you haven't checked these out already. But I think it's also a good reminder knowing where we are and maybe look at where we're headed, and hopefully, if we do this again, it might be fun to do in the future when they release a 2021 and kind of look back and see where we're at again.
Mark Oakeson: Yes. For sure.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, Mark, anything else we want to talk about on this? No,
Mark Oakeson: No. I think that was good. Iit's kind of cool to go to look at these things and consideringAnother thought that I had is all this stuffbodes well forour profession, right? We need more infrastructure. We need more engineers. We need more expertise.
Isaac Oakeson: I think that's a huge plug for anybody that's in this field or looking to be in this field. The outlook looks good for civil engineers because the lifespan of everything we're building is continually going down and they need engineers to redesign, to innovate, and to be creative. And you know, we just need more engineers. And one of the things at Civil Engineering Academy is we want to help you with your career as well. So, hit me up with an email if you want more information. If you need help with a resume, a LinkedIn profile, shoot me an email, [email protected] We can help you out. Visit our website, civilengineeringacademy.com, to check things out.
Mark Oakeson: Cool.
Isaac Oakeson: All right. Well, thanks Mark. Thanks for joining. And I'll probably see in another episode.
Mark Oakeson: Right on. See you.
Isaac Oakeson: All right. See you.
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