Talking Michigan Transportation

Local bridge bundling pilot kicks off

February 28, 2022 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 4 Episode 95
Talking Michigan Transportation
Local bridge bundling pilot kicks off
Show Notes Transcript

This week’s edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast features conversations about the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) initiative to bundle bridge projects together to make them more cost effective. 

First, Rebecca Curtis, deputy chief bridge engineer at MDOT, explains how the program stretches taxpayer dollars to help some local road agencies make major improvements on their bridges.  

Curtis explains the need for the program because of the growing need as funding has not kept up with the wear and decline in bridge conditions. She also explains MDOT’s role in oversight of local bridge inspections and quality assurance as required by the Federal Highway Administration.

You can track progress on the projects on MDOT’s online dashboard

Later, Wayne Harrall, deputy managing director of engineering at the Kent County Road Commission and a former member of a regional bridge council, offers a local agency perspective on the bundling concept. 

Harrall explains how a sound asset management plan has allowed his agency to stretch the dollars and maintain bridges even in Michigan’s decades-long challenged transportation funding environment. He also shares the reasons he’s a champion for the bridge bundling concept, saying in a news release, "This is the most supportive program from the State of Michigan for local bridges that I've ever seen. The MDOT Bureau of Bridges has engaged with local agencies from the beginning, before there was even funding allocated to the effort."

Podcast photo: Palms Road over Belle River in St. Clair County. Photo courtesy of HNTB.


Jeff Cranson: Welcome to the talking Michigan Transportation Podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson.


Cranson: Bridge bundling is top of mind this week after MDOT, in partnership with several local road agencies, announced that work would begin on the first of nineteen pilot projects. First, I’ll be speaking with Becky Curtis. She is the chief deputy bridge engineer at MDOT, and she'll talk about the bundling program, what it is, and how it works. In a second segment, I'll speak with Wayne Harrell of the Kent County Road Commission to get a local perspective on the concept. Okay, thank you Becky for being here and taking time away from what I know is a really busy schedule to explain further bridge bundling, which we've talked about on the podcast a few other times with your colleague Matt Chynoweth. But now, we've taken a pretty significant step forward identifying some projects that will start this week. Let's start first with jurisdictions and why we talk about local bridges versus state-owned bridges and why it's the way it is in Michigan.  

Becky Curtis: So, bridges in Michigan are kind of separated into the two ownership groups. There's MDOT, and we own the trunk line bridges. And so those are all of your m routes, your interstates, and they also include the local roads that go over the interstate. And so, funding that's designated for MDOT is used to maintain those. We get a portion of the state funds, and we also get 75 percent of the federal aid. For local agencies, they are responsible for the remaining bridges, and those can be owned by counties and cities and villages. And those bridges need to be funded from the portion of the state funds that go to the local agencies. And there's also a small amount of bridges designated funding; it's about 15 percent of the bridge funding that MDOT was getting and goes to local agency bridges. And why that's important is because while the local agencies get their portion rate of the state gas tax and some federal aid, bridges are very expensive components of the roadway. And so, a single local agency may not have the funding available to fund the required repairs for that bridge because it's such a large investment. And so, by pooling our funding statewide through our local agency bridge advisory boards, we are able to then, instead of giving everybody 10 percent of the funding we need, we can actually select a few bridges and adequately fund them. So that's currently how we're structured. Unfortunately, that that funding was only at about 50 million dollars a year, including the state and the federal aid funding, and the needs really far exceed that amount.  

Cranson: We should put a dollar figure on that. I'm sorry to interrupt, Becky, but tell us, what do you think that need really is? 

Curtis: Well, the total need just to address the serious and critical bridges for local agencies, is probably 1.5 billion dollars. And that number is going to continue to grow as we see cost escalation, inflation, and as the construction industry fights for skilled labor resources that number is definitely going to increase significantly. As far as applications to the local bridge council, I think they see 300 to 400 million dollars of project applications each year for a 50 million pot of money. 

 Cranson: And when you talk about bridges—maybe this this is intuitive or should be—but why are they more expensive to maintain than other stretches of roadway? 

 Curtis: It's the whole idea of needing to safely transverse some sort of gap in the roadway, whether that's a railroad or another road or a waterway. And especially when you talk about waterways, which most of our local agency bridges cross, we have to look at the fact that land use might have changed, the amount of water going into streams, we have to look at climate resiliency, and the fact that our rainfall intensities are increasing. And we have to also account for the fact that when these bridges were originally built like 50 years ago, 60 years ago, the science might not have been there as far as properly hydraulically designing the structures. So, they're going to be built back bigger. 

 Cranson: So, when you talk about hydraulically designing it, that's when we get into that very engineer-y term scour, but it's a very, very important thing to study for what you guys do. So, talk about that and just what you're talking about; the kind of unseen pressures on the very supports that hold these bridges.

 Curtis: Yeah, so hydraulically of course it means the water has to go through the bridge. And previously, right before the science was advanced, the bridge might have built too short. And so, when you think about a flood plain, and if you can drive down after a large water event rate, the water might be exceeding the banks of the river that the bridge is crossing. And so the water has to then narrow down at the bridge to actually get through and get to lower ground where it wants to go. And in order to force itself through that bridge it picks up a lot of speed, and the speed and the force of that water, that's what made the Grand Canyon. And so, while we're not talking about Grand Canyon situations, it's still those same mechanics that are forcing itself through the bridge, and it can pose a risk to these older bridges that were built on really strong glacial clay. Which was a benefit to us back in the day, we didn't have to have piles, but now that we are more aware and conscious of scour and designing for it, it means that a lot of these bridges have to be completely replaced in order to maintain the levels of resiliency that we now expect. 

Cranson: That's a really good explanation of scour and how it comes to be. I think it's as good as any I’ve ever heard. So, we talk about this latest package is 19 local bridges. Talk about your work with the local agencies; how do you come to a list? There are regional bridge councils, lots of buy-in from the owners of these bridges, but it's still a pretty painstaking process to prioritize. Even by bundling, and creating economies of scale, and stretching the money it's still not everything we'd like to do, so how do you prioritize? 

Curtis: Yeah, it is, there are a lot of criteria that we take into account, and to start with every funding source that we get seems to have its own requirements. And so, the funding source that we actually used for this bridge pilot was specifically designated from Congress to be used in rural locations. And so right off the bat that eliminated a lot of candidates that people might have thought maybe had higher priorities. And so, we always have to start with the requirements that the funding gives us. And then secondly, we were hoping to address, of course, the worst of the worst, so we really tried to focus in poor or serious and critical bridges. And for the pilot, because we were trying to demonstrate the feasibility of the bridge bundling process, and we also wanted to do it quickly in order to hopefully get lessons learned as fast as possible should a larger bundle be proposed, we selected what we thought would be a faster delivery. And so that would be the superstructure replacements, and so we looked for bridges that we didn't think we needed to do a full bridge replacement. So those would have to be ones that weren't scour critical, for example, that we didn't need to replace the whole bridge. And so that limited down to a lower list. We contacted all those local agencies individually and we said there's this program we're thinking of doing, is your bridge a good candidate for a superstructure replacement? Would you be willing to participate? And so that sort of helped narrow the list down a little bit further. And then of course we were limited by the funding amount, and so we selected the bridges that we thought we could complete given the funding constraints. 

Cranson: So, one thing that I think confuses things further is that in Michigan we have 616 road agencies. MDOT is just one of those. Obviously, all those lane miles are divided up across all those agencies, even though the state routes carry more than 50 percent of the traffic and much more than that in terms of commercial traffic. Still, we talk about the local bridges being locally owned, so why does MDOT have a hand in this kind of program and ensuring the inspections and the safety of even the local bridges? 

Curtis: So MDOT is responsible at the federal level for oversight of our bridge inspection program. And in different states across the country, how that responsibility is handled differs. In our state, MDOT personally inspects—or our consultants do—the MDOT owned bridges. However our local agencies, and they either inspect or have their consultants inspect, their bridges, they submit that data to MDOT, and then MDOT acts in an oversight role. So, we do quality assurance, we provide their data to FHWA, and we try to help ensure public safety is maintained by providing expert assistance when requested, so we have oversight, but the actual inspections are being done by the local agencies. 

Cranson: Yeah, that's a good explanation, I think it's an important thing for people to understand. So, as we get into this this week and the first bridges begin to see the work, what's your most fervent hope for when we get to the end of the construction season; how we look back on this particular package and the success of it? 

Curtis: So, one of the things that I hope is that this is a potential model that can be used to do additional bridge bundles. And why that's important is because we have a large population of bridges that are in very bad condition. So, I’d like to say, of course, every bridge that is unsafe in Michigan should be closed. And we do have closed local agency bridges. We also have other bridges that, to keep them safe, they have their load limits reduced, and that has a negative impact on our economy. Both the manufacturing and the agricultural sectors rely on transporting heavy loads across bridges, and if the bridge is low posted then they have to have extra expense in going around that bridge. We might have to take lanes, we might have to take shoulders, and those types of limitations can cause delays to people. And that impacts families, and their morning commutes, and getting people to school, and it impacts your life. So having these bridges, these very poor conditioned bridges, is a strain when doing project selection because for the best asset management principles, we really need to have a mix of fixes. We need to keep the bridges that are in good condition; we need to keep them in good condition. We need to get to our fair bridges, and we need to try to work on them so that they don't become poor because that is the cheapest long-term strategy for our state. However, when you have this large population of bridges that are so bad they might have to be closed, it takes too many resources away from the cheapest long-term option, and you have to spend too much money on full replacements. And if we were able to address a larger number of these, so to reach for that zero serious and critical bridge goal that we have, it would actually be the best long-term strategy for the state because we'd be able to spend our money more wisely on a better mix of fixes and end up with a cheaper long-term solution. 

Cranson: That's very well said, and that dovetails nicely with what Governor Whitmer has said about rebuilding the roads, not just repaving, not just doing temporary fixes, but rebuilding. The same applies to bridges when we can and when we can't. It's why MDOT has become a national leader in asset management; it was really kind of out of necessity. When the money is shrinking in terms of its spending power over a period of decades you got to find better ways to manage it, and it's created a really robust asset management program. And you guys in the Bureau of Bridges and Structures understand that as well as anybody. Thanks Becky, do you have anything else you want to add really quickly about the program and where it's going? 

Curtis: I’m really thankful for all of our local agency champions who've provided input to us. The regional bridge councils have been great to work with and giving us guidance within the constraints that the funding available to us have, how can we best implement this, and I’m really looking forward to seeing these bridges being completed and getting some of these worst of the worst off of our inventory and having them in good condition. 

Cranson: Well, that's very nice and a good segue because in the second segment I’ll be talking to Wayne Harrell of the Kent County Road Commission, who is a former regional bridge council member and has a good understanding and is an advocate of the bridge bundling program. So, thanks again Becky. 

Curtis: Thank you. 

Cranson: Stay with us, we'll have more on the other side of this important message. 

Narrator: [Car honking] Know before you go. Head on over to Mi Drive to check out the latest on road construction and possible delays along your route. For a detailed map, head over to 

Cranson: Okay so we're back, and again I’m with Wayne Harrell of the Kent County Road Commission, and Wayne is a former member of a regional bridge council and has been integrally involved in working on these bridge bundling packages and knows it from the local perspective. He represents one of the 600 plus road agencies in Michigan. Wayne, thank you for taking time to help us explain this, and tell us a little bit first about your background and what you do for Kent County. 

Wayne Harrell: Sure. I have been with Kent County Road Commission almost 33 years, and I was hired in 1989 as the bridge engineer, so I’ve been involved in some fun projects over the years. I currently manage our engineering division, which is about 30 people, and really get involved in both roads and bridges, design, construction, inspection. We do our own bridge inspection, have ever since the mandates have been out there. We have had a “bridge group” if you will. We've got at least three of our existing staff who have the NHI credentials for bridge inspection, and we budget probably about a million dollars a year of our own funding for primary and local bridge preservation. Sometimes it's small bridge replacement/rehabilitation. And overall budget for us currently is about 50 million, but that covers everything: our maintenance, our snow plowing, actual road and bridge construction, we're probably—in including federal aid that we get—we're probably in the 15 million dollars a year for road and bridge improvements. 

Cranson: Well, without sounding like you're tooting your own horn too much, talk about what it is about road commissions like Kent County that have made you guys so stable and able to stretch the dollars. Is it just a matter of embracing sound asset management, especially when it comes to bridges?

 Harrell: On local roads, where many of our neighbors require the township fund, certain things, maybe a hundred percent, we take care of all the maintenance of our local road system, and we partner 50 percent. So, any improvement type work, typically it comes down to paving local roads, we split those costs 50/50. If we have a construction project on a local road it's 55 township 45 road commission. So, our overall local system is in pretty good shape. Because of that I believe, because we certainly stretched the dollars. As far as the primary system, we have 100 responsibility monetarily, and of course maintenance wise we have everything within the county jurisdiction, and we're also the maintenance agent for MDOT. So, probably for our system, and we are currently all in good fair condition as far as structures, we were fortunate in the 70s and 80s to do some partnering with some of our townships for some of the local bridges. We called it the bridge program, again that predates me, and we had a lot of structures that probably would be in the closed situation right now that were replaced back in those days. None of our neighbors have the same amount of MTF as us because its population based. And so we are able to do things that some of our neighbors, when you get done with all the maintenance and all the absolute firefighting—and when I’m talking about firefighting things that come up and you got to fix it. And so when it comes to the things that you plan to do, you may be out of money. And we're fortunate in the aspect that we have more act 51 money. We also have had a very aggressive asset management plan. We've been fortunate to have our maintenance division dedicate certain staff to bridge preservation work. Even some small bridge replacements if they're culverts that are classified as bridges—

 Cranson: Well, I think when you talk about the situation changing in a in a hot minute, I mean, you've got an office right there on the Grand River, you know what's going on right now in in Grand Rapids, and really all along the river for several miles, and what kind of spring we're looking at. So, that's the kind of thing that can really, really make a difference in a bridge, especially an older structure, right? 

Harrell: Absolutely. And some of these things you inspect; we do visual inspections, we do that in-house, so we have a good idea. You could say well, yeah maybe it's better to have some other eyes, so we do do some quality assurance with other consulting firms. But we also do some of our own because we do have multiple people that have the expertise to do the inspections. But we have a good sense of where our problems are, where our concern areas are. We also have a good sense of the repair work that's been done, and how long it's lasted, and how it lasts, so we've done a few innovative things the last two or three years related to some of our metal culverts and precast box beam bridges. So, side side-by-side box bean bridges were very popular in the 60s, 70s, probably even into the 80s, because you could build a substructure abutments piers, have these beams cast, set them next to each other, route the area between the beams, and then just pave a couple inches of asphalt over it, and there you go. But unfortunately, we're finding over time that because of the typical design where water just sheds over the sides, the outsides of these beams tend to deteriorate much quicker than you would normally anticipate. I mean, we usually go by a new bridge, you expect a 75-year life. Now if you build a timber bridge, maybe it would be a little less than that, but for steel concrete, generally you're going to say this should be there for 75 years. Again, just like our roads, you can't just ignore them; if a road is a 20-year life, you're not going to get 20 years if you do nothing, and the same thing is with the bridges. So, we're very heavy in preservation, and we also try to be innovative. And again, we're able to probably try some things, like I say that our neighboring counties may not be able to because of some of the requirements with federal funding. There's certain things that if somebody came to us and wanted to try a new innovation, we could do it with our own funding. With state and federal monies, it might be more difficult just until it's proven that, hey this is going to work.  

Cranson: Well, and Kent County has been a leader in asset management and kind of a model for others and that has a lot to do with it. So talk about the bundling, and why you like the concept, and these 19 bridges that were selected for this round, and how it stretches the money, and why you think it's a really good way for the state and locals to partner. 

Harrell: You know, what is great about it is that we've been for the local bridge program, we get about 45 million dollars a year, and I’ve been on that committee over 15 years, and we've been getting not a lot of change. Maybe a little bit of up creep, certainly not keeping up with inflation and cost of materials and things like that, so every year we really touch less bridges if we're using the same budget. So, to me, I mean, we've got bridges out there in the state that are local bridges that you could probably spend that whole 45 million and only replace three or four bridges because they're very large. What I like about it is that it's money that is going to touch some of those structures that are going to be very expensive. And ultimately, for Kent County Road Commission, because we don't have bridges on that list of 19, and we don't have bridges on the future bridge bundling number two that are in either closed bridges or serious and critical bridges, but what it is going to do is allow for some of those bridges to be repaired outside of our normal local bridge funding program. I mean, we get applications of probably 200 million or more for annual review, and we only have 45 million dollars, so we're getting four to five times or more applications. And there's more need out there than that, so to me, it's going to be our way to try to catch up. So, the 19 bridges is a pilot, and that means, hey, we're just going to try this, this is a start, but we do know that we've got another bridge bundling coming because of some additional state and federal monies. And that's more in the line of well, it's over 100 million, 190 million I believe is the number that is allocated to touch some of those other bridges. So, at the end of the day, the pilot is the start of something much bigger. Because back when we were working with the bridge bureau, trying to come up with a number for the governor and for the legislature of what the need is, and this was a couple years ago, we were pushing close to a billion dollars of what is the need out there to get us up to a situation where we're in 100 percent good fair or 95 percent good fair condition, similar to what we would look at for our roadway system. 

Cranson: Yeah, so, I guess lastly could you talk a little bit about the regional bridge councils and the role that they fill. Exactly what do they do? 

Harrell: Well, if I give you a little bit of history, when I first started here in 1989 there was what was called the critical bridge program, so that was what now is morphed into the local bridge program, but the critical bridge program is exactly what it sounds like. It was only really going to help you if you had a closed bridge or you had a seriously weight restricted structure, so that is how the scoring was primarily done is, is it closed, is it posted. Legislation in the early 2000s came out to create this local bridge advisory board. So, it is a part of legislation; it said that you need representation from both counties and cities and villages. So, we branch off from the local bridge advisory board, which is really less hands-on let's say. So then you branch down to the seven regional bridge councils, and that's where really the bulk of the work happens. But the philosophy is that in the region of the Grand Region, there's representation on that board. There's four members: two city village, two county representatives. They've got a better idea, right, what's critical in the Grand Rapids area. So, we've broken it into, you know, these more tinier groups that really are going to take care of their area and do what's best as they select these projects. But there is a very stringent formula based on the applications that come into those regional bridge councils, and the funding allocation is really based on square footage of bridge debt. So Grand Rapids gets less money than, say, the Saginaw Port Huron area because they've got just a lot more bridge area up there. Grand Rapids region gets about four and a half to five million a year out of that 45 million. If you go up in the north region, there are smaller bridges, less bridges which I really wouldn't dream that, but their allocation is much smaller, probably in the 3 million a year. Like I say, you've got representation, so it keeps it a little more just like the word “regional”. And as those groups select the projects based on the funding they have, then it comes up to the local board for really final approval, and it's very seldom that the region's going to select a project and the local bridge advisory board is going to say, “Yeah we're not going to fund that for this reason or the other”. We're probably more looking at guidelines; some of them that we've looked at recently is how many applications can an agency submit. And typically, five has been the maximum. Last year we had a recommendation to allow agencies to submit as many applications for funding as they chose. And Keith Cooper out of the local agency programs who handles our projects to get them out to bid also lead these regional councils as well as the local board. I mean, they're really the state agency that kind of coordinates everything with these group makeups. 

Cranson: It's a good system and it ensures participation and equal footing for everybody, and I think it's the best thing you can do to stretch the money until we have a long-term sustainable funding source which doesn't seem like it's going to be anytime soon. so, thanks Wayne for taking time to explain all these things, I really appreciate it, and I appreciate your help with the bundling program which is a very innovative approach to getting more done with less. 

Harrell: Well thanks a lot for the opportunity and yeah I’ve been around the block a little bit with the process and so I do appreciate the chance to share some of my knowledge and of the system and really bridges are my passion if I had the camera on I panned around the room I’ve got photos of four or five bridges in here so used to be called the bridge guy but now they sometimes call me the boss I don't know 

Cranson: Thank you again for listening to this week's edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I would like to thank Randy Debler and Corey Petee for engineering this week's podcast. To subscribe, to show notes, and more, go to Apple podcasts and search for Talking Michigan Transportation.