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Making bridges safer with digital inspections – part 1 of 2

June 13, 2022

The day that President Biden arrived in Pittsburgh to give a speech on the Infrastructure Bill – a recently-approved $1 trillion investment in the country’s failing infrastructure – a bridge collapsed just outside the city center. Nobody was killed, but many were injured, and the irony of the timing is striking.

Bridge safety is arguably the most visible, serious, and long-standing infrastructure issue targeted by the Infrastructure Bill. Even beyond the tragic loss of life or property damage, a bridge disaster has a chilling effect because of their ubiquity of use, where 178 million trips are taken across structurally deficient bridges every day.

Sadly, bridge disasters are not uncommon, but many of the country’s bridges are in such an advanced state of deterioration that it is both an unprecedented and worrying concern, especially when you consider that 42% of the United States’ 617,000 bridges are at least 50 years old. The alarming situation is exacerbated by the long backlog of bridge inspections that traps jurisdictions in a vicious cycle of trying to catch up – often with very little resources – while everything crumbles around them.

However, with monies allocated specifically to bridge inspection and repair, the Infrastructure Bill is a rare chance to rectify the growing problem. And with the advancement of technology, new digital solutions have recently emerged that can help streamline the inspection process, reduce backlogs, and mitigate the growing public safety threat.

This guide will take an in-depth look at bridge safety by considering the scope of the bridge safety crisis, the causes of the inspection backlogs, and the untapped potential for new digital inspection tools to help turn the tide.

The scope of the problem

The scope of the bridge safety crisis can be quickly mapped out with a series of disturbing statistics compiled by two of the most respected infrastructure players in the country when it comes to road, building and bridge safety: the American Road and Transporters Builders Association (ARTBA) and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), both non-partisan and not-for-profit organizations that are continually collecting data on the current state of infrastructure in the United States.

  • 36 percent of U.S. bridges – nearly 224,000 spans – need repair (ARTBA)
  • Around 1 in 8 of all the bridges in the country are in such poor condition that they need to be replaced (ARTBA)
  • 46,154, or 7.5% of the nation’s bridges, are considered structurally deficient, meaning they are in “poor” condition (ASCE)
  • 2,094 bridges are in “Critical” or “Imminent Failure” condition, showing advanced or major deterioration or section loss of primary structural elements (ARTBA)
  • The cost of identified repairs for all 224,000 bridges that need repairs is $260 billion (ARTBA)
  • The worst offender, 20% of West Virginia’s bridges are considered structurally deficient, followed by Iowa at 19%, for a total of 1490 and 4504 bridges respectively (ARTBA)

These figures paint a grim picture of the current state of bridge safety, which begs the question: how did it get this bad?

Causes of the crisis: backlogs and delays

When nearly 90% of the structurally deficient bridges in 2021 had the same rating in 2020, it becomes apparent that the inspection backlog is one of the main causes of the overall poor state of bridge infrastructure, as well as a factor accelerating its decline. In addition, the slow pace of inspection means that even as the backlog is tackled, bridges further deteriorate, and the backlog keeps growing.

Unfortunately, recent labor issues are worsening this trend, as both a massive skilled labor shortage and a pandemic that sidelined employees are destabilizing the construction industry. Both private companies and government bodies are scrambling to tackle the growing backlog of required inspections of any kind, but with labor shortages becoming the norm, bridge inspections are poised to fall even more behind. And as the backlog increases, so do serious bridge safety hazards which, if gone unchecked, will run the risk of disaster-level events.

Another recurring challenge driving the issue is that, even when bridges are inspected, there are still outstanding delays in starting and completing critical repairs. In fact, at the current pace, bridge repairs could easily take more than a half-century. There are a host of reasons why bridge repairs are being delayed even once they are deemed necessary, including:

  • Funding. Cash-strapped governments don’t have the funding for repair work; in fact, the major impetus behind the Infrastructure Bill is to triage infrastructure problems and provide monies to those deemed most urgent. 
  • Governance. Ongoing jurisdictional disputes about whose responsibility it is to fix a particular bridge impede the repair process. State, local, and federal bodies – all facing budget constraints – ping-pong the responsibility back and forth while the bridge continues to deteriorate. 
  • Scale. With long inspection backlogs and so many bridges that need attention, many jurisdictions are paralyzed by the sheer enormity of the problem and don’t even know where to start. Even when municipalities focus on a particularly dangerous bridge, they may be uncertain about what to do with it – it’s always a question of whether to repair, replace, or remove altogether.
  • Information. Unable to grasp this breadth, governments often lose track of all their inspection activities. Housed across different agencies, stakeholders, and technologies, data from previous inspections is siloed, if it’s not already lost or unavailable. Collected by different sources through different means across years, accurate information can’t be shared with and between entities responsible for inspections and repairs.

Interested in reading more, including how digital field inspections can help bridge the gap from risk to safety? Check out the full guide here!