How is America fixing structurally deficient bridges over troubled funding?

Bridges provide drivers with a safe passage over water, roadways, train tracks and other obstacles using materials such as wood, steel, iron, concrete, cement and more. But building or fixing one of these connections can be time consuming and costly.

This month Senate Transportation Chairman Willie Simmons announced that over the course of a week federal inspectors had closed more than 100 bridges on local roads in the state of Mississippi. A bill that was introduced this year in the state would have raised transportation money through an internet sales tax. Projections showed that collections could have generated an annual revenue of between $50 million and $175 million for needed repairs. The bill was not approved, but a House bond bill that would let the state borrow $50 million for repairs is still hanging on.

For the second time in a row, America’s infrastructure has earned a grade of D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). ASCE issues these report cards every four years, grading the state of U.S. bridges, dams, parks, airports, railroads and other vital links.

The United States has 614,837 bridges, of which almost 40 percent are at 50 years or older.  According to ASCE, on average there were 188 million trips across structurally deficient bridges daily in 2016.The term “structurally deficient” does not mean a bridge is about to fall down, but indicates one in need of repair or rebuilding. Further deterioration could mean a bridge must be limited to certain load levels or closed.

In steel bridges, localized structural damage produces a weakened condition called fatigue. Repetitive loading from years of passing traffic then causes cracks to develop. Most older steel bridges suffer from fatigue and eventual cracking because when they were designed codes in place did not adequately address this problem, or because they are carrying loads heavier than they were originally designed to hold.

Fatigue crack growth generally can be managed through regular repairs without compromising the bridge’s performance. However, if cracks are not repaired, they can grow quickly, which could lead to catastrophic failure. This means it is critically important to evaluate rates of crack growth, and to understand how rapid crack growth can affect the integrity of bridges.

A study performed by the American Road and Transportation Builders Association found that 8.4 percent of Illinois’ 26,704 bridges are structurally deficient, which means that one or more key elements, such as the bridge deck or its foundation, is in poor or worse condition, according to federal standards. Illinois, which has the third-highest number of bridges in the country after Texas and Ohio, ranks sixth in number of structurally deficient bridges.

For Chicago bridges on Illinois’ top 10 list, the city’s transportation department plans repairs to the bridges at Wilson and Lawrence this summer, including structural repair of the concrete. Work is expected to take about six to eight months.

Among the state bridges on the list, repairs are being planned by the Illinois Department of Transportation and construction could begin on I-290 over Salt Creek in Addison as early as 2018, on I-55 at Lemont and Joliet roads in Will County in 2019 and on I-53 over Kirchoff Road in Rolling Meadows in 2021.

New methods of building and repairing structurally deficient bridges has cut down on expense and time spent re-routing traffic. In Wayne County, Ind., contractors plan to use the accelerated bridge construction method called a slide-in bridge to replace the twin three-span bridges carrying eastbound and westbound Interstate 70 traffic over State Road 121/New Paris Pike.

The new bridge deck will be built on temporary supports adjacent to the existing bridge. Once the new portion of the bridge is completed, four-lane traffic would be decreased to two lanes, barriers would be set up, the existing portion of the bridge will be demolished and the new bridge will slide laterally into place.  The same method would take place for the two lanes on the other side of the bridge.  Construction is anticipated to begin in early April 2017 and finish before June of 2018.

Another time-saving bridge is a prefabricated one. The Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) will install the state’s first prefabricated bridge on old Route 66. The 110-foot-long bridge will be transported in sections from Phoenix, where it is being manufactured, to the bridge site in Mohave County. The support structure is already in place and bridge installation is expected to take place  this month.

This reduces traffic restrictions and closures to days instead of weeks or months. According to ADOT, this initiative saves an estimated $2.6 million in road user impacts to traditional bridge construction methods. That includes work zone delays and a costly, long-term detour to commuters, businesses and visitors who depend on the Oatman Highway corridor. The total cost of the bridge project is $1.8 million.

Seattle, Wash., will be the first bridge in the world with a new type of column that flexes during an earthquake and then snaps back to its original position. The Washington State Department of Transportation is building an offramp from Highway 99 to South Dearborn Street that has a flexible column that can withstand so little damage during an earthquake that it can be used after the quake has settled.

The project is based on research performed at the University of Nevada, Reno. But the bridge’s safety feature comes at a price. Shape-memory rods cost 90 times more than conventional rebar and the bendable concrete is four times more expensive than ordinary concrete. However, the materials are only used in the tops of the columns that are most vulnerable to earthquakes, so the innovations added only about 5 percent to the overall cost.

Iowa and Illinois are teaming up and seeking bids on the Interstate 74 bridge project. The Iowa Department of Transportation is seeking bids on three contracts that are worth about $400 million for the project. The new bridge will be built east of the existing one, with two spans of four lanes and full shoulders. A recreation trail and an overlook are also part of the design. The bids will be opened April 25 with work expected to begin in the summer.

The Illinois Department of Transportation is preparing a similar process for the their portion of the bridge. The first will be work on the new bridge viaduct with a mandatory pre-bid meeting on the $120 million project, expected in the coming weeks, so the candidates can ask questions and learn more about the work. The bids will be opened in June with construction expected to start in August.

Interested in upcoming opportunities? Best not to overlook thousands resulting from bond elections

General contractors, engineers and architectural firms watch school bond elections carefully because the bond packages represent upcoming opportunities worth billions of dollars. One must wonder why thousands of other types of firms are not watching bond elections as diligently also.

When a bond referendum is passed at any jurisdictional level, the contracting opportunities are not only large, they are diverse and almost every one of them has a component for small and/or minority business participation. The volume of projects funded just through school bond elections is staggering. For example, Texas voters will decide on more than $5.5 billion in just school bonds alone in May. Oklahoma, a much smaller state, saw voters approve more than $900 million in school bond elections in 2016.

Here are just a few examples of school bond issues that were either recently approved or are up for approval in May of this year.

The Bismarck (N.D.) Public Schools saw voters approve a $57 million bond issue on March 7.  The funds will be used to expand and renovate three middle schools and two high schools. The bond issue was necessary because of district growth and increasing middle school capacity.

The Boise (Idaho) School District also got a $172.5 million bond issue approved in March. The bond funding will allow the district to provide improvements at all 48 schools and will address major building projects at 22 school campuses. These projects include construction of six new schools on their current sites, construction of a new school in Harris Ranch and expansion of the district’s Professional-Technical Education Center.

Voters overwhelmingly approved a bond package of $111 million in February for the Edmond (Okla.) Public Schools. The bond issue focused on five areas: technology, transportation, shelters, the high school and improvements and upgrades at a number of facilities. The district will construct a new state-of-the-art middle school as well as storm shelters and a new stadium at Santa Fe High School. School officials will also purchase land for future schools, new buses and new technology.

Helena (Mont.) Public Schools has scheduled a bond election for May and funding requests total $63 million. The funds will be used to rebuild three new K-5 schools and to make technology and safety improvements at all K-8 schools.

Taxpayers will be asked to approve a bond package of $169 million for the Andover (Md.) Public School District this month. The district plans to build two new schools and make safety upgrades to school buildings and facilities.

The West Bloomfield (Mich.) School District has a bond election scheduled for May and will ask voters to approve $120 million. Passage of the bond election will allow the district to implement its long-range facilities plan and make improvements at every school facility. Highlights include consolidation of two middle schools into a new 21st Century middle school on the current Orchard Lake Middle School site, continuing enhancements to improve student safety and school security, upgrading and replacing instructional technology,  replacing end-of-life school buses,  adding an auxiliary gym to West Bloomfield High School and remodeling fine arts facilities, auditorium, pool area and bathrooms, creating flexible learning spaces at all elementary schools and transforming outdated spaces at West Bloomfield High School.

Clear Creek Independent School District (CCISD), League City, Texas, hopes voters in May will approve a large bond package that totals $487 million. The majority of the bond funds will be used to address CCISD’s aging schools and critically needed repairs. The district plans to rebuild two schools and provide technology upgrades and renovations at six other facilities. The district also plans to spend nearly $73 million to build an elementary school and provide permanent additions to other school buildings. More than $20 million is needed for safety improvements, the replacement of 75 buses, elementary playground replacement and repair and upgrades to security. The district plans to spend more than $30 million on technology.

The contracting opportunities that result from bond elections are huge, especially when considering that the opportunities outlined in these few examples are for school districts only.  City bond elections, which will also occur in the near future, are usually larger and therefore offer even more contracting opportunities.

States investing in real-time traffic data

In February the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) released new data showing that Americans are driving more than ever before. In 2016, drivers in cars, trucks, minivans and SUVs put a record 3.22 trillion miles on the nation’s roads, up 2.8 percent from 3.1 trillion miles in 2015.

The data also shows that it’s the fifth consecutive year of increased miles driven on roads and highways which underscores the demands facing American’s roads and bridges and reaffirms calls for greater investment in surface transportation infrastructure.

It also means drivers are more aware of the roads they travel each day. There is that road that must be avoided at certain times of the day due to high traffic congestion. We all have our special back-road shortcuts, which have become few and far between these days, that we take when traffic is at a standstill. Before the internet and mobile phones, we relied only on television, newspapers, radios, traffic helicopters and even CB radios to warn us of construction, accidents and congestion on the roads. If your car broke down, you thumbed a ride or walked to the nearest pay phone, unless the road had one of those convenient, emergency call box phones on the roadway.
These sources are still very reliable, but once mobile devices and the internet came into existence, the updates became instantaneous as we refreshed our web browsers. The department of transportation in most states seems to have taken notice to this resource and partnered with other businesses to get their websites up-to-date.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation announced in January that they were partnering with the popular crowd-sourcing traffic navigation mobile app Waze. The Wisconsin DOT will verify and then post real-time traffic data such as construction, crashes and road closures throughout the state using the Waze website and app. Wisconsin DOT plans to incorporate Waze’s data into the 511 Wisconsin website redesign this spring. The change will give drivers faster updates, personalized camera feeds and better knowledge of road conditions.

The Connecticut Department of Transportation (CT DOT) launched a new website last month called the CT Travel Smart. CT DOT spent $150,000 upgrading the website and the federal government funded 80 percent of the bill. Drivers can personalize their travel details, can view the entire state or just a region or they can sign up online and create certain routes and save individual cameras to their profile. They can also receive personalized alert messages about their saved routes or certain roads. The state has 350 traffic cameras running 24-hours a day.

If potholes seem to be a common problem on your route, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) is currently updating its online database so all roads in Boston will have lookouts for potholes. The program was piloted in a couple of cities and will expand its service to the rest of the state over the next few months. During the pilot program, a total of 520 potholes were repaired on I-90 and between Springfield and Weston. Drivers can report a pothole by calling a hotline or filling out a form online.

If it isn’t potholes you want to avoid, maybe it is a slick film of ice that has you anxious. New technology was recently added to the Michigan Department of Transportation’s (MDOT) website which allows drivers to track snowplows working around the Upper Peninsula in real time. Drivers can click on active plows and see exactly what they are doing and whether it is plowing or applying salt. The technology currently only tracks MDOT plows and not county road commission or private plows.

Transportation agencies aren’t the only ones keeping their residents in the know. City officials in West Palm Beach, Fla. teamed up with a consulting firm to study the city’s transportation for the future. The study will include downtown, the Okeechobee Boulevard corridor, parking management and transportation demand.

The consulting team will have a website, WPBmobility.com, that will go live in a few days with updates on the studies and an interactive map for the public to help identify where there are problems or opportunities for transportation changes. This comes at a time when the city is developing a citywide bicycle master plan and making downtown more livable.

But what happens when it is your vehicle that is causing the traffic jam? The Illinois Tollway has launched a beta form of tracking program for users to locate Highway Emergency Lane Patrol (HELP) trucks. The HELP Truck Tracker, which is available on the tollway’s website, shows trucks marked on the website with arrows identifying the direction of travel with a popup text box reporting the nearest mile marker. The HELP program sent out 12 trucks to patrol the Tollway system in 12 counties from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday. The trucks assisted more than 30,000 customers while patrolling more than 1.2 million miles last year.

Ensuring safety on college campuses – becoming more difficult each day

Campus safety has never been easy or simple. Now, the responsibility is truly awesome.

In the last few years, there have been dozens of horrific incidents and now that a number of states allow guns on campus, the job of providing for campus safety has become increasingly more difficult and complicated.

Most universities have focused on incident prevention and quick response.  Many have gone through extensive planning sessions to find ways to ensure safety, but it would be hard to find a university official anywhere who feels confident that security and safety are under control. Perhaps the greatest impediment to ensuring a safe campus environment is a lack of adequate funding.
In spite of funding issues, physical security has definitely been improved. Most new buildings have access systems that provide officers the ability to centrally lock down facilities if there is an active shooter incident. Surveillance camera technology also continually searches for abnormal activities that could pose a threat. Other emerging technologies have also made inroads on college campuses.

Most campuses have invested in walkway lighting and “blue light” emergency call boxes. Outreach programs aimed at informing and educating students and faculty of what they can do to protect themselves have been implemented.

Taxpayers care about the campus safety issue and they are involved. Voters approved a $14.5 million bond issue in December to improve safety and security measures at Iowa Western Community College. The bond package that was approved will fund new cameras, secure doors, enhanced locks and other security improvements.

Kansas State University (KSU) is installing upgrades to security systems. The additional investment in security is in response to a new Kansas law allowing for concealed handguns on university campuses. If an exemption for public universities is not granted by the legislature, KSU is considering the use of wands and portable metal detectors for events. The new security measures are expected to cost more than $1 million.

Voters approved a measure late in 2016 to provide the Southwestern Community College District $400 million for campus facility improvements. A new building will be constructed to house all campus Security and Risk Management functions.  Other security enhancements will also be implemented.

In January 2017, the Atlanta University Center Consortium announced that it will team with the Atlanta Police Department to implement security measures to prevent and reduce crime at its four member institutions – Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, Morehouse School of Medicine and Spelman College. The $700,000 project will include the installation of 35 new security cameras and the utilization of five license plate readers. The camera feeds will be monitored 24/7 by campus police and at the Atlanta Police Department’s video integration center.

Officials at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., have proposed the replacement and expansion of the university’s access control system. The project will convert all existing access-controlled doors to a new system and expand electronic control to major academic buildings. The system will also be able to provide centralized lockdown functionality in response to active shooter incidents, which are increasing on university campuses at an alarming rate. This $7.2 million project is expected to beginning with the 2018 school year.

Virginia State University (VSU) hopes to spend $3.26 million in campus-wide safety and security improvements. After a series of events involving VSU students, the university hired a security consultant to perform a campus evaluation and make recommendations for improvements. If funded by the Virginia Legislature, the project will install new LED lighting at educational and general-use buildings, parking lots and sidewalks/paths. The university will also install a new traffic/security gate to curtail campus access. Additionally, the university has plans to provide electronic card access at all academic and administrative buildings. The funding of these projects is currently scheduled for 2018.

It’s a new world – and a more dangerous world.  More resources and funding are critically needed to ensure campus safety for students, instructors and visitors.