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Federal Highway Administration / Publications / Focus / April 2006

Accelerating Infrastructure Innovations

Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-06-024
Date: April 2006

Building the Bridge of the Future with GRS Technology

Build the bridge of the future better, faster, and for less money using geosynthetic reinforced soil (GRS) technology for abutments. Instead of a conventional bridge supported on a pile cap abutment, GRS technology uses alternating layers of compacted fill and sheets of geotextile reinforcement to provide support for the bridge. GRS abutments can be built with readily available material using common construction equipment, without the need for highly skilled labor. They are also extremely durable. "They can even perform very well in earthquakes, if constructed properly with closely spaced reinforcement," says Mike Adams of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). "The reinforcement spacing controls the performance of the GRS mass."

Researchers at the U.S. Forest Service and the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) pioneered the early development of the technology. FHWA then worked with CDOT to further refine it. FHWA built and tested several full-scale GRS structures at its Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center in McLean, Virginia.

"While this type of abutment isn't right for every bridge, the technology is well suited for single span bridges of less than 36 m (120 ft). It is not advisable for water crossings where the potential for scour is critical," says Adams. About 80 percent of bridges in the United States have a span length between 21-27 m (70-90 ft). A significant portion of these single span bridges could be supported on GRS.

In the summer and fall of 2005, FHWA provided guidance and abutment design plans to Defiance County, Ohio, to build the Bowman Road Bridge using GRS technology. The bridge was opened to traffic in October 2005. This was the county's first time using the technology to build bridge abutments. "After seeing a presentation on the technology and meeting with Mike Adams of FHWA to learn more, we modified our plans from using traditional abutments to building ones with GRS," says Warren Schlatter, Defiance County engineer. Before building the Bowman Road Bridge, to become comfortable with GRS, the county initially used it for retaining walls to reduce the cost of culvert construction.

The Bowman Road Bridge in Defiance County, Ohio, was constructed using geosynthetic reinforced soil technology (GRS) for the abutments.
The Bowman Road Bridge in Defiance County, Ohio, was constructed using geosynthetic reinforced soil technology (GRS) for the abutments.

The innovation of using GRS paid off, as Defiance County realized a cost savings of nearly 25 percent on its first bridge support project. The bridge was also built in 6 weeks, versus a typical construction time of several months for a conventional bridge. "Significant savings were realized in both time and costs," says Adams. The construction time for the bridge could have been reduced even more, to less than 3 weeks, if two separate labor crews had been used to build both abutments simultaneously.

For the Bowman Road Bridge, instead of using cast-in-place concrete for the abutment walls, split-face cinder blocks (modular concrete blocks) were used to face the abutment. Building a GRS mass is as easy as 1-2-3: a row of blocks, a layer of compacted fill to the height of the facing blocks (20 cm (8 in)), and then a layer of geotextile. Each layer of geotextile is extended between the rows of blocks to connect the block to the GRS mass. The 1-2-3 process is repeated until the wall height is reached. "There are two necessary factors to assure good performance of a GRS mass: good compaction with quality granular fill and close reinforcement spacing," says Adams.

Precast concrete box beams were placed directly on the GRS abutments without a concrete footing; the bridge structure has no cast-in-place concrete. The bridge also does not have an approach slab, but rather GRS was compacted directly behind the bridge beams to form the approach way and to create a gradual transition from the roadway to the bridge. Asphalt pavement was placed on the bridge and approach without a conventional joint system at the bridge ends. The intent was to allow the bridge and the adjacent road to settle together, providing a bump free, smooth ride for drivers traveling on and off the bridge.

Concrete box beams are placed directly on the GRS abutments.
Above: Concrete box beams are placed directly on the GRS abutments. Below: Construction of the GRS abutments. Construction of the GRS abutments.

FHWA instrumented the bridge so that performance monitoring can be conducted over the next 2 to 3 years. "It is performing very well," says Schlatter. "There has been very little movement or settling, and no pavement cracking."

Defiance County is planning to build seven more abutments this year using GRS. "One of the biggest advantages for us is convenience," says Schlatter. "There are many construction advantages over using concrete, including the ability to build the abutments in all kinds of weather conditions." Other States that have expressed interest in using GRS for abutments include Illinois and Massachusetts.

To learn more about GRS technology or the Bowman Road Bridge, contact Mike Adams at FHWA, 202-493-3025 (email: mike.adams@fhwa.dot.gov). Additional information on the Bowman Road Bridge is also available from Warren Schlatter of Defiance County, 419-782-4751 (email: dce@defiance-county.com).

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Updated: 06/27/2017
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