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Highways for LIFE

Arrow Marketing Plan for Prefabricated Bridge Elements and Systems (PBES)

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Executive Summary

The current condition of the Nation's highway system, and its bridges in particular, demands a major effort for upgrading. Yet, using traditional approaches would require an enormous cost, create major congestion problems and have significant safety challenges associated with it. A relatively new approach called Prefabricated Bridge Elements and Systems offers a solution to many of the bridge challenges highway agencies are facing. This marketing plan describes the current status of the bridge system, describes PBES, and outlines a comprehensive approach for getting state bridge engineers to consider, learn about, and ultimately try this approach when situations are appropriate for its use.

Situation Analysis

The FHWA Office of Safety, in partnership with the FHWA Office of Infrastructure, Highways for LIFE (HfL) team, FHWA Resource Center, and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Technology Implementation Group (TIG), is working diligently to champion the need for RSAs. Toward that end, this marketing plan has been developed to implement a more effective approach to promoting RSAs to FHWA's customers.

When the U.S. Interstate Highway System was first conceived and promoted, it was with the vision that one day Americans would be able to drive from coast to coast without stopping for a traffic signal. In the 50 years since President Eisenhower launched the system with the signing of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, drivers in this country have seen that vision realized. To achieve the goal required the construction of a complex system of highways, bridges, interchanges, drainage systems, traffic controls, landscaping, and lighting systems. Today, the National Highway System (NHS) encompasses some 160,000 miles of roadway.

Although the NHS makes up only 4 percent of America's roads, it carries more than 40 percent of all highway traffic, 75 percent of all heavy truck traffic, and 90 percent of tourist traffic. It has become the very backbone of the American economy, serving as the primary means of moving goods throughout the country. The NHS serves 198 ports, 207 airports, 67 Amtrak train stations, 190 rail/truck terminals, 82 intercity bus terminals, 307 public transit stations, 37 ferry terminals, 58 pipeline terminals, and 20 multipurpose passenger terminals. It is literally the thing that holds the Nation's entire transportation system together.

Unfortunately, the NHS is not without its problems. First, it's overcrowded. By the year 2020, ninety percent of all urban Interstate highways will be at or exceeding capacity. Five years ago, the Texas Transportation Institute put the cost of congestion in the Nation's 75 largest urban areas at $67.5 billion, and each traveler in those areas sits in traffic for 62 hours a year.

Second, NHS pavements are not lasting as long as they should. Highways built to last 25 years take such a pounding from the amount and the weight of traffic that they rarely stay in optimum condition that long. Today, more than 11,000 miles of pavement on the NHS are in poor condition. Almost a quarter of all bridges in the country–some 146,000–are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Yet, many highway engineers agree that 50–year pavements and 100–year bridges should be attainable using current technology.

Third, we're not building highways safe enough. Every year for the past decade, some 43,000 people die on America's highways. Over half of these fatalities have occurred on two–lane roads that carry only 25 percent of the total NHS traffic. Some 15,000 fatalities are ascribed directly to substandard road conditions, obsolete designs, or roadside hazards. Marketing Plan for Prefabricated Bridge Elements and Systems (PBES) 2 The list goes on and on. Truly, America's highway system needs help. But how do we bring the system up to the level of quality the traveling public deserves? That's the challenge the Nation faces at the beginning of a new century. To be sure, many leaders have thought long and hard about solutions. For some, the automatic response to such a challenge is simply to throw money at the problem. Certainly, having the funds to complete necessary road and bridge projects has long been an issue with highway agencies at all governmental levels. But according to organizations such as The Road Information Program (TRIP) and the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), not only is the idea of funding such a massive reconstruction effort unrealistic, the very future of highway funding is in jeopardy.

The average car now gets nearly a third more miles per gallon than it did 20 years ago. Ten years ago, a report from the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) warned that with increasing fuel efficiency (and an expected move toward electric and hybrid vehicles), drivers would be buying less gas in the future, and that would reduce the amount of tax money available for improving roadways. In 2003, a report from the Brookings Institution confirmed those projections and indicated that states are already seeing declines in their tax revenues.

Indeed, as gasoline prices have risen, the public has focused more on conservation, vehicles with higher fuel economy, and vehicles powered with alternative fuels. This has meant less money paid into gasoline taxes. The result is a deep concern that both states and the Federal Government will have to find alternative means for funding highway projects. Toll roads are becoming more and more prevalent, and concepts such as equipping vehicles with on–board computers which calculate mileage and automatically bill the vehicle owner a tax–per–mile fee are getting serious consideration. Several times, Congressional leaders have introduced bills which would provide drivers with a "temporary gas tax holiday," a move which, while appealing to some, would result in severely decreased funds for maintaining the highway system.

Yet, even if the funds were available, a massive effort to rebuild the entire highway system using current practices would be inconceivable today. The public would not stand for the congestion it would bring with it. In 2001, a study analyzing three national surveys of the driving public showed clearly that the public already equates highway construction–any highway construction–with congestion. Increasing construction levels, even if it is intended to ultimately cut congestion levels by adding lanes, only exacerbates the public's perception that "the shortest distance between two points is always under construction."

Filling The Need

How does one bring the existing highway system up to the level of quality the public wants, yet do so without the congestion headache that such construction invariably causes?

The solution is to find ways to do as much of the work as possible at times and in locations that minimize interference with the driving public, and for that portion of the work that does require such interference, to do it as quickly and safely as possible. These innovative approaches should also result in facilities that are safer, last longer, and are of better quality overall than what was there previously.

Marketing Plan for Prefabricated Bridge Elements and Systems (PBES) 3 Currently, there are numerous innovations that, if implemented nationwide, would have just such a dramatic impact on the driving experience of the motorist. Congestion levels would be reduced, especially in construction work zones. In addition, because construction schedules would be shortened, overall congestion would decrease. Safety levels would be heightened, both in work zones and, because of enhanced designs, on the everyday sections of highway. Highways and bridges would last longer, and as a result, there would be less frequent road closures due to construction. Additionally, roadways would cost less, both in initial cost, and in the entire life cycle of the highway or bridge.

The question is, then, what innovations exist today for bridge design, construction, and maintenance?

The AASHTO Technology Implementation Group

At the beginning of the new millennium, the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) recognized that a few states were having good success with the concept of building bridges offsite, away from the flow of traffic and the hazards and congestion associated with it, and then bringing the structure, either in pieces or fully completed, to the site. The key concept was that, although the actual building of the bridge might take as long or longer as it would have onsite, that wasn't how the highway user viewed it. In the public's perception, the bridge went up almost instantaneously, since they measured the construction period based on the amount of time it impacted traffic circulation, not the actual project schedule. Other benefits were found for such an approach, such as increased safety for construction crews, and better quality of construction, due to contractors' being able to build components in a more controlled environment.

In 2001, the AASHTO Technology Implementation Group (TIG) selected the technology known as "Prefabricated Bridge Elements and Systems," or "PBES," as a focus technology. In May of 2002, the TIG PBES team issued a marketing plan. The plan's primary objectives were focused on building awareness and stimulating nationwide use of the PBES technology. The TIG PBES team produced two brochures and a video, populated a website, gave presentations and wrote papers, and sponsored a number of workshops. Much of the focus of the marketing plan you are now reading owes its impetus to that plan and the individuals who produced it.

Scanning Tour

In April 2004, a team of bridge engineers, sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), AASHTO, and NCHRP visited Japan and Europe to investigate innovations in prefabricated bridge building technology. A number of useful technologies were identified on that trip. Most relevant to the PBES effort was the discovery of self–propelled modular transporters (SPMTs), which are multi–axle devices that can be manipulated in very limited spaces to move complete prefabricated bridge systems into position. Previously, the use of prefabricated systems was limited by the size of loads that could be carried on highways or moved into position with traditional methods (cranes, hoists, etc.). It is now possible to construct very large systems at a staging area near the job site but away from traffic, and then position them with precision into their final location using SPMTs. A prefabricated bridge system can even be lifted and transported by SPMTs from a staging area to barges, floated on the barges to the bridge site, and then lifted into position for connection.

Marketing Plan for Prefabricated Bridge Elements and Systems (PBES) 4 Largely through the efforts of the scanning team, the market for SPMTs was opened up in this hemisphere, and several firms have made the tools available. Most notable, as of this writing, are the Dutch firm Mammoet, a host of the 2004 scan, with its multiple bridge moves in the United States, and the Sarens Group, headquartered in Belgium and also a host of the 2004 scan, with its first bridge move in the United States planned for late 2007. In addition, Barnhart Crane & Rigging has recently purchased SPMTs for bridge moves, and Bigge Crane and Rigging Co. has used SPMTs on a recent West Coast bridge project. Today, there are a sufficient number of firms for construction competition demands.

An excellent example of the difference SPMTs have made is the 5.4–mile I–10 twin span trestle bridge near Slidell, Louisiana. The bridge was originally constructed in 1963 using 260–ton pre stressed concrete slabs. The bridge was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Using barge–mounted SPMTs, one of the twin spans was brought back into service in just weeks. While smaller bridges, such as the single–span Mitchell Gulch Bridge near Denver, Colorado, could be replaced in a weekend using cranes, the technology of SPMTs is required to make this possible on larger structures. A number of other projects in Louisiana used SPMTs to restore damaged bridges after Katrina.

Now, structures carrying multi–lane Interstate highways across busy roadways and waterways, even in the middle of metropolitan areas, can be replaced overnight. The ironic aspect is that, while such amazing work can be done without major interruptions to traffic, the impact of such efforts are largely unappreciated by the public because they don't see the congestion that not using the innovation would have caused. And because highway agencies and their employees are public servants and it has not been their approach in the past to ballyhoo their efforts as a private corporation promoting a product might, these innovative efforts go largely unheralded. This is unfortunate for several reasons: For one, the effort and those who achieved it get little recognition. More important, the public is uneducated on the value of such approaches and does not pressure decision–makers to use them more frequently.

If, for example, a particular urban bridge were successfully replaced using PBES and SPMTs in a few hours, and that project received national attention, citizens of other locales, hearing about the project, might influence locals to use the approach in their communities. Thus, the public would have a stronger hand in technology deployment. As important, the overall education of the general public on highway work would be enhanced, and the level of discussions at future public hearings and public debate would be enhanced.

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Kathleen Bergeron
Highways for LIFE

This page last modified on 04/04/11

United States Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration