On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, a discussion about the inspection and maintenance of aging bridges in the wake of a report of a man falling through a pedestrian bridge over a freeway in Detroit.
Matt Chynoweth, chief bridge engineer for the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), joins the podcast to explain the federal guidelines for the inspection and rating of all bridges on the National Bridge Inventory (NBI) and how his team works with other road agencies and contractors to ensure bridges are safe.
The MDOT website includes an interactive feature that shows the location of bridges across the state along with information about age, condition and the date of the last inspection. A newly added page provides inspection data on more than 70 Detroit-area pedestrian bridges over state trunkline routes.
Chynoweth underscores, again, that if any bridge, whether it carries vehicles or pedestrians, is found to be a danger, it will be closed.
In the wake of a bridge collapse in Pittsburgh earlier this year, reporting focused on national bridge conditions. According to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), one in three U.S. bridges either needs repairs or to be replaced.
Chynoweth echoes what many others have said: The lack of bridge funding is part of a broader problem with underinvestment in our transportation system. Michigan's per-capita transportation spending has lagged behind other Midwest states for decades. This has compounded the challenge of upgrading our bridge conditions. How big is the challenge? MDOT estimates it would require $2 billion just to get all state-owned bridges up to good or fair condition, and another $1.5 billion for local agency owned bridges.
Podcast photo of a pedestrian bridge in Detroit.
Jeff Cranson: Hello, I'm Jeff Cranson, and this is the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast.
Cranson: Today, I'm going to be speaking again with Matt Chynoweth, who is the chief bridge engineer at MDOT, about an incident involving a pedestrian falling through a hole in a pedestrian bridge in Detroit. This is obviously very disconcerting to everybody in transportation and those people at MDOT that oversee bridges and oversee inspections and do everything they can in a chronically underfunded environment to keep the system maintained as they can and keep it open. And it also points to a lot of other decisions and prioritization that has to go on, as long as we're not doing enough to fund our transportation system.
As promised, I'm here with Matt Chynoweth, who is the chief bridge engineer at MDOT. But I want to point out that, before he took the job heading up the Bureau of Bridges and Structures and MDOT, he was also a TSC manager—meaning that he ran a Transportation Service Center—was on the ground dealing with myriad transportation issues, not just roads and bridges. And he's also been a deputy region engineer in the Metro region, MDOT's largest region by far in terms of traffic volume and what we spend every year. So he's got a broad breadth of experience, and I wanted to talk to him today about these issues with pedestrian bridges and kind of reset the conversation from being focused on this isolated incident, where a person reported stepping on a bridge and falling through a hole to pavement below, and talk about how we have to prioritize everything that we do in a chronically underfunded environment. Michigan has been spending less per capita than surrounding states for decades, and we're always just trying to patch it together. Everybody thinks whatever's going on for them should be a priority, and I understand that, we all are inconvenienced by bad roads, by potholes, by bridges that have to be load rated or have to be closed for repairs. This also applies to the generators. It's been on everybody's mind the last few years because of massive deluges caused by climate change and rain events that should be every thousand years and now are like every few years. Specifically in metro Detroit where those floods have closed highways, and word got out that the power had failed to some of those, and the power companies couldn't react quickly enough, and they want backup generators at every pump station.
And so, MDOT is using federal and state funds to make that happen, even though everybody should be reminded that in these certain rain events, if there's no place for the water to go, it's not really going to matter what the pumps are doing. But all these things are prioritized, not to mention mowing and picking up trash, all kinds of things. And we have to look at it kind of like Maslow’s pyramid, and what are the most important things. So, that's a long lead in, Matt, but could you just kind of talk about what you've learned this past week with this incident, and what you're telling media and others concerning inspections of pedestrian bridges, and how that fits into your bureau's broader initiatives?
Matt Chynoweth: Sure, and thanks for having me again, Jeff. I always like doing your podcast here. So, we were made aware of the issue at the pedestrian bridge in question—that's Spruce Street over the Lodge. And we were informed that there was a patch that had failed on the bridge, and that it was the cause of injury of a user of our bridges, which is obviously a big concern. I've been trying to keep my team focused on how we're going to react to this and ensure something like this does not happen again. But obviously, the bridge community—when something like this happens, it's a big deal to the bridge community because it's very rare, if not ever, that something like this happens. There are 13,000 bridges in the state of Michigan, and my group takes that really seriously. You know, bridges don't get a break, they don't get weekends off, they don't get nights off, and a lot of times, us who are responsible for maintaining them feel the same way. So, this is a particular bridge that it is in poor condition. MDOT has been very transparent in providing all the data on this bridge to multiple agencies that have asked. It's in poor condition, it has been patched; we had actually done some maintenance work on it just last year.
Cranson: Just to point out that it dates to 1953.
Chynoweth: Correct, yes. It's an older bridge. It was built when the Lodge Freeway was first constructed through that area to connect that particular community. We've done maintenance on the bridge over the years; we've done capital projects on the bridge over the years. So to say that MDOT has not properly maintained this bridge is not true from the sense that we have made investments in this bridge since its original construction. Now, this bridge being a pedestrian bridge is not subject to the NBIS, the National Bridge Inspecting Standards in inventory. We do not submit this information like we do vehicular bridges as part of the code of federal regulations. We do not submit it to Federal Highways, who then prepares a report on the overall bridge condition of the US for congress. These are pedestrian bridges. We do not get federal funding for them. However, that being said, we inspect them on regular intervals of no greater than 24 months just like we do vehicular bridges. The problem is because we do not have federal funding and there's really no state funding for these, pedestrian bridges do not get the same attention that vehicular bridges do. In fact, we typically will deal with a pedestrian bridge in terms of capacity upgrade, or even new pedestrian bridges, when we are doing very large corridor projects.
So case in point, years ago we did a long project on M-39, basically from the Lodge Freeway all the way down to Joy. And there were a couple of pedestrian bridges in that corridor that were in light condition of Spruce Street here, poor conditions. Some of them were even closed. There was a Glendale Avenue ped bridge that went to nowhere. Thirty years ago, there was a school there, but that long since closed, and the bridge was not used. And so at that time, we worked with the community to figure out where are the use patterns, where are community centers where people need to cross the freeway. And we actually removed some ped bridges and replaced some ped bridges in updated locations where there are centers of activity. And so, a lot of these bridges that were part of the original Lodge construction, like you mentioned, Jeff, have been there since the original construction. And we maintain them as we can, and when we do large corridor projects, we do upgrade them. But they are not a vehicular bridge. Some of these bridges see a couple of people crossing them a day. These bridges do not have a lot of traffic, they are not salted in the winter; we don't salt them. They're typically not used. And so where we put our limited resources is into the bridges that carry a 100,000 vehicles per day and carry large 77 ton legal and non-legal loads; that is where we put our bridge funding in Michigan.
Cranson: Put it in the broader context of the decisions that you have to make about how to just fix these things, whether they're vehicle bridges or pedestrian bridges, just to keep them open. And you and I have talked several times about how, of course if a bridge is considered dangerous, you're going to close it, you're not going to leave any bridge open if it has known dangers or if an inspection comes back and says that something needs to be done right away, which is often the case with emergency work. But you're always—it's kind of like trying to keep a finger in the dike, right? I mean, you're always jumping from one thing to the other because you can't make the kinds of investments that you really need to replace these bridges.
Chynoweth: Yeah, that's correct. Yeah, I mean, we go out and we inspect, like I said, we inspect these bridges just like we do vehicular bridges. However, when we consider the amount of funding that is needed to replace everything, or at least bring everything into good or fair condition—let's not even talk about the funding needed to make everything in good condition. How about just getting rid of serious and critical bridges. We don't nearly have the funding, and I know that people are going to scoff, and we've talked about funding every conversation we have here. But it's a real thing. We got, MDOT is going together, the state of Michigan is going to get 563 million dollars from the bipartisan infrastructure bill to work on bridges. And that is excellent, that is a great additional investment. However, when we were preparing for where this money would go, we did some analysis, and it was determined that we needed 3.5 billion here in the state of Michigan to get bridges to a state where we're not having situations like this. So, 3.5 billion is needed; we got 563 million. We got fractions of what we need. Again, we're very thankful for what we got; the money is going to go to good use. Even on the local agency side. We're in the middle of this bridge bundling initiative, and we are finishing up a few bridges this year, and we're going to have a phase 2 program that's 196 million dollars. And again, we are so thankful for every penny of that 196 million. But, according to our analyses for local agency bridges, we notified the legislature, the governor's office, everybody that was advocating for us; we notified them that we needed 1.5 billion to invest into the local agency bridge program. We got 196 million, a little more than 10 percent. Again, it's great to have that, but now we're forced to say, okay, with 1.5 billion dollars worth of needs, where's the best, most targeted plan and vision to put this 196 million dollars, so we hit the most bridges, make the most difference, knowing that we're not going to be able to do everything. That's the balancing act we have to do every day.
Cranson: And I should mention that we recently celebrated a couple of reopenings in that bundling pilot program, bridges owned by the city of Jackson in Macomb county. The local agencies have been great to work with, have been very appreciative of MDOT's assistance. And while you're absolutely right, this is a drop in the bucket compared to the needs, what we have been able to help with so far has been very successful.
Chynoweth: Yeah, the programs that we put in place to kind of gray the line between MDOT freeway bridges and local bridges and just focus on Michigan bridge condition. My parents, my children, my friends—they don't know the difference between an MDOT bridge and a local agency owned bridge, and nor should they have to. And for that reason, I just want to make sure they're all safe. So yeah, it's good to be working with the locals to improve their condition as well.
Cranson: And when it comes to the MDOT bridges, in addition to that additional federal funding, the governor's 3.5 billion Rebuilding Michigan program is fixing some of the heaviest traveled corridors, and many of those heavily traveled freeways include bridges that are being repaired or replaced, too. So that's definitely making a dent, right?
Chynoweth: That's correct, yes. It's making a dent; it's making a very nice dent. And again, Jeff, when we talk about this, you hear the numbers we're throwing around. Okay, we got this Rebuilding Michigan, it's 3.5 billion, and IIJA we're getting 563 million, and we got 196 million from the legislature. Those are huge dollar amounts, and folks may say, well, why can't you do more with that? And the answer is, our infrastructure is at a state that it just needs more investment, and there's really no other way to say it.
Cranson: It's like anything, I mean, non-profs will build a community center and include, in whatever funding they set aside to build it, something for operations. But, when the federal government worked with the states back in the 50s and passed the interstate bills, they thought that they had a long-term sustainable funding plan, and that the fuel tax, which is the closest thing to a pure user fee, and it's been a great model in our country for a long time; they thought that that would sustain it. But it became clear over years that it wouldn't, especially if it's not indexed to inflation. And some states have passed their own fuel tax increases and index them to inflation, which is one of the better things about the 2015 plan that the state of Michigan passed. There's a lot of problems with it, mostly using general fund, which is not a long-term sustainable plan. But two good things where that attacks desolate parity with regular fuel, that's a good thing, and the indexing to inflation. Still, we've been talking about this forever, and everybody says, I get it, I get it, there's no money, but you have to mow, and you have to pick up the trash on the freeways, and you have to get the pumps working, and you have to make sure that nobody falls through a bridge. And after a while, it just takes a lot of patience to keep hearing that, doesn't it?
Chynoweth: Well yeah, and then you read some of the pieces that came out this week, where everybody was quick to say, “we notified MDOT about this, they've known about this for years”. The Greening of Detroit gentlemen who said, “we've notified MDOT”. Okay, yes, we have been notified. We did patch the bridge. Ultimately, we're going to close the bridge. So yes, you notified us, but what long-term solutions is anyone coming to the table with? And when it comes to public safety, which is my charge, it is everybody. Whether you're walking, riding a bike, in a car; I don’t discern, I care about everybody's safety when using bridges, and when it gets to the point that we're heading, we are just going to have to close them, and people are not going to be able to use them. I’ve done my job because I’ve made that bridge safe, but it doesn't help our economy, it doesn't help mobility, it doesn't help people's access to services and goods. But at the end of the day, when I’m the chief bridge engineer for the state of Michigan, and I have to make the call on 13,000 bridges, and I don't have the resources to fix them all…yeah, you're going to see more bridge closures, you're going to see more load restricted bridges, you're going to see more impacts to people's mobility. Because I can easily explain to somebody why their drive home from work or their bike ride was 30 minutes longer than it should be because of the direction that I took to close a bridge. I cannot explain how somebody got hurt on a bridge when we have processes in place to inspect and load rate and manage and maintain. I do not have a good explanation when somebody gets hurt on one of our bridges.
Cranson: We'll be right back. Stay tuned.
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Cranson: Talk about the inspections; what goes on in bridge inspections, and what those ratings mean: serious, critical, etcetera.
Chynoweth: Yeah, so the ratings are based on—it's a one to nine scale. And again, this was everything that we talk about in terms of bridge inspections and NBI. It goes back to 1967 when we had a drastic bridge collapse that killed many people. And after the forensic analysis was done, they said, hey, listen, this bridge came down because there was a crack in a piece of steel, and that crack had been there since the minute that bridge was erected, and had there been an inspection program, this would have been found sooner. So, laws were developed, processes were developed, all of these rating systems went into place. And so, you have, just like we've talked about, you've got good, fair, poor, serious, critical, all that stuff. These are numeric ratings based on the condition of the elements. So just because a piece of steel has a little bit of corrosion on it does not mean that it is structurally compromised, like we've heard in other articles. Just because a piece of concrete has a crack in it does not mean that it is about to fail. We measure crack widths; we look at total amount of section loss in a steel beam. We quantify all of this. This is qualitative and quantitative at the same time. We have guidelines on how to rate each bridge. We also have guidelines on when a bridge reaches a certain condition, do we inspect it at a greater frequency, do we look at it more, do we identify certain things that we want to have eyes on more frequently? That's all part of our process. And then our inspectors—and we send out regular communications. Our inspectors are emboldened, and they're provided the support to make the decision in the field. If you see something that you don't like, if you see something that meets a certain requirement that you have a question, you close it right then and there. You contact a specialist, we do the analysis while the bridge is closed, and we make a determination as a group. Can it be reopened, what do we have to do, what mitigation is there? So we empower our inspectors to make that call at the ground level. And then at MDOT, we also have a request for action process, where if an inspector sees something and says, hey, this is something we should probably address within 30 days or three months or six months, we have an entire group that reviews all these RFAs, assigns them a priority. We may get them in the capital program, we may send our bridge crew out to deal with it right away, we may write a transportation work authorization to Wayne County to go fix it for us. We have all these tools available to support our inspectors and make sure if they see something, we address it as timely as possible.
Cranson: And that was the case in terms of more frequent inspections. Spruce was in that category, right?
Chynoweth: That's correct. We were looking at it more than the minimum required of every 24 months.
Cranson: Yeah. Well, thanks again for everything you do, and I know these things cost you sleep because you take it so seriously, and the combination of passion and care that you bring to your job is greatly appreciated both by the department and by the state of Michigan. So thanks, Matt. I appreciate you explaining these things as always.
Chynoweth: It's my pleasure. Thank you, Jeff.
Cranson: Thank you again for listening to this week's edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I would like to thank Randy Debler and Corey Petee for engineering this week's podcast. To subscribe, to show notes, and more, go to Apple podcast and search for Talking Michigan Transportation.