Fixing Dangerous Bridges

By: | September 15, 2013

Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a freelance writer based in California. She has more than two decades of journalism experience and expertise in financial writing. She can be reached at [email protected].

R9-15-13p10_Upfront.inddThe plunge of three people into icy waters after a bridge collapsed in Washington state last month was a wake-up call to the country’s public entities.

While costly infrastructure investments typically fall within the purview of the political decision-making bodies, many public sector risk managers work with engineers and regulatory authorities to establish priorities for bridge maintenance, said Ron Graybeal, managing director, national public sector practice leader at Beecher Carlson in Portland, Ore.

Risk managers are also involved in risk finance options, which include totally self-insuring, placing insurance, or a combination of the two, he said.

“We suggest that our customers insure higher excess limit layers to help fund for catastrophic events,” Graybeal said.

The events of May 23 could have been catastrophic, when a truck carrying an oversized load smashed into a steel-truss bridge on Interstate 5, roughly halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, Canada.

That caused the bridge to fail and hurled two cars and three people into the icy Skagit River. While one woman was knocked unconscious, paramedics were able to rescue her, her husband and the driver of the second vehicle.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, more than 200 million trips are taken every day across deficient bridges in the nation’s 102 largest metropolitan regions.

The bridge, built in 1955, had a “sufficiency rating” of 57.4 out of 100 on the National Bridge Inventory Database. It was classified as “functionally obsolete,” meaning it no longer met current standards.

Kent LaRose, a principal bridge engineer at Morrison Hershfield in Burnaby, B.C., said that most functionally obsolete bridges do not have design flaws, as most were built between the 1950s and 1970s using state-of-the-art practices at that time.

Rather, he said, the problem is they are light structures without a lot of redundancy, so if they lose a key piece of support they are susceptible to collapse.

Even worse are the one in nine bridges that are classified as “structurally deficient,” which means that the structure has one or more structural defects that need attention.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, more than 200 million trips are taken every day across deficient bridges in the nation’s 102 largest metropolitan regions.

Public entities need to spend time identifying where these structures are in the transportation network, because they might be in areas where there are no other adequate roads to divert traffic to if they fail,” LaRose said

The Federal Highway Administration has put a price tag of $76 billion to eliminate the backlog of deficient-bridge projects by 2028. Complicating the problem is the fact that the federal Highway Trust Fund will be bankrupt by the end of 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

ASCE has recommended increasing investment in maintaining and modernizing bridges by $8 billion per year — at all levels of government — to eliminate the bridge project backlog.

Priorities for fixing unsound bridges should be those designated for use during national disasters, for emergency response and for use by the military, LaRose said.

Casey Dinges, senior managing director of ASCE in Washington, D.C., said he is “guardedly optimistic” that Congress will vote to increase investment in the trust fund, an action that has been vocally supported by President Barack Obama, who has publicly cited ASCE’s report.

At issue is whether to increase the federal gasoline tax, currently at 18.4 cents. It has been widely speculated that Congress might opt to restructure the tax so that wholesalers pay it instead of drivers at the pump, Dinges says.

“If this is what they feel like they have to do to get the necessary infrastructure bill to pass, then it needs to happen,” he said.

Graybeal said that “most major property carriers are reluctant to insure these bridges, but there are select carriers who do provide coverage on a ‘loss limit’ basis. Any risk transfer program for bridges is going to have sizable deductibles.”

To obtain proper coverage — i.e., “replacement cost” or “stated amount” — the first issue is valuation of the bridges themselves, he said.

That process can be difficult, as values need to be determined on a linear-foot basis and it can be expensive to get an appraisal. However, carriers will accept cost estimates from in-house engineers, and many county and state governments have employed engineers who can perform linear-foot cost estimates.

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