AASHTO Journal, 15 May 2015
The Oklahoma Transportation Commission authorized the state Department of Transportation to contract for emergency repairs to a major bridge in Oklahoma City that are expected to cost about $7 million.
ODOT said that May 4 action plan was just the latest in a series of sudden bridge repairs, plus extra costs triggered by a hard winter. And Executive Director Mike Patterson said the problems underscore how past decades of under-investment in transportation infrastructure can leave the state facing higher costs in the long run.
Crews were working on a rehabilitation in April of that Belle Isle bridge on Interstate 44 – to chip away old concrete and prepare its piers for sandblasting and new concrete – when they discovered “much more than they bargained for,” ODOT said. They found extensive damage to two of its support piers, imposed lane closures and initiated temporary repairs while they began looking closely at the rest.
They found “much worse deterioration than expected on nearly half of the bridge’s 95 total piers,” the agency later said.
In an April 23 announcement, ODOT said: “Decades of flat state funding for transportation led to the rapid deterioration of structures like the Belle Isle bridge, as resources were simply not available for regularly scheduled preventative maintenance and asset preservation projects to extend the life of highways and bridges.”
Since 2006, an infusion of state funds allowed the agency to launch an aggressive program that had upgraded more than 945 highway bridges through 2014 and targeted nearly that number for future work, but the agency says others keep deteriorating from many years of insufficient attention.
“We are certainly grateful that additional funding since 2006 has allowed ODOT to address much-needed improvements on hundreds of bridges. However, we knew decades ago that flat transportation funding and deferred maintenance would cause major problems on our highway system and now we’re seeing the full extent of that damage on bridges like this one,” Patterson said. “Without adequate investment in the preservation of our bridges, the state actually ends up paying more to make emergency repairs later.”
The commission’s May 4 action allows the department to issue a new contract to upgrade the most deteriorated bridge piers, while the current contractor continues the already scheduled work on others. Engineers estimate the work will preserve the structure for about 15 years and remove the bridge from its “structurally deficient” status.
ODOT explained that the Belle Isle bridge was built in 1978 and carries more than 100,000 vehicles daily. “Due to its length, unique angles and heavy traffic volume, the bridge is treated with an increased amount of salt during the winter,” the department said, and over time salt and water leaking though joints on the surface “caused major rebar and concrete deterioration” on several piers.
The emergency declaration for the Belle Isle bridge was one of what ODOT called “three major bridge problems in just one month that have caused traffic delays and detours while emergency repairs were performed.”
–On March 27, the SH-83 bridge over the Kansas City Southern Railroad, southeast of Poteau in LeFlore County, was closed after ODOT workers uncovered deterioration underneath the structure while filing a pothole. The bridge closure forced a 60-mile highway detour through Arkansas until the bridge was reopened to traffic April 29.
–Also in late March, the US-377/SH-99 bridge over the Washita River, south of Tishomingo in Johnston County, was narrowed to one lane after an inspection revealed major deficiencies. “Only after ODOT crews erected temporary supports and drastically reduced the speed limit was the highway reopened to two-lane traffic. The agency is expediting the design of a replacement for this more than 70 year old bridge, which connects Tishomingo and Madill in the growing Texoma region.”
That followed an unusually harsh winter that left its mark. On April 6 the department told the public that if drivers thought roads and bridges worsened in just a month, they were right.
“The snow, ice and freezing rain that fell in February and early March really did a number on the state’s road pavement conditions,” ODOT said. “Highways in eastern Oklahoma, in particular, took the brunt of a vicious freeze-and-thaw cycle this winter.”
State road crews in four southeastern counties used almost as much patching material in just 12 days this spring as in all of 2014. That was part of a trend seen across the country, as many states reported spending much more on winter response than a year ago.
ODOT also linked the pothole problems to the years of low spending.
“This winter’s frosty grip ripped more holes than usual in our roads, which is a direct reflection on the system’s pavement age and conditions. Even with more than $100 million spent annually on statewide maintenance, highway construction spending on pavement reconstruction and lane expansions remained flat from 2004 to 2014.”
Looking ahead, ODOT will shift its efforts as conditions allow. “As the most urgent bridge problems are resolved,” it said, “the department will continue to push more of its construction funds toward restoring highway pavement conditions as previously planned.”