Ohio, with more than 42,000 bridges, is second only to Texas in the number of bridges under state ownership. These Baby Boomer bridges, which were usually built to last 50 years, are now an average of 43 years old —nearing the need for replacement. Almost one in four bridges, while considered safe to travel, is either structurally deficient, in need of repair, or functionally obsolete. More than 14,000 of its bridges are part of the state highway system.
Under Gov. Strickland’s leadership, ODOT has committed to a “Fix It First” philosophy — fully funding the preservation of Ohio’s current roadways and bridges before devoting limited resources to major new projects.
While no final conclusions have been reached in Minneapolis, federal investigators have suggested that a design issue with gusset plates on the I-35W bridge may have contributed to the tragedy. Corrosion also may have been a contributing factor. Gusset plates are the steel plates that tie the steel beams together.
ODOT reported in a press release that “in 1996, two gusset plates on the I-90 East Bridge in Lake County, Ohio, had deteriorated and then buckled during a routine painting project. No one was hurt and the bridge was temporarily closed while the gusset plates were strengthened. Today, ODOT includes the unique training on gusset plates as part of its statewide bridge inspection training program.”
There are currently 16 bridges in Ohio that share a similar deck-truss design with the I-35W bridge. Immediately after the collapse, each of the 16 bridges was re-inspected. They are located in Columbiana, Cuyahoga, Fairfield, Hamilton, Lake, Lawrence, Summit, Warren, and Washington counties.
Ohio requires more inspections on more bridges than any other state. All bridges in Ohio are inspected annually, twice as often as federally mandated, and each inspector must go through an ODOT bridge inspection training program. In the year since the Minneapolis collapse, ODOT’s gusset plate training has received national attention.
Federal regulations define a bridge as any structure at or greater than 20 ft. (6 m) long. Ohio law defines a bridge at 10 ft. (3 m) and longer — so more bridges fall under Ohio’s definition, requiring more bridges to be inspected.
ODOT’s inspectors use an ultrasonic thickness gauge. The gauge uses sight, sound and touch, to look at the bridge deck, superstructure, and the piers and abutments supporting the bridge
Sound waves measure the thicknesses of deteriorating steel members. Unlike older gauges that only measure thickness at single points, ODOT’s device “rolls over the steel surface and provides thickness readings for the entire length of the bridge. This allows the inspector to pinpoint divots, dips and section loss,” according to a press release.
Although the I-90/Innerbelt Bridge in Cleveland received a passing grade, it will soon begin a $10 million preservation project, which includes reinforcement of several gusset plates.
According to ODOT’s district 2, “As it stands today, the Federal Highway Trust Fund cannot fulfill the promises made to Ohio under the transportation reauthorization package passed in 2005. The latest figures forecast a shortfall that would result in a national cut of $13 billion in federal investment. Ohio could face up to $550 million in lost federal funding in 2009.”
“The Federal Highway Trust Fund is facing bankruptcy. For Ohio, this shortfall could mean an immediate loss of at least $350 million next year … and could total more than half-a-billion in potential cuts to ODOT’s capital budget in fiscal year 2009,” said Beasley.
ODOT devotes a significant amount of its annual budget to bridge preservation and modernization. “Over just the past year, ODOT has contracted more than $404 million in projects to preserve and improve our state bridges,” said Beasley. “But for all the work we accomplish with our transportation partners at the local level, the sustained safety of Ohio’s bridges will rely more on continued and improved federal investment in Ohio’s infrastructure.”
Without new revenue, shortfalls in 2010 could force a 50 percent reduction in funding below today’s already inadequate investment levels. In September 2009, the federal law that authorizes funding for the nation’s transportation system will expire. To repair every bridge that is deficient across the nation, $140 billion is needed. More than $12.4 billion is needed annually to improve bridge conditions on the federal-aid eligible system to a level that would help relieve congestion and reduce accidents. Ohio’s portion is estimated to be $4.2 billion.
A little more than one year after the Aug. 1, 2007, collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis, questions remain as to what caused the failure. On Aug. 2, 2007, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty stood at the site where heroic efforts were under way to assist in the recovery, as U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Mary Peters announced the award of $5 million in federal relief. All states were called on to immediately inspect their steel deck-truss bridges.
“As we pause and remember the 13 lives lost and the 144 more who were injured nearly a year ago, we also take note today of how this one event 700 miles away placed a renewed awareness on the work we do to preserve, maintain, and modernize our infrastructure here in Ohio,” said Ohio Department of Transportation Director James Beasley just prior to the anniversary.
“Research is taking place all across the country on new ways to inspect and protect bridges. ODOT is applying new technology to extend the life of our bridges, and to make the ones we replace longer-lasting and more resistant to deterioration,” said Beasley. “But even with ODOT’s aggressive investment into bridge preservation and modernization, we are looking at the legacy of the Baby Boomer bridges built during the Interstate era.”
Painting remains the best way to prevent corrosion. New technologies are needed to make painting not only more effective, but more cost-effective, according to officials.
In marking the anniversary of the Minneapolis collapse, ODOT has launched a new online public awareness effort to highlight bridge safety. In addition to receiving user-friendly definitions to engineering terms like “structurally deficient” and “functionally obsolete,” visitors to ODOT’s Web site at www.dot.state.oh.us will be able to learn more about the state’s bridge inspection program, including inspection information on bridges in their area.