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Bridge Breakdown: Mapping the Best Fix

Monday, February 16, 2015

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New 3D modeling technology could help engineers identify which parts of a bridge most urgently need repair, helping to alleviate a backlog of structurally deficient bridges, its developers say.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, nearly one in nine U.S. bridges is structurally deficient, and it would cost about $70 billion to catch up on repairs to 70,000 structures.

At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, associate professor Zhigang Shen has developed a tool that could make it easier to identify exactly what components need repair and how quickly others are deteriorating.

Modeling the Mormon Bridge

With a grant from the Nebraska Department of Roads, Shen and his student research assistants built a 3-D computer model of the Mormon Bridge, which carries Interstate 680 over the Missouri River near Omaha.

Mormon Bridge
CC BY-SA 2.5 / Americasroof

The researchers analyzed the Mormon Bridge near Omaha because it is one of Nebraska's most complicated bridges.

The Mormon Bridge was chosen because it is one of the most complicated bridges in the state.

Shen's tool is based on Building Information Modeling software, which can draft 3-D, detailed plans for buildings or other systems.

"Bridge management, bridge conditions and infrastructure are very big issues," Shen said. "This represents a paradigm shift in terms of data management."

Shen said his work had been motivated in part by the 2007 collapse of the I-35W Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis, MN.

Deciphering Data

Wayne Jensen, an associate professor of construction management, is a co-investigator on Shen's project. Jensen has worked with the Department of Roads for several years.

In Nebraska, bridge inspection is required every two years, and inspectors rate and photograph the condition of each component. Analyzing that data to determine the extent of deterioration can be "cumbersome and unwieldy," according to the university.

"When you look at their system and you call up a particular bridge or a particular section of road, you end up with a series of numbers in a spreadsheet," Jensen explained.

"If you don't know what you're looking at, your computer screen is filled with numbers that don't mean anything. Zhigang and I thought it would be cool to take the information in the spreadsheets and actually do a model of the bridge."

Color-Coded System

The team's model color-codes each component of the bridge according to its inspection. For example:

  • Green means good conditions;
  • Yellow requires monitoring; and
  • Red means repairs are necessary.

Clicking on a component brings up the inspection report along with photos of cracks, corrosion and other damage.

Building Information Model
Zhigang Shen

The team's model color-codes each component of the bridge according to its inspection results and shows photos of cracks, corrosion and other damage.

Additionally, several years of information can be compared to assess the rate of deterioration.

Widespread Benefits

Mark J. Traynowicz, Nebraska's bridge engineer, and Fouad A.H. Jaber, assistant bridge engineer, said road officials across the country could benefit from the system, particularly where there are big or complicated bridges to manage.

"It's a good product to see how our bridges are aging and how they're holding up," said Traynowicz. "If and when we have to make some repairs, it's a little easier to see what goes with what."

Jaber said the system was not intended for the sophisticated dynamic structural analysis being developed in other places.

Shen has proposed adding sensors to the system. Even without them, however, bridge engineers have the tool could be a cost effective tool for state and local governments to monitor bridge conditions.

"When you get sensors, you get data, and you need someone with the training to interpret the data," Jaber noted. "It depends on your resources."

Shen said that he was starting to get inquiries about his system and that he hoped the FHWA would show some interest.


Tagged categories: Bridges; Colleges and Universities; Computer generated modeling; Department of Transportation (DOT); Federal Highway Administration (FHWA); North America; Program/Project Management; Research

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