Talking Michigan Transportation

What is bridge bundling?

February 11, 2021 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 3 Episode 46
Talking Michigan Transportation
What is bridge bundling?
Chapters
Talking Michigan Transportation
What is bridge bundling?
Feb 11, 2021 Season 3 Episode 46
Michigan Department of Transportation

On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, Matt Chynoweth, chief bridge engineer at the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), breaks down a proposal to repair or replace crumbling local bridges across the state.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is seeking $300 million in a Fiscal Year 2021 supplemental budget request to repair or replace hundreds of local bridges that are closed or in critical condition. 

Chynoweth explains how MDOT is offering contract and bridge engineering expertise to create economies of scale and how leveraging the design build process will stretch the funding.

As the Detroit Free Press observed in extensive reporting, the state has under-funded transportation infrastructure for decades. That is especially apparent in the condition of bridges.

Chynoweth also explains jurisdiction and the Federal Highway Administration’s designation of state departments of transportation to ensure inspection protocols are followed by counties, cities and villages in managing their bridges.

Show Notes Transcript

On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, Matt Chynoweth, chief bridge engineer at the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), breaks down a proposal to repair or replace crumbling local bridges across the state.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is seeking $300 million in a Fiscal Year 2021 supplemental budget request to repair or replace hundreds of local bridges that are closed or in critical condition. 

Chynoweth explains how MDOT is offering contract and bridge engineering expertise to create economies of scale and how leveraging the design build process will stretch the funding.

As the Detroit Free Press observed in extensive reporting, the state has under-funded transportation infrastructure for decades. That is especially apparent in the condition of bridges.

Chynoweth also explains jurisdiction and the Federal Highway Administration’s designation of state departments of transportation to ensure inspection protocols are followed by counties, cities and villages in managing their bridges.

[Music]

Narrator: It's time for Talking Michigan Transportation, a podcast devoted to the conversations with people at the forefront of the ongoing mobility revolution. In the state that put the world on wheels, here's your host, MDOT Communications Director Jeff Cranson.

Jeff Cranson: Welcome again to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. This week I’m going to be talking with Matt Chynoweth who is the head bridge engineer at MDOT, director of the Bureau of Bridges and Structures. He and his team have put together a very creative and comprehensive plan to help local communities across the state address some serious problems with their crumbling bridges. Governor Whitmer, in fiscal year supplemental budget request, is asking for about $300 million dollars to repair replace some of those bridges. By getting this in the supplemental now, heavy work can begin as soon as spring of 2022. So, Matt, thanks for doing this, and could you just start by kind of explaining this bridge bundling concept?

Matt Chynoweth: Yeah, and good afternoon, Jeff. So, the bridge bundling concept is something—actually bundling in general is something that is done on a lot of projects, right? Where you have road work and you may have some traffic signal work and then you get off and you might have bridge work, and you sort of bundle it, you know, into a corridor type concept, where you're not doing road work in one year and then coming back and doing bridge work. So, you try to do your asset management along a corridor, and that bundles these assets together. So, the bridge bundling concept is relatively common, but what we haven't done before and what we're going to do for the first time as a pilot is, we're going to look at local agency bridges not owned by MDOT. We're going to work in strategic partnership with them and take a bunch of their bridges and put them all under one project. What we hope to achieve by that is number one, we write the, you know, kind of the program on how the state can assist locals in designing and building bridges. But with the bridge bundling concept, you've got one contractor or a group of contractors that's going to work on all of these bridges, and there can be savings. There can be economies of scale with sharing of equipment mobilization. You can also come up with some creative ways to distribute one superstructure type or one bridge type over a network of bridges, so the concept is instead of letting a bunch of individual projects and have individual designs and individual costs, you bundle them all together, get economies of scale, and you get the bridges done quicker.

Jeff Cranson: So, is it fair to kind of, I guess metaphorically, compare that to, you know, having just so many floor plans when you build a house?

Matt Chynoweth: Yeah, exactly, I mean, if you've got 20 different contractors building you 20 different houses that's what's going to happen. They're going to look different. You're all going to have all of those costs individually, whereas in this case we're encouraging, you know, cost sharing. We're encouraging innovation. If a contractor puts in an order for five pre-stressed beams and he's got to distribute that over the project, well, that's costs on five beams. Whereas if you're going to cast 100 beams, you can distribute those costs into 100 beams, and now you're talking about economies of scale.

Jeff Cranson: So, back up just for a second and talk about this ownership issue and who owns the state's bridges. I’m guessing, you know, most people don't understand this jurisdictional boundary thing and probably don't care. You drive across a bridge and you just want to know it's safe. You really don't care who the owner is, but is Michigan unique in this jurisdictional breakdown?

Matt Chynoweth: We're not unique, Jeff. There are many different models throughout the U.S., but the basic authority lies within the Code of Federal Regulations. It states that the state transportation agency, which in this case is the Michigan Department of Transportation, we're responsible for the safety of all the bridges in the state. We are responsible for ensuring that they are inspected and that they meet the federal requirements for safety. Now, in Michigan, only the trunk line bridges are owned by MDOT, and the local bridge owners own all of the bridges in their jurisdiction. However, they still have to follow what we call the National Bridge Inventory and the National Bridge Inspection Standards which MDOT administers. So, you're right, the public—and I’m being a member of the public, we should not have to care who owns the bridges. We just want to know they're safe. However, there are several owners of bridges, actually lots of owners of bridges throughout the state. Where the state's authority comes in is just ensuring that they are safe.

Jeff Cranson: So, what happens when somebody from your crew comes in that's responsible for oversight of the local bridges, and to make sure that they're following inspection protocols, and that they're, you know, making repairs when necessary or closing them when necessary and you disagree with them? The local bridge engineer says,’ no, this isn't as bad as you say it is and we don't need to do this, and we certainly don't need to close it.’ What happens in those circumstances?

Matt Chynoweth: Yeah, so in those circumstances we would ultimately, through our independent quality assurance and quality control program, QAQC, for bridge inspections we would do an independent review. Ultimately, if there is a recommendation to close the bridge, the beauty when it comes to a being a technical asset and being so important relative to safety, is there's really not a lot of not a lot of argument. When professionals go out and do bridge inspections and they recommend, ‘look, you know, this has deteriorated significantly since the last cycle, or that we've noticed some damage on this bridge. We recommend closure at least for further analysis,’ there really rarely is pushback, Jeff, on that. We want to take the advice of our professionals very seriously, and we don't want to have to have a professional, you know, their arms tied behind their back to say, ‘we recommend this; however, we need to go through so many chains of command before it's actually done.’ We want to empower our professionals to state that if it's not safe, we close it. We can then ask the critical questions. We can do the analysis, and if it's safe to reopen, great. If something needs to be done in terms of repairs or load posting, we do that and then we reopen.

Jeff Cranson: Okay, well, and for the most part you've had pretty good collaboration with those local agencies. They understand what their responsibilities are. They're engineers too, and they want the bridges to be safe. So, go back to the economies of scale and what that means. How does that ultimately save some money? I mean, the $300 million dollars that we would put into this particular bundling proposal, you know, goes a lot further than if it was $300 million dollars spent in more traditional ways, right?

Matt Chynoweth: Correct, yep, so, if you think about even just administrative costs of administering a bridge construction project that's done with the appropriate design criteria, the appropriate construction documentation, and certification, you know, all of that requires skilled contractors, qualified engineers, and a good program to state at the end of the day, the design is good. We've done the appropriate materials testing, and we have signed off on a bridge that we feel is safe for the next 50 to 75 years. So, to do that on an individual basis, you're incurring all of those costs individually, whereas if you have a program or a bundle of bridges instead of designing one bridge start to finish, you're designing 100 or 120. You've got, you know, the savings in terms of administrative costs, but then what it also allows the contractors to do, and the contractors are very creative, they can set specific milestones. We would obviously have construction completion dates, and we would obviously have restrictions if it's over a river and stuff like that. But the contractors can then say, ‘well, we're going to work on this geographic area this time of year because we feel it's more efficient, and then we're going to move over to this area, and in the meantime, we're going to have this fabricator casting or making so many beams, and we're going to have concrete coming from this area.’ They can plan a very, you know, strategic and very complete operation, and the savings just kind of start rolling in.

Jeff Cranson: I would hope that the listeners by now have figured out that Matt is very, very passionate about bridges and takes this very seriously and enjoys it. So, tell me, what is the expertise in contracting? How does that factor in? I mean, we understand the expertise in bridge engineering, but there's a separate component to this and that's how you do contracts.

Matt Chynoweth: Yeah, and when we're dealing with a program like this, you know, $300 million dollars is a very large sum of money. There's going to be an expectation that improvements are seen relatively quickly, right? If you look at the life cycle of a project between all the coordination that needs to be done with the permitting agencies, and, you know, the coordination with the locals on detour routes, and emergency services, and then making sure the funding is properly appropriated, you know, you could take a simple bridge replacement project and you may be designing, or working through the issues for two years before you put a shovel in the ground. What we found was there's many different innovative delivery techniques out there where we can use a design-build type of thing. MDOT would do a base design, you know, a 30% design, we would give the contractor the requirements that are needed for the bridge, and then the contractor then has the flexibility and can use their creativity to design these bridges, and then put a bid together based on their design. We kind of blur the line between design and construction. It allows us to get shovels in the ground faster. It allows us to replace some of these closed bridges and bridges in serious and critical condition, and it allows us to replace them faster. It's not a one-size-fits-all. We may have some bridges in the bundle that go the traditional route, and we may have some that go the innovative route. That'll be our next step once we start working on geographically and technically, what do these bundles look like?

Jeff Cranson: So, talk about design-build. I know a lot of people are probably familiar with the term in all kinds of construction, whether you're talking, you know, vertical or horizontal. But it sounds so logical. It just seems like, gosh, why haven't you always been doing things design-build? Can you talk about why that has become an innovation and why it isn't used more?

Matt Chynoweth: Yeah, so, as a transportation agency we like to be in control of what, you know, is designed, and then we hold the contracting community accountable for building something according to our design. So, the traditional design-bid-build delivery method is, you know, MDOT or the bridge owner would design the bridge 100%, prepare all of the contract documents for letting. The contractor would then take it and bid it out and then low bid wins, right? With design build, as I mentioned earlier, we will provide the specifications and a base design. We'll say your bridge needs to be a minimum of this wide and this long, but then they finish it and then what the contractor can do is they could say, ‘hey, I can get steel beams on this schedule, but they're going to cost a little more money,’ or ‘I can get concrete beams on this schedule and they may cost less,’ or however that works. They can work with their suppliers, and then what they can do is they can craft their design to what is most economic to them. Then they build that into their bid. So, the way the design-build process works, again, is we blur the line between design and construction. The contractor goes through some submittals, and we would review them to make sure there's conformance with our design standards and, you know, the funding that's being used. Then they reach what's called an RFC or Release for Construction stage. The beauty of that, Jeff, is let's say we have a package of 50 bridges, the contractor may look at it and say, ‘I got to build these 15 bridges right now and then I can work on 10 later and then I can work on another 25.’ Well, in a normal design-bid-build MDOT would just release an entire package of those bridges and then the contractor would have to bid. RFC packages can be broken down into what is critical that needs to get done and then we can move things along, and you can have several Release for Construction packages to allow them to start their construction when it's most feasible for them.

Jeff Cranson: Well, would critics or skeptics of design-bid-build or design-build just say that the owner, the governing authority, is just giving up too much discretion to the contractor?

Matt Chynoweth: That has been one of the arguments, you know, and one of the criticisms about design-build. What I say to that, Jeff, is the design-build is only as good as the requirements you put on the contractor up front, right? So, when we do a traditional design-bid-build, at any point during the design if MDOT says, you know what, we want to add this and it wasn't something that we originally wanted, but we're going to add it. We would just add it and we would move on in the design-build. If MDOT wanted to add it or if an owner wanted to add it would be seen as, you know, not a minimum requirement. It would be owner preference and there would be some additional costs there. So, we have to be very thorough when we write the, you know, project specifications up front to include everything we want.

Jeff Cranson: Talk about that now in the context of the bundling and how doing things that way creates the economies of scale and saves money. What has been the reception among the local agencies as you've talked about this the past couple years, and, you know, had a smaller pilot and now are prepared to go with a much bigger package, is it positively received?

Matt Chynoweth: Yeah, Jeff, I was, and still am, very surprised. When we started between MDOT and the County Road Association and the Michigan Municipal League, when we got a bunch of folks in a room and we started talking about Michigan bridges—not your bridge, or my bridge, or a state bridge, or local bridge—when we started talking about Michigan bridges everybody really kind of rallied behind, you know, a strategy or an objective of how do we think creatively. How do we use the methods that we have and deal with Michigan bridges? Yes, we know that state bridges are funded a little differently than local agency. bridges. Let's change the dynamic. Let's talk about Michigan bridges, and we had a good proposal in place Obviously it required an investment, and what we did, you know, as part of this pilot was some federal funds that came to MDOT that we would normally split with the locals instead we decided let's try to get this movement off the ground. So, we devoted the entire amount of this additional funding just to the locals. We didn't—MDOT did not take our split like we normally do.

Jeff Cranson: But that doesn't make up the entire $300 million, right?

Matt Chynoweth: No, I’m sorry, Jeff. This is just the pilot project, the $25 million pilot project that's going to be let in March.

Jeff Cranson: Right, yeah, that's the distinction, yeah.

Matt Chynoweth: Correct, yeah, so, we're going to do 19 bridges all throughout the state. It's going to be a design-build procurement like we have been talking about. This is writing the rules from scratch. We've had to create program governance and charters and permits with the locals because this is the state coming in and designing and building bridges for the local agencies. It hasn't been done, and because the partnership has been so great over the past nine months when we've been putting this project together, although it's been a lot of work because, again, we're writing the rules as we go, the locals have been outstanding to work with and very receptive to everything.

Jeff Cranson: So, we know there are 59 local bridges that are currently closed right now because they had reached such a state of disrepair. We know that there are many more that are close to, and that are serious or critical. This state has under invested in infrastructure for decades—as anybody who's listened to the TMT podcast knows. Talk about how you are making the recommendations for those bridges that aren't closed that would be included in this bundling package.

Matt Chynoweth: Yeah, so as you mentioned, you know, the first priority are the bridges that are closed because that really does affect everything, right? It affects local mobility, local economy, access to emergency services, so once we—and those were easy. Those are low-hanging fruit, right? So, after that, we started to look at okay, we've got another population of bridges that are in what we would call serious or critical condition, and that's on the very low end of the National Bridge Inspection Standards scale. So, we started to look at some of those. We also started to look at bridges that are load posted, meaning they can't handle legal loads in Michigan. Then we also started to look at where are bridges in high traffic areas, high commercial traffic areas. So, we started to develop a candidate list based on these criteria. Then what we did was we also ran it through a formula that the locals use when they select their own projects using state funding. So, we've got what we feel is a very strong list of bridge needs based on those criteria and reconstructing these bridges will go a long way towards making our goal, you know, having zero serious and critical bridges in the state by some point. We're not going to get there with just this. We're going to need more, but this is definitely heading in the positive direction.

Jeff Cranson: Okay, so, what about my goal to get the engineers to say rebuild instead of reconstruct?

Matt Chynoweth: I think you can—those are interchangeable. I think, as an engineer, construct sounds a little more technical than build, so that's what I’ll default to.

Jeff Cranson: [Laughing] All right, thanks, Matt. This was helpful. I think you explained things well, as always, and I really appreciate it.

Matt Chynoweth: Okay, thank you, Jeff.

Narrator: That's a wrap for this edition of Talking Michigan Transportation. Check out show notes and more by subscribing on Apple podcast.

[Music]