Talking Michigan Transportation

Measuring bridge conditions across the country and progress in Michigan

September 10, 2021 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 3 Episode 72
Talking Michigan Transportation
Measuring bridge conditions across the country and progress in Michigan
Chapters
Talking Michigan Transportation
Measuring bridge conditions across the country and progress in Michigan
Sep 10, 2021 Season 3 Episode 72
Michigan Department of Transportation

Coming off the successful return of a cool Michigan tradition, the Mackinac Bridge walk on Labor Day, this week’s podcast revisits the condition of our state’s other bridges and some creative proposals to fund replacement and repair of state and local structures.  

First, for some national perspective, a conversation with experts in performance management and bridge conditions at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO): Patricia Bush, AASHTO’s program manager for bridges and design, and Matthew Hardy, AASHTO’s program director for planning and performance management. 

Later, Matt Chynoweth, chief bridge engineer at the Michigan Department of Transportation, talks about a pilot bridge bundling program for local agencies. An MDOT dashboard tracks the progress. 

Bush explains why terms for bridge conditions, like structurally deficient and functionally obsolete, were abandoned, with discussion now focusing simply on conditions being good, fair or poor. She also talks about the condition of the nation’s bridges, overall, and what goes into decisions to close a bridge. Bush cites the decision to close a Memphis bridge in May after inspectors found a crack in the steel structure.  

Hardy explains how performance management informs decisions and why all states must use the national bridge reporting measures. He also lays out the reasons for following asset management principles in making decisions about a transportation network.  

Offering a focus on Michigan bridge conditions, Chynoweth explains how a decision two decades ago to focus on asset management has helped conserve resources and address state-owned bridges more efficiently. He also talks about some major bridge projects MDOT engineers are tackling this summer, including a bridge over M-55 near Manistee, which MDOT Director Paul C. Ajegba visited this week.

Podcast photo: MDOT Director Paul Ajegba talks to engineers at the M-55 bridge site near Manistee, Michigan.

Show Notes Transcript

Coming off the successful return of a cool Michigan tradition, the Mackinac Bridge walk on Labor Day, this week’s podcast revisits the condition of our state’s other bridges and some creative proposals to fund replacement and repair of state and local structures.  

First, for some national perspective, a conversation with experts in performance management and bridge conditions at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO): Patricia Bush, AASHTO’s program manager for bridges and design, and Matthew Hardy, AASHTO’s program director for planning and performance management. 

Later, Matt Chynoweth, chief bridge engineer at the Michigan Department of Transportation, talks about a pilot bridge bundling program for local agencies. An MDOT dashboard tracks the progress. 

Bush explains why terms for bridge conditions, like structurally deficient and functionally obsolete, were abandoned, with discussion now focusing simply on conditions being good, fair or poor. She also talks about the condition of the nation’s bridges, overall, and what goes into decisions to close a bridge. Bush cites the decision to close a Memphis bridge in May after inspectors found a crack in the steel structure.  

Hardy explains how performance management informs decisions and why all states must use the national bridge reporting measures. He also lays out the reasons for following asset management principles in making decisions about a transportation network.  

Offering a focus on Michigan bridge conditions, Chynoweth explains how a decision two decades ago to focus on asset management has helped conserve resources and address state-owned bridges more efficiently. He also talks about some major bridge projects MDOT engineers are tackling this summer, including a bridge over M-55 near Manistee, which MDOT Director Paul C. Ajegba visited this week.

Podcast photo: MDOT Director Paul Ajegba talks to engineers at the M-55 bridge site near Manistee, Michigan.

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 Jeff Cranson: Hello. This is the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson, director of communications at the Michigan Department of Transportation.

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Cranson: Coming off the successful return of a cool Michigan tradition, the Mackinac Bridge Walk on Labor Day, I thought it was a good time to revisit the condition of our state's other bridges and some creative proposals to fund replacement and repair of state and local structures.

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Cranson: First, for some national perspective, I’ll be talking with some experts at AASHTO, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. Patricia Bush is AASHTO's program manager for bridges and design, and Matt Hardy is AASHTO's program director for planning and performance management. Later, I'll be speaking with MDOT's own Matt Chynoweth, the department's chief bridge engineer, whose team is leading efforts on a proposal to package several locally owned bridges into an efficient bundle to stretch the dollars but first, Patricia Bush and Matt Hardy. Thank you both for taking time out of your schedules to talk. Patricia let's start with you. Could you talk first about the words you and your colleagues use when you talk about bridge conditions and why and how the rating system was changed?

Patricia Bush: So, currently the terminology used is good, fair and poor. Those terms are based on a numeric system that's composed of, you know, inspection of all the components of the bridge and numerical values are assigned based on the conditions, and that all comes together to one overall bridge condition. The previous terms for some of the same stuff was structurally deficient and functionally obsolete. Functionally obsolete is no longer anywhere in U.S. code, and I believe that the infrastructure bill that's working its way through congress now will take care of the last instance of structurally deficient. Part of why we're getting away from those terms is that they caused a lot of confusion for everyone except for bridge engineers, who are very familiar with what they mean. It's just better that we minimize confusion as much as possible when we're talking about people’s safety and the, you know, high dollar infrastructure that bridges are.

Cranson: Yes, I can tell you firsthand that those terms have created a lot of confusion among reporters, especially, so I think that this does bring clarity to it. So, Matt, let's talk a little bit about performance management and the national bridge reporting measures that all states must use and how that relates to your work.

Matt Hardy: Sure, so all the state DOTs have to put together a transportation asset management plan which basically lays out how a state is going to be managing some of the more critical assets, the ones that represent, I would say, roughly 75 to 80 percent of the value of the transportation system, and that's the pavement of the roadways that you drive on, you bike on, or you walk on as well as the bridges that you drive over, bike over, and walk over as well. So, all the states have to collect data on these assets and the bridge assets as well. Then they have to set targets, so the targets have to be sort of look into the future. They have to sort of tell people what do you think the condition the bridges are going to be in given the resources that you have, right? So, there's not an infinite supply of money out there. Each state is limited in some way. They have to make decisions about, “Do I put money towards operational improvements? Do I put money towards safety improvements? Do I put money towards improving the condition of my assets, right?” That's limited and they have to make these difficult decisions and try to figure out, “How do I allocate resources and try to optimize so that my pavements stay in a good condition, my bridges stay in a good condition, as well as the operations of the transportation system.” Can people get from point A to point B in a safe and effective way?

Cranson: Well, I have to believe it's a good thing to be able to tell lawmakers at the state level and the federal level that, “Look, here's how we track these things and here's how we track how much money is spent, how much money is needed.” And when we keep saying that, you know, we've underfunded transportation infrastructure for a long time, you know, we've got the data to show it, right?

Hardy: Exactly. And that's what the national performance management reporting, or process, is all about. It's about telling the public what the condition of the transportation assets are, how much money you might need to sort of maintain them in a certain condition. So, if you want all the bridges to be in good condition, you would need this much money. If you want to have a collection of, you know, good condition and fair condition, you would need this much money. So, it is a tool that the policy makers, the planners, the engineers have to sort of tell that story about what the condition of our assets are and then what kind of resources we need to keep the assets in a certain condition.

Cranson: So, Patricia, we know there's a lot of industry groups that have, you know, their own agendas, obviously, and do all kinds of ratings and report cards every year. How would you summarize the condition of the nation's bridges?

Bush: Well, AASHTO as an organization does not collect bridge data, nor do we analyze the national bridge inventory data that the states report, so this would be just, you know, my anecdotal opinion. I think that the condition, overall, of bridges are improving. There certainly are, you know, high profile cases where there are issues, and there's some states where things are better than others. But the state DOTs are working hard to improve the condition of the bridges to keep things safe for the traveling public, and I do think they're seeing some success in that. It's just, you know, slow and relatively minor successes, certainly not the, you know, quick, front-page things that politicians and maybe the public are looking for.

Cranson: So, could you talk a little bit about what goes into a decision to close a bridge?

Bush: Well, there's several things. So, there was a bridge recently closed in Memphis this past summer, and that was something the bridge inspectors found. Every bridge is inspected at least every two years, sometimes more frequently. If the bridge inspectors find a situation that they feel is extremely dangerous and they, you know, these bridge inspectors called 911. They had the bridge closed as soon as possible because it was a cracked member. Other times nothing is obvious when the inspectors look at it, but they do their inspection and they come back and do what are called low rating calculations. And if those calculations indicate that the bridge can't handle either high loads of traffic such as, you know, trucks or buses, then they'll post load restrictions. And if the bridge is no longer able to handle just regular vehicular traffic, then they will close a bridge. Safety is utmost priority for the bridge engineers and structural engineers in the DOTs. They take that responsibility very seriously.

Cranson: Yeah, absolutely. I know that's certainly the case in Michigan. Well, Matt, you know, officials at MDOT long ago embraced an asset management approach to managing the system. I know some states are more aggressive about that than others, and certainly some local agencies are better about it than others. But that's another term that can lose a lot of general audience pretty quickly. Your eyes kind of glaze over when you hear asset management. Can you talk about what it really means and why it's important?

Hardy: Sure, I think at the core asset management is about, first and foremost, taking care of the roads, the bridges, the transportation system that you currently have, in the best condition possible. And you're going to try to, again as I said earlier, sort of optimize based upon the resources you have. It's not glamorous. It's not like a new bridge opening or a new road opening or anything like that. It's kind of the routine, day-to-day, bread and butter work that state DOTs, even local DOTs, have to do to ensure that the transportation system is in a state of good repair, and that's the core of it. And I think that's the core of what a state DOT does. It's not about adding new capacity. It's about maintaining the existing system to the safest and most efficient extent possible. The other thing that I’ll add is that, you know, asset management, to see improvements—these are long-lived assets, you know. Bridges last 50, 75 years. Roads last, you know, 25, 50, 75 years before you have to go and completely rebuild them. To see condition change it takes a while to kind of see those differences over time. So, even though the national performance management reporting, the requirement for asset management plans, that sort of thing, it's going to take five, six, ten years to see those new policies get to work and kind of show improvements and changes over time. So, a little bit of patience is required, I think, to sort of see the impacts that these policies and everything will have.

Cranson: But it's also a little counter-intuitive because people, you know, kind of automatically think that worst-first is the best approach.

Hardy: Correct, and asset management is not the same as worst-first. There could be a very good reason why you want to maintain a certain bridge or a certain piece of roadway in a fair condition, or maybe even a poor condition because it's not, you know, used all that often, it has a very low volume of traffic, you know, that sort of thing. Where there are certain assets, certain bridges, that might carry 25, 30, you know, 50,000 vehicles a day. You want to ensure that they never go from good to fair or from fair to poor because that would mean a very expensive repair or maintenance operation, so we don't want worst-first. We want to manage the assets to the best condition possible given the resources and lots of other constraints that an engineer or a transportation department might have.

Cranson: Is there anything you want to add to that for emphasis, Patricia?

Bush: Nope, Matt has got it. Just, you know, again to emphasize that, you know, bridge projects in particular are not something that you can just conjure up in a year or two and make the improvement and see your performance management scores go up. They take years to formulate and to program and to come to fruition, so it does take time to see improvements in these scores and these policies.

Cranson: Yeah, it takes long-term thinking and patience, as you said. Well, thank you both. That was good. I think that covered the important things and sets up the second conversation with Matt Chynoweth very nicely. Stay with us. We'll have more on the other side of this important message.

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Narrator: [Phone ding] You looked. [Phone ding] You looked again. Put the phone down and pay attention when you drive so you arrive alive. Remember, don't drive distracted.

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Cranson: We are back with Matt Chynoweth who is the chief bridge engineer director of the Bureau of Bridges and Structures at MDOT, a frequent guest on the podcast. Matt, thanks for taking time to do this.

Matt Chynoweth: Thanks for having me again, Jeff.

Cranson: So, the first thing I wanted to do I’m coming off a conversation with a couple of folks at AASHTO who provided some national perspective on where bridges stand and bridge conditions and terminology and performance management, all those things, I want you to give an overview of where you think Michigan bridges are overall.

Chynoweth: Yeah, so about 20 years ago or so the department made some decisions regarding strategic investments in bridges where, you know, we were we were falling behind. We're still behind, but we were in much worse shape. We were focusing on worst-first. We did not have much of a preservation strategy or routine maintenance strategy. It was basically, you know, once a bridge is poor or serious, you replace it., right? So, that got us into some condition issues, so about 20 years ago we pivoted. We shifted into a, you know, what we call a mix of fixes where a certain percent of our appropriation goes towards maintenance, certain goes towards rehabilitation, which is like, you know, major deck replacements, you know, major work, and then a certain percent goes towards full replacement of bridges, right, fully replacing them, rebuilding them to modern standards, widening, whatever. That really put us in—we saw our condition goals, or our condition, excuse me, steadily increase. We set condition goals to hit to have no, you know, bridges no more than five percent poor by a certain date, and we hit that a number of years ago. An interesting point about that though is we now have this massive population of bridges that are in fair condition. We have fewer bridges in good condition. We have fewer bridges in poor condition, but we have this huge population of bridges in fair condition where we have done the maintenance, we've done the preservation, but they're still going to deteriorate at a certain rate. The bill will come due, so we're looking at some huge decisions coming up about how we take a bite out of this huge population of bridges in fair condition.

Cranson: It's kind of a glass half full, glass half empty metaphor, isn't it? Because I know some people like to group fair together with good, so that it sounds better to say, “We've got this many in fair and good.” But if you're going to be accurate, you break all those down in all three categories and it tells a different story.

Chynoweth: Yeah, that's correct, and there there's a category of fare that is one number above being poor, right? So, that's why we're really interested in slowing our deterioration rate because as a fair bridge deteriorates, it eventually will go into poor condition. It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when.

Cranson: I talked with Matt Hardy earlier, who is the director of performance management at AASHTO, and he talked a great deal about asset management and how important it is. I think that complements, or underscores, what you said about when MDOT took that approach and got away from worst-first, which seems a little counter-intuitive because you think, “Well, of course you want to fix what's worst first.” But that's not the best approach to an entire system.

Chynoweth: Yeah, when you're dealing with a system that has bridges anywhere from 100 years old to one year old, it's not a one-size-fits-all approach. You have to be doing maintenance on some population. You have to be doing rehabilitation, and some of them you have no choice, service life is up and you have to replace them.

Cranson: So, let's talk a little bit about—before we get into what we're doing with the bridge bundling proposal that's still, you know, working its way through the legislature, hopefully to be in a supplemental budget from fiscal year 21, some of the bigger bridge projects that are going on in on trunk lines in Michigan. M-55 near Manistee, that one is pretty important to that community and turned into a major rebuilding of the entire structure including new abutments, and then I-196 over the Grand River in downtown Grand Rapids. Can you talk a little bit about both those projects, how important they are?

Chynoweth: Yeah, so the M-55 bridge there in Manistee that initially started off as a rehab project. We were going to put a new bridge deck on, but when we got out there and actually started doing some detailed assessments, we found that the piers through, you know, a process we call ASR, alkali-silica reaction, which is a material—no, I wouldn't say it's a material defect, but it is a material issue that causes advanced degradation of the concrete. So, we started doing a lot of tests on that and found that we weren't going to get much more life out of out of the substructure, so the decision was made to do a full replacement, full modernization. And that's a huge dollar amount, especially for North Region that doesn't have, you know, the distribution of bridge funds to North Region couldn't cover that, you know. They would have to save their funding for a number of years to replace a bridge like that. So, we got creative and how we funded the replacement of that giving, you know, additional funding to North Region and then using some central office funding. But, yeah, that's a really cool bridge replacement project. It's a very marshy area, so the geotechnical conditions are far from ideal. We've got some very deep foundations going in there, so major project there. Then, yeah, the I-196 there west of town and Grand Rapids, huge bridge. The bridge itself, this the steel superstructure, is in fine condition. We had one span that had a high load hit a number of years ago, so we were able to fix that with this project and then put a new deck on. So, yeah, it’s a major project, and they're doing a real nice job replacing the deck on that right now.

Cranson: Talk a little bit about, you know, how you have to just be so vigilant about the inspections on these things and, you know, what people might see and think, “I don't know why they're working on that bridge. I drive over it every day and it seems fine.”

Chynoweth: Sure, yeah, I mean the thing you got to keep in mind is a bridge is a structure, and a structure is carefully proportioned based on what structural capacity is needed for the bridge. So, yeah, you may be driving across the bridge deck that seems like it's in pretty good shape, just like, you know, the road may seem like it's in good shape, but, you know, steel beams, they corrode. Concrete beams, they will, you know, they'll spall, and they will crack. So, when we look at our asset management principles, we do a very thorough evaluation of the entire structure. Functionally, is it wide enough? Is it high enough? Do we have enough structural capacity in a bridge that was designed and built in the 60s to withstand, you know, current, you know, truckloads in the state? So, we do a very thorough analysis before, and we come up with various options of what can we do? Do we nothing? Do we just do some maintenance? Do we do more than maintenance? And that's part of our overall strategy for managing the network.

Cranson: Well, I think from what I’m hearing, I was able to visit, with the director, that M-55 project yesterday, and the community has been great up there with having it completely closed and, you know, a detour that is certainly inconvenient for people. But they understand the value of having this thing replaced and prepared to last a good long time, you know. It's a $10 million dollar plus project, which is a big project for that area. It’s the same in 196 in Grand Rapids. I mean, certainly it's frustrating for people, but the region, I think, did a really good job of signing it and directing the traffic either north or south on 131 depending on where you're going ultimately, and it's worked out pretty well.

Chynoweth: Yeah, and I mean we've got other big projects. I mean, there's bridge projects going all over the state. We've got 475/69 interchange there in Flint. We've got work up and down I-75 in Saginaw and Bay Counties. We've got work, always a lot of work, in the Metro region, so there is there's a lot of bridge work going on right now. We're very busy.

Cranson: There's bridges that are being built as part of that I-94, US-31 connection, too, in southwest Michigan.

Chynoweth: Yes, yes.

Cranson: Long awaited project for people there. So, briefly, lastly, talk a little bit more just to kind of reinforce the bridge bundling proposal, you know, why it's an innovative thing for Michigan and how helpful it could be to the locals who, you know, are struggling to fund the repair and replacement of their bridges.

Chynoweth: Yeah, so we got we got two efforts going on. First of all, we've got our pilot project, which is 19 bridges, that MDOT worked with the locals to put together. This is one hundred percent federal funds that we didn't run through the normal 75, 25, where MDOT would receive 75% and locals would receive 25%. We made a decision to dedicate 100 of these additional federal funds to this local bridge bundling program. We've got the first bridge ready to start. They're actually going to start construction on that next week, which is the Washington bridge there in downtown Jackson. Then we've got two other bridges that are going to be under construction and completed this year. Then the bulk of them will go next year. So, the pilot project has been very good for us because it's a learning process for us. It's putting together, basically building a program out of nothing. We’re building it from scratch on what it looks like to have MDOT build bridges outside of MDOT right-of-way, right? How do we coordinate with the locals? How do we make sure that their voices are heard, their preferences are understood? This 19-bridge pilot has been a good test of that because, you know, we're hopeful whatever comes out of the legislature is going to be the next major phase of this. We've heard the governor's proposal of a $300 million dollar budget supplemental all the way to, you know, the current Senate Bill 529, which is $1.3 billion. So, somewhere in between there is going to be a dollar amount that we get which is going to be hundreds of bridges on the local agency side that we'll get to we'll get to reconstruct.

Cranson: Yeah, that Senate proposal involves using some of the federal infrastructure money, which is great. I mean, that's a that's a good use of it, I think.

Chynoweth: Yes.

Cranson: So, talk a little bit about when you say you think you've learned some things from the pilot that could apply to that much more ambitious program, can you cite anything specifically?

Chynoweth: Yeah, so we have we have separate processes within MDOT when we deal with trunk line projects versus local agency projects. There's different environmental—even though NEPA applies to both—there's different forms of environmental clearance. There's different forms of right-of-way certification, you know, utility coordination, all things that have to happen on both types of projects. They're just handled a little bit differently, so we found a way to kind of hybrid these two methods together. Then the other piece that’s, you know, still a work in progress is, yes, this is MDOT that is handling the design, we're handling the construction, but it's not our bridge, right? These aren't our bridges, so we need to give the bridge owners reasonable assurance that we're acting in good faith on their behalf. We've developed, you know, a very good working group of all the regional bridge councils throughout the state and local agency bridge owners, and that work is ongoing. We are still reaching out to them. We're going through an initiative right now where we've got 60 closed bridges, local agency closed bridges, that we've identified some that's like, “Well, would we replace those? Why not remove them? We've got another route that's five minutes away or something like that.” So, we're working with those local bridge owners now to come up with a plan for, “Hey if we if we invest in this bridge right here, now's the time to right size the system, and maybe we permanently close and remove, you know, this bridge here.” So, those conversations are ongoing, and, again, it's just the tap dance of MDOT making sure their voices are heard when we put the program together.

Cranson: Yeah, I think tap dance is a good way to put it, and oftentimes those local agencies say, “Yeah, they'd prefer not to replace a bridge, so that's fine.”

Chynoweth: Correct.

Cranson: Yeah, well thanks, Matt, for this update. I’m sure we'll be talking again and watching closely as negotiations heat up, after they get the FY 22 budget done for how much money is going to go into bundling. It'll be interesting to see.

Chynoweth: Certainly will. Yeah. Thanks for having me again, 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 podcasts and search for Talking Michigan Transportation.