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Bridge Safety Inspection FAQs

 

WHAT IS STRUCTURALLY DEFICIENT?

Structurally deficient means that the bridge has deterioration to one or more of its major components. Although deterioration is present, a structurally deficient bridge is safe.

 

WHAT IS FUNCTIONALLY OBSOLETE?

Functionally obsolete means that the bridge has older features (for example, road widths and weight limits) compared to more recently built bridges.

 

WHAT IS A SUFFICIENCY RATING?

Sufficiency rating is a calculated score indicating a bridge's ability to meet the traffic demands and safety needs for the route it carries. Factors included in the calculation are:

  • the structure's adequacy and safety (accounting for 55 percent and based on inspection data)
  • the structure's serviceability and functional obsolescence (accounting for 30 percent and based on the ability of the bridge to meet current traffic conditions), and
  • how essential the bridge is for public use (accounting for 15 percent)

Sufficiency ratings range from 100 (entirely sufficient) to 0 (entirely insufficient or deficient).

The sufficiency rating is considered by the federal government when a state requests federal bridge dollars to improve the condition of the bridge. Bridges with low sufficiency ratings are eligible for more funds.

Sufficiency Rating Federal Funding
80-100 Not available
50-79 Eligible for costs to rehabilitate or refurbish bridge
0–49 Eligible for costs to replace bridge

 

HOW MANY BRIDGE SAFETY INSPECTIONS DOES PENNDOT CONDUCT EACH YEAR?

About 19,000. PennDOT is responsible for the safety inspection of approximately 25,000 state-owned highway bridges. Each of these bridges must be inspected at least once every two years. Some bridges such as those with weight restrictions are inspected once a year. PennDOT also oversees the biennial inspection of approximately 7,000 highway bridges and culverts owned by local municipalities or other agencies.

 

WHO MAKES SURE THAT BRIDGES IN PENNSYLVANIA ARE SAFE?

PennDOT is responsible for ensuring that the 32,000 bridges in Pennsylvania are inspected according to state and federal regulations. Approximately 25,000 bridges are owned by the state, and inspections are done by PennDOT employees and consultants who are certified bridge safety inspectors. PennDOT provides oversight for the approximately 7,000 bridges owned and inspected by local municipalities and other agencies.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is responsible for inspecting their bridges and they are required to submit the inspection information to PennDOT.

 

WHAT DO THE FEDERAL HIGHWAY ADMINISTRATION CONDITION RATING NUMBERS REALLY MEAN?

The condition rating numbers indicate the general structural condition, or health, of the bridge components. Each component (deck, superstructure and substructure) is assigned a condition rating. The rating number is based on a scale of nine to zero established by the National Bridge Inspection Standards that are followed by all states:

  • 9 = Excellent
  • 8 = Very good
  • 7 = Good, some minor problems noted.
  • 6 = Satisfactory, structural elements showing minor deterioration.
  • 5 = Fair, primary structural elements are sound but showing minor cracks and signs of deterioration.
  • 4 = Poor, deterioration of primary structural elements has advanced.
  • 3 = Serious, deterioration has seriously affected the primary structural components.
  • 2 = Critical, deterioration of primary structural components has advanced and bridge will be closely monitored, or closed, until corrective action can be taken.
  • 1 = Imminent failure, major deterioration in critical structural components. Bridge is closed but corrective action may put the bridge back into light service.
  • 0 = Failed, bridge is out of service and beyond corrective action.
  • N = Not applicable

A condition rating of 5-9 means that the bridge is performing as designed with minor signs of deterioration. The bridge is structurally sound and routine maintenance actions can stop further deterioration.

A condition rating of 4 or lower means that deterioration on at least one structural component is advanced and the poor conditions result in the bridge being classified as structurally deficient. Inspectors provide documentation and photographs to structural engineers to review the deterioration. Structural engineers confirm the assigned condition rating, perform a load rating analysis to determine the load (or weight) capacity of the bridge, compare results to previous studies to determine if the capacity has changed, and determine what other actions must be taken. PennDOT will either make immediate repairs to the bridge, take temporary actions (for example, shoring the weakened sections, restricting traffic from critical areas, or posting a weight restriction) to keep the bridge open until repairs can be made, or close the bridge until repairs can be made.

Bear in mind that these condition ratings are only used to generally categorize bridge conditions and to provide a global view for planning transportation improvements. Similar to evaluating a person's overall health, a bridge's condition is too complex to be fully described with just three condition ratings. To develop a more-detailed assessment of a bridge's health and the priority for repairs, the structural engineer evaluates many factors including the bridge type and construction materials, age, traffic volumes, load carrying capacity and location and extent of deterioration.

 

HOW DOES A COMPONENT CONDITION RATING RELATE TO BRIDGE LOAD CAPACITY?

Although there is no mathematical relationship, a low superstructure condition rating may be accompanied by a lower bridge load capacity. Bridge load capacity defines the maximum weight limit that can safely cross the bridge and is based primarily on the ability of the superstructure component to carry legally loaded trucks. Different truck axle configurations are used to evaluate weight limits, such as an 18-wheel tractor trailer weighing 40 tons.

There are exceptions; a large number of older bridges were designed to carry truck loadings significantly less than today's legal truck loads. The superstructure component of these bridges may be free of deterioration and warrant a condition rating of 7, for example. However, the weight limit may be only 15 tons per the original design and therefore the bridge is posted for weight restriction.

 

DOES A POSTED WEIGHT LIMIT ON A BRIDGE MEAN IT'S UNSAFE?

No. It means that in order to maintain public safety, only vehicles weighing no more than the posted weight limit can cross the bridge.

 

WHAT QUALIFICATIONS DO PENNSYLVANIA BRIDGE SAFETY INSPETORS HAVE?

The Federal Regulations that govern bridge inspections, National Bridge Inspection Standards (NBIS), have basic qualifications requirements for bridge safety inspectors. Pennsylvania requirements meet and exceed those qualifications with its extensive training and certification program.

Each bridge inspection is done by a team of at least two, or more, certified inspectors depending on the size of the bridge. To become a certified inspector in Pennsylvania, PennDOT employees and consultants must complete PennDOT's Bridge Safety Inspector Training and Certification program. This program began in 1980 and served as a model for the current Federal Highway Administration Bridge Inspection Training Program used throughout the country. The program consists of an initial, 13-day training course that addresses bridge engineering concepts, recognizing material deterioration, inspection techniques and procedures, and rating and documenting conditions of all components. A comprehensive final exam must be passed to receive a Pennsylvania certification.

To maintain a Pennsylvania inspection certification, inspectors are required to attend a refresher training course every two years to remain current with new inspection technologies and procedures, and to pass a final exam. Inspectors responsible for fracture critical bridges must also attend specialized training provided by the Federal Highway Administration.

Each inspection team is supervised by a team leader. In addition to completing PennDOT's Bridge Safety Inspector Training and Certification program, a team leader must have one of the following five qualifications:

  • Be a registered professional engineer.
  • Have five years bridge-inspection experience.
  • Be certified as a Level III or IV Bridge Safety Inspector under the National Society of Professional Engineer's program for National Certification in Engineering Technologies.
  • Have a bachelor's degree in engineering from a college or university accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, and successfully passed the National Council of Examiner for Engineering and Surveying Fundamentals of Engineering examination, and two years bridge-inspection experience.
  • Have an associate degree in engineering or engineering technology from a college or university accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology and four years bridge-inspection experience.

 

WHAT DOES A BRIDGE INSPECTION ENTAIL?

A bridge safety inspection includes five tasks:

  • Planning: Identifying, in advance, needs for traffic control/restriction, access and safety equipment, inspection tools, personnel, and daily schedules.
  • Preparation: Procuring equipment and services identified in planning task.
  • Inspection: Performing visual and physical evaluations of bridge components and all bridge elements according to the National Bridge Inspection Standards and PennDOT's Bridge Safety Inspection Policy and Procedures manual.
  • Reporting: Documenting methods and procedures used and findings as a result of the inspection.
  • Recommendations: Preparing a list of prioritized maintenance, repair, and replacement activities.

 

WHAT DO BRIDGE INSPECTORS LOOK FOR?

Bridge safety inspectors evaluate the entire bridge to verify current conditions as compared to the "as built" condition or to previous inspection reports. Items looked at include the proper alignment of the superstructure to the substructure, alignment of the bridge to the roadway, proper installation of road signs, and the condition of the waterway or roadway area beneath the bridge. Each bridge element is inspected primarily for deterioration due to weather, chemicals (such as road salt), and traffic impacts. This detailed assessment includes looking for rust/corrosion of steel, cracks in steel and concrete, missing/broken off sections of concrete, flow of water around bridge supports, and stream bed erosion. While every element on the bridge is inspected, emphasis is placed on the primary structural elements that support the weight of the bridge itself and traffic loads.

 

WHAT IS DONE WITH THE INFORMATION COLLECTED BY BRIDGE INSPECTORS?

The information is reviewed by structural engineers to verify the condition ratings assigned by the inspector and to verify the safe weight limits of the bridge. This information is then used to calculate the bridge's sufficiency rating and to determine when the bridge requires maintenance and repair actions. PennDOT uses the combined inspection data from all bridges to plan future repair and replacement projects and to estimate the cost of such projects.

 

WHEN IS A BRIDGE CLOSED?

A bridge is closed when advanced deterioration results in a load rating capacity (weight limit) of less than 3 tons. If safety of the traveling public cannot be guaranteed, then the bridge is closed.