A fast fix for bad bridges

In a scene that will be repeated hundreds of times over the next three years, a small bridge in Pennsylvania is being replaced.

Close to a highway overpass in Bartonsville and spanning a sparkling stream, the bridge is part of an innovative solution the state is taking to solve a big problem. With 4,200 structurally deficient bridges, the Keystone State has the dubious honor of having the highest number of these faulty spans in the country.

“While the number is the lowest it’s ever been, it’s still a lot of bridges so we had to work hard and aggressively to reduce that number even further,” said Leslie Richards, Pennsylvania’s secretary of transportation.

So this year, the state has launched the Rapid Bridge Replacement Project, an $899 million public-private partnership that will replace 558 bridges in the state over three years.

A bridge northwest of Pittsburgh under repair as part of Pennsylvania's Rapid Bridge Replacement Project.

Source: Walsh Group
A bridge northwest of Pittsburgh under repair as part of Pennsylvania’s Rapid Bridge Replacement Project.

“Normally it would take a dozen years to get to this many bridges,” said Richards, who added that the project will help the state achieve another goal, to get it off the top spot of that federal list of deficient bridges.

A bridge that is structurally deficient, according to the National Bridge Inventory Database, is a bridge with one or more defects that require attention. With over 25,000 state-owned bridges, the state’s Department of Transportation, or PennDOT, has its hands full just trying to keep up with the 200 to 250 bridges that become structurally deficient each year. This is why the state took the unusual step to contract the work out to private firms.

The Walsh Group is part of Plenary Walsh Keystone Partners, the group hired to replace and repair the bridges.

“We provide the financing, design, construction or construction oversight and then 25 years of oversight of all the structures we replace,” said Daniel Galvin, The Walsh Group’s public information officer.

That maintenance contract is unusual in its length. Typically, contractors only provide warranties on their work that last one to five years. This arrangement, Galvin said, assures the partnership will get the work right.

“We’ve got an investment in the project to make sure the quality is there and that it lasts the 100 years these bridges are supposed to stand up,” he said.

Given the three-year deadline, the quality work has to be delivered in a much shorter time. Galvin said the partnership will be able to repair and replace the bridges using uniform designs for many of them, like the bridge in Bartonsville.

Workers work to repair a Pennsylvania bridge, northwest of Pittsburgh, under the state's Rapid Bridge Replacement Project.

Source: Walsh Group
Workers work to repair a Pennsylvania bridge, northwest of Pittsburgh, under the state’s Rapid Bridge Replacement Project.

Galvin estimates the bridge will take 10 weeks to repair, instead of the typical six months needed for a bridge that size.

“In that time we’ll come in, remove the old one, tear out the abutments and pile drivers, put in new abutments and then put the deck in place, repave it and it’s back open for business,” he said.

The partnership will also do this at a lower cost. The cost to repair an average bridge in Pennsylvania, or a single span bridge in a rural area, is about $2 million dollars. Galvin said the partnership will cut that cost to $1.6 million. It can keep the costs low by using prefab parts for the bridges and by ordering large quantities of materials and supplies.

About an hour from Bartonsville, in Cressona, Pennsylvania, Northeast Prestressed Products has expanded its work week to six days from five. The reason? The company is making 2,991 beams that will be used in over 400 of the bridges being repaired. A big order like this one, an obvious boon for Northeast Prestressed, but it also provides the partnership a chance to get a good deal on the over 27 miles of beams it will need.

Richards emphasized the goal of this project is not to save money, but to get the bridges repaired quickly. With many built over 50 years ago, the bridges can’t handle the heavier payloads being carried by trucks these days. And while having bridges that can handle big payloads is certainly important for a state benefiting from the growth in fracking, Richards downplayed this being a factor in the state’s deciding to test a rapid repair project. She said the project is about helping all of the state’s industries, not just fracking.

“There will be huge economic benefits, of course, whenever we invest in our infrastructure here in Pennsylvania,” she said. “It helps build our economy and helps our businesses.”

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