Full Committee Hearing - Bridge Safety: Next Steps to Protect the Nation's Critical Infrastructure
Mr. Dennis Judycki
Associate Administrator for Research, Development, and Technology at the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) of the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) and Director of U.S. DOT’s Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center (TFHRC)
Mr. Benjamin Tang
Principal Bridge Engineer for the Office of Bridge Technology at the Federal Highway Administration of the U.S. DOT
Dr. Kevin Womack
Director of the Utah Transportation Center and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Utah State University
Mr. Harry Lee James
Deputy Executive Director and Chief Engineer for the Mississippi Department of Transportation
Mr. Mark Bernhardt
Director of Facility Inspection for Burgess & Niple, an engineering firm
COMMITTEE EXAMINES RESEARCH PRIORITIES TO IMPROVE BRIDGE SAFETY
Washington D.C., September 19, 2007 - The U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology today held a hearing aimed at exploring the current state of bridge-related research and technology development, and to consider future research and development priorities to improve bridge safety.
Today’s hearing, entitled Bridge Safety: Next Steps to Protect the Nation’s Critical Infrastructure, marks the beginning of the Committee’s efforts to address the serious problems in U.S. bridge infrastructure after the disastrous I-35W bridge collapse that took place in Minneapolis last month.
“We are a nation of infrastructure, and more than any other country in the world, we rely on a massive, interconnected web of power lines and power plants, telecommunications facilities, train tracks, roadways, and bridges to go about our everyday lives,” said Ranking Member Ralph Hall (R-TX). “Ensuring the safety of our basic infrastructure must be a top priority of our federal, state, and local governments.”
The hearing explored the current state of bridge-related research and development, including government and academic research into materials, design elements, and testing and inspection technologies. Witnesses discussed future research priorities for building improved bridge infrastructure and maintaining current bridges to avoid catastrophic failure.
“In my home state of Tennessee, 37 bridges were found to be deficient by a Road Improvement Survey in 2005. My colleagues on the Committee could all share similar statistics. Clearly, the disaster that struck Minnesota could have happened anywhere,” said Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN). “This is a wakeup call that we need to be doing more to strengthen and secure our bridges now and for the long term.”
Committee Members heard from a panel of federal, state, academic, and private industry experts on how ongoing research and development efforts are addressing the need to make our nation’s bridges safer. Witnesses explained how bridges are currently tested for safety, and how states prioritize repairs to bridges deemed deficient. Witnesses also examined avenues for future research geared towards better understanding the changing demands placed on U.S. bridge infrastructure.
Structural problems, both major and minor, plague a significant portion of bridges in the U.S. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Bridge Inventory, 73,764 bridges around the U.S. (12.4 percent of all bridges) were classified as “structurally deficient” in 2006, including the bridge that collapsed in Minnesota.
However, the definition of structural deficiency is broad, and can cover everything from non-structural paving issues to serious flaws. State and local inspectors are responsible for determining which bridges need the most immediate attention.
The challenge for policymakers at the state, local, and federal level is to determine which bridges are the highest priority for repairs given limited funding. ASCE estimates that repairing every deficient bridge across the nation would cost $9.4 billion per year for 20 years. Inspectors use a variety of methods to determine if a bridge has immediate need of repair, including visual inspection, sensors, and other non-destructive testing technologies. The existing methods are imperfect, however, and additional research is needed to develop methods that will provide better quality data on which bridges are in greatest need of immediate repair.
Today’s hearing also addressed the importance of harnessing emerging technological advances and putting them to work to better U.S. bridges. Both witnesses and Committee Members urged the need for federal, state and private cooperation in the successful implementation of available research to all areas of bridge safety.
Explained witness Kevin Womack, Chair of the Transportation Policy Committee of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), “Successfully and efficiently addressing the nation’s infrastructure issues, bridges and highways included, will require a long-term, comprehensive nationwide strategy – one that includes research and identifying potential financing methods and investment requirements. For the safety and security of our families, we, as a nation, can no longer afford to ignore this growing problem.”
Dennis Judycki, Associate Administrator for Research, Development and Technology at the Federal Highway Administration testified, “The I-35W bridge collapse was both a tragedy and wake-up call to the country. The Department's Inspector General will be monitoring all of the investigations into the collapse and reviewing our inspection and funding programs to decide and advise us what short- and long-term actions we may need to take to improve the program…a top-to-bottom review is underway to make sure that everything is being done to keep this kind of tragedy from occurring again...we look forward to continuing to work with Congress to give the people of this nation the safe, efficient, and effective transportation system that they expect and deserve.”
“Of course, new technologies are only useful insofar as they are adopted by builders and inspectors. I hope to hear more about technology transfer programs, and what we can all do to make innovative technologies more accessible to the hardworking engineers and inspectors that need them,” added Chairman Gordon.