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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Focus > May 2002 > Preserving the future of Pennsylvania bridges
May 2002Publication Number: FHWA-RD-02-010

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Preserving the future of Pennsylvania bridges

For the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PENNDOT), bridge maintenance is not just about fixing bridges when they break down: It's about using preventive maintenance to breathe new life into not-so-new bridges and take care of structures before they have the chance to deteriorate. A new video produced by PENNDOT, Pennsylvania Bridges: Maintaining the Past-Preserving the Future, highlights the agency's maintenance practices and provides an overview of the importance of bridge preservation.

Pennsylvania maintains the third largest number of State bridges in the country, spending $300 million on 250 bridge projects each year. PENNDOT has found that both proper and frequent inspections and a good preventive maintenance program are vital to extending performance, keeping costs down, and ensuring safety. "Spending a relatively small amount of money today will save us large amounts of money tomorrow," says Gary Hoffman, Chief Engineer of PENNDOT.

Preventive maintenance is defined as a planned strategy of cost-effective treatments applied at the proper time to preserve and extend the useful life of a bridge. Bridge maintenance activities that provide the biggest benefit for the smallest level of investment generally include:

  • Eliminating deck joints in old bridges
  • Repairing or installing new expansion dams on bridge decks
  • Repairing bridge decks
  • Maintaining proper deck drainage
  • Restoring or replacing bridge bearings
  • Repairing or replacing bridge approach slabs
  • Repairing bridge beam ends and beam bearing areas
  • Bridge painting.

An effective preventive maintenance program can't be carried out without good information on bridge conditions. PENNDOT's team of 50 bridge inspectors works with numerous other consultant inspectors to inspect all of the agency's bridges at least once every 2 years. The bridge data is then stored in a management system, allowing engineers to prioritize the maintenance, preservation, and rehabilitation needs and make smart decisions as to how to best take care of the bridge infrastructure.

Photo of small bridge over water

As the video stresses, adequate funding is needed to sustain preventive maintenance efforts. Last winter, for example, an expansion dam came apart on a bridge on Interstate 81 near Scranton. After the metal plate broke loose, more than two dozen cars got flat tires, others sustained damage to their undercarriage, and one car crashed into the guard rail. Fortunately, no serious injuries occurred. "But this incident could have been prevented if we had had the money to make the proper repairs before the situation became serious," says Chuck Mattei, District Engineer of PENNDOT's District Four Office near Scranton. "There must be a recognition and willingness to do the maintenance and preservation work with the first available dollars, not the last," adds Hoffman. "No matter how smooth a road feels or how good it looks, ultimately it is only as good as the bridge that will eventually connect it."

Photo of worker sealing a joint on a bridge
PENNDOT has found that a good bridge preventive maintenance program is vital to extending perfomance. In the photo above, joint sealing is performed a Route 30 bridge in York County.

An additional source of funding for preventive maintenance and the preservation of highway bridges became available in January 2002, when FHWA announced that Highway Bridge Replacement and Rehabilitation Program funds could be used to perform preventive maintenance on highway bridges. Examples of preventive maintenance activities eligible for funding include: replacing leaking joints, applying deck overlays that will significantly increase the service life of the deck, painting the structural steel, and applying electrochemical chloride extraction treatments to decks and substructure elements.

Photo of crew installing timber deck on a bridge.
A crew installs a temporary timber deck on a bridge in Mt. Joy.

To obtain a copy of the video or for more information on bridge preservation and Federal aid funding, contact your local FHWA division office or Ray McCormick at FHWA, 202-366-4675 (email: raymond.mccormick@fhwa.dot.gov). For more information on Pennsylvania's bridge preservation program, contact Gary Hoffman at PENNDOT, 717-787-6898 (email: ghoffma@dot.state.pa.us).

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Updated: 04/07/2011

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