Universities Try to Solve Cracks in Infrastructure Dilemma

Posted by Ryan Leech at  RockZone Blog

Without trying to sound overly dramatic or sensationalistic, there is a significant problem with the current state of infrastructure, particularly the condition of bridges, in the country.

You know you have a problem on your hands when the most accurate phrase uses to describe your bridges are “functionally obsolete” and “structurally deficient”.

Those descriptions apply to one out of every four bridges in the country.

The age of the average bridge is currently 42 years. It is estimated that more than 30% of bridges in existence have already passed their 50-year design life, creating a backlog of repair and replacement projects that is currently being unmet.

According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), we are currently spending $12.8 billion annually to address the backlog. This is only a fraction of the funds needed to put a dent in the problem. To fully address the problem and eliminate deficient bridges, we need to bump that funding up to $20.5 billion annually. At that rate of spending $8 billion more annually, it would still take until 2028 for every bridge to be brought up to ideal operating conditions.

Unfortunately, not only do we need to find ways to funnel more funding into infrastructure, the funding that is currently being allocated is in jeopardy of disappearing. 

As the Highway Trust Fund borders on the brink of collapsing, Congress contemplates a temporary measure to stave-off insolvency until next May.

Temporary measures of this nature are not sufficient solutions. They allow for band-aids to be placed on major issues, but without securing long-term funding, there can be no long-term strategy for improving the situation in the future, instead of just preventing it from getting worse.

To draw attention to the issue Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and 11 of his predecessors penned an open letter to Congress this week.

These 12 men have served both Republicans and Democrats and bring over 35 years of experience to the table.

So when they say "Never in our nation's history has America's transportation system been on a more unsustainable course.", it can be safely assumed that they aren't using hyperbole.

While Congress works on securing the $140 billion necessary to complete these bridge repairs, others work on trying to prevent tragedies like the 2007 collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis.

States like South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York are a few of the states that have began relying more on wireless sensors to receive up-to-date information on bridges to help them prioritize which bridges need immediate attention.

The benefits of these sensors include relevant time-sensitive information and higher reliability than visual inspections.

A team of researchers from North Carolina State University and the University of Eastern Finland have developed another product that might help monitor vital bridge information.

The product is a new paint-on "sensing skin" that can be applied to concrete structures to detect weaknesses.

This low-cost option uses electrodes and a small electric current to run through the paint to pinpoint weakness in the structural integrity of the concrete before they spread to dangerous levels.

The product is still in the testing stages, but advances like this one in monitoring bridge conditions will be necessary until we begin to invest the money to change the way we describe our bridges.

Descriptions that don't include the words "functionally obsolete" or "structurally deficient".