Talking Michigan Transportation

What federal funds can mean to Michigan bridges and innovations with carbon fiber

January 28, 2022 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 4 Episode 90
Talking Michigan Transportation
What federal funds can mean to Michigan bridges and innovations with carbon fiber
Show Notes Transcript

On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, Matt Chynoweth, MDOT’s chief bridge engineer, returns to discuss what President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) means to Michigan bridges. 

This conversation was already scheduled when news broke about the local bridge that collapsed in Pittsburgh. Two weeks ago, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was in Pennsylvania to announce the state would receive $1.6 billion in IIJA funds to repair or replace some 3,000 poor bridges in the state. 

Michigan’s share of IIJA funds for bridges is $563 million over five years. Chynoweth explains how investments will be prioritized based on asset management principles. He also puts the funding in context with the overall needs for bridges owned by the state, counties, cities, and villages across Michigan. 

Later, Chynoweth talks about work MDOT is doing with Lawrence Technological University on carbon fiber as an alternative to steel-reinforced bridges. Some pioneering work in Michigan will allow bridges to last much longer (with estimates of up to 100 years or longer) and save millions of dollars in the long term. 

Chynoweth also explains how carbon fiber strands have a tensile strength comparable to steel but resist corrosion and require less maintenance over time. MDOT is deploying the materials strategically, using them on higher-volume routes. Two bridges are currently being built with carbon fiber reinforced beams as part of MDOT's massive I-94 modernization project in Detroit.

Podcast photo: Strong and durable, carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) strands are changing the way bridges are built.


Jeff Cranson: Hello, and welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson, director of Communications at the Michigan Department of Transportation.


Cranson: Today, I had planned to talk with Matt Chynoweth, who is the chief bridge engineer at MDOT, about everything involved in the federal money, the IIJA, and what it will mean to bridges across the state of Michigan in terms of repair and replacement. And we're also going to talk, and we will talk, about carbon fiber and some new developments there in terms of longer lasting bridges. But as we're preparing to record today on Friday, January 28, we got news out of Pittsburgh about a bridge collapse there. As of now fortunately, very fortunately, it sounds like there are no life-threatening injuries and no fatalities, but people are monitoring it closely. So, we'll talk a little bit about that based on what we know, which isn't going to be a lot, but Matt, as always, will know something about the design and have something to say about that. So, again, Matt, thank you for taking time to do this. As always, I appreciate you coming on the podcast and explaining things. Let's start, real briefly, before we get into the IIJA and carbon fiber and, you know, what you're doing specifically, today another bridge collapse, this one this morning in Pittsburgh on the very day that the president has planned to go there and talk about infrastructure. I mean, what does this tell us? How do you balance what you try to do to, you know, raise warning bells for people about the need for investment but not sound like you're fearmongering?

Matt Chynoweth: Yeah, so good morning, Jeff. Thanks for having me again. Yeah, it's a fine balance, and that's why we always try to be as simple as possible in stating if a bridge isn't safe, it's not open to traffic, right? We have inspection program in place. We have a load rating program. We do our due diligence to ensure that in-service bridges are safe for use by the public. So, when you hear about a bridge collapse like what happened in Pittsburgh, and we have no details on any of that, what kind of bridge it was, what condition it was in, but when you hear about this, that's why it grabs national attention because bridge failures are just not a common thing and not a common occurrence. You just start jumping into the forensics. What happened? When was it last inspected? What are the maintenance records? Because it's such an uncommon thing. But, yeah, on the flip side, it does highlight the fact that there's investment needed in infrastructure, and, you know, we say it all the time. I think we all say it so much that I think sometimes people become tone deaf to the fact that, “Okay, well, you got some funding in 2015 and then you did the Rebuilding Michigan program and now you got IIJA. You should be good, right? We can stop with the funding.” And the answer that is no. There's always a need for more funding.

Cranson: Yeah, so talk a little bit about what is the real need for Michigan across all systems.

Chynoweth: Yeah, so we did an analysis last year to, and I can only speak for bridge, achieve goals of zero serious and critical bridges on both the trunk line and the local side. We did some fairly thorough analysis. And, you know, on the trunk line side, the number was in the $1.5 to $2 billion range, and on the local side, it was in the $1 to $1.5 billion range. And IIJA that's coming our way is great. It's $563 million over five years, and then that's going to go through formula. So, that's both MDOT and local agencies. And, you know, we recently got, which we're very thankful for, $196 million for the next phase of our local agency bridge bundling program, which is great. It's going to do a lot of good. It's going to move the needle slightly, but that $196 million is little over 10 percent of what we say we need for local agency bridges.

Cranson: Well, you know, I know the Secretary Buttigieg was in Pennsylvania just a couple of weeks ago to talk about the $1.6 billion that they're getting for bridges, specifically out of the IIJA. And it talked about replacing or repairing more than 3,000 bridges in poor conditions in Pennsylvania. That sounds like a lot, but that's like a fraction of the number of bridges in that state. I mean, Pittsburgh alone touts itself as the city with the most bridges in the country, so—

Chynoweth: Right.

Cranson: I mean, this is everywhere. Pennsylvania had a pretty hefty fuel tax increase that they got through the legislature just a few years back, and they're still struggling to keep up. So, it obviously isn't just Michigan, but I do think you're right. It's scary that people start to just tune it out after a while. They're just like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I get it. We need more money.” And then they move on, right? Then today they wake up and find out that a whole bunch of commutes are disrupted. Fortunately, as it is now, there are no fatalities, no life-threatening injuries, but it’s still a lot of inconvenience. And it's going to, you know, cost people a lot of money in terms of that inconvenience.

Chynoweth: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, to bring the numbers home, you know, with the IIJA funds that we're going to get on our trunk line bridges, our freeway bridges, if you think of them as the freeway system, the bridges with the highest amount of traffic, you know, MDOT manages about 4,600 bridges. Well, the IIJA funds that are coming to the state will allow us to work on about 140 to 150 bridges out of the 4,700. On the local side—total in Michigan we have 13,000 bridges—we have 1,000 bridges that are either in serious or critical or what we call load posted, meaning they can't carry legal loads, so they're posted. We have a thousand in that condition. And as part of our bridge bundling program, over the last couple years and in the years to come, we think that we can address about 80 to 100 of them with the funding we have. So, again, every little bit helps, but when you look at the numbers in totality, we're only hitting small percentages of the needs.

Cranson: So, how do we decide? How do you decide how that money is going to be spent? Obviously, we know that 25 percent of that money will go to the local bridges, and they'll make determinations about what their priorities are. But how do you decide the money for the state bridges and where it goes?

Chynoweth: Yeah, so obviously, we have our asset management program. We have a very mature asset management bridge program in Michigan. We've been collecting tons and tons and tons of bridge data for years as part of the national bridge inspection program. So, we take a mix of fixes approach. We do not just look at all the low-hanging fruit and say, “We have to replace all the worst bridges.” We try to mix it up in terms of a certain percent replacement, a certain percent rehabilitation, and a certain percent preventative maintenance. A rule of thumb that we try to apply statewide with what we call our call for project strategy is a mix of about 50 percent replacement, thirty percent rehabilitation, and twenty percent maintenance. And, you know, those percentages vary depending on what region you're in. But we definitely take the mix of fixes approach because, yes, we have to address the poor bridges, but we also have to prevent the fair bridges from turning poor. With the bridges that are in good condition, it is very cost effective to invest in those to keep them in good condition. It's a smaller investment to keep good bridges in good condition than it is to replace poor bridges. So, we hit our mix of fixes approach, and that's how the that's how the IIJA funds will be split up.

Cranson: So, this is a good time probably to remind people that Michigan is a national leader in asset management. And, you know, part of that is just being a state where transportation was at the forefront for so long, so it's led to generations of innovation. But part of that is just necessity because of if you operate with not enough money for decades you have to find ways to stretch it and be as efficient as possible, and a robust asset management plan is the best way to do that, right?

Chynoweth: Well, absolutely. What it also allows us to do is we can very effectively articulate the benefits of the investment. So, when we report out to the legislature if we get an increased investment of $1 billion dollars through asset management, this is what we think we can do. This is how we can move the needle. We can go from this percent to this percent. You can't do that analysis and you can't make those forecasts without all of the data that's in a good asset management program. So, it's very beneficial to both articulate, you know, the need for funding but then to show the benefits of what additional funding will get.

Cranson: How long do you think it will be before we can be more specific about where this IIJA money is going to go?

Chynoweth: In terms of specific projects?

Cranson: Yes. Yeah.

Chynoweth: Well, we already have several strategies in place. We went through a bunch of fire drills last year when we were anticipating the amounts that were going to be in the bill. If you recall, it jumped all over the board. They wanted bipartisan support, so they were working with various amounts. Our MDOT regions have already gone through and prioritized, you know, what roadway corridors they'd want to do given the funding amount. Then, you know, obviously, we have bridges in those corridors that we wanted to include. And then we have, you know, specific standalone bridges that we wanted to include as well. So, a good example is the Lafayette Bascule bridge in Bay City. We need to replace that. It's a very expensive bridge. It's going to be anywhere in the $65 to $75 million dollar range to replace that. So, that's one of our IIJA standalone bridges. We just have to figure out where in the program it's going to go, and, you know, when we can do it in terms of regional mobility.

Cranson: And that price tag is because of the mechanics that are involved in a Bascule bridge, right?

Chynoweth: Absolutely, yeah. It's a movable bridge. It's very complex structurally, electrically, mechanically. We're spanning a navigable waterway. And we say that, you know, the price tag we're fairly confident in because we just finished, you know, a few years ago, Fort Street over the Rouge River, and that had a $65 million dollar price tag so we know how much these things cost.

Cranson: We will continue the conversation right after a quick break.

Narrator: The Michigan Department of Transportation reminds you that when a vehicle collides with another vehicle, person, or other object, it is a crash, not an accident. By reducing human error, we can prevent crashes and rebuild Michigan roads safely.

Cranson: Yeah, so when you talk about doling out this money and using your asset management plan and what you'd like to do if you were king for a day and could say, “Look, this is how much money we really need.” As you travel the country and talk to your counterparts on various AASHTO committees, where do you feel like—I know there's all kinds of data we can look at in terms of the bridge inventory and conditions of bridges, but where do you feel like Michigan is at and how it stacks up against other states and attacking this problem?

Chynoweth: Well, from an asset management perspective, like you said, I think we're, you know, strategy wise and vision wise I definitely think we're far ahead. But when it comes to, you know, like, the latest ARTBA report and Roads and Bridges Magazine and stuff like that, the numbers are what they are. It shows that, you know, Michigan is in the lower portion in terms of condition. It's not because we build—there's been a lot of discussion about how we don't build with the right materials, or we don't hold contractors accountable, we don't have warranties, and we don't build the European pavement section. All of that really is irrelevant; We use the same materials that other states do. I’m standing in a fabrication facility right now that's fabricating carbon fiber cable for bridge beams. Not many states are using that, but Michigan is. So, it's not a function of the materials or the design. It's a function of the investment. Unfortunately, we just have under invested. If you look at other states like Florida, you look at Texas, you look at California, they have huge amounts of state funding. They don’t have a lot of federal funding, but they have huge programs. We just don't come close to those programs.

Cranson: Let's talk about that. But I’m glad you made that point that, you know, everybody wants to find an answer about the quality of construction or the quality of the contractors or, like you said, the materials, anything but the reality, which is we need more money. But since you're at what I think is a cleverly named manufacturer, Tokyo Rope, today, which located a facility in metro Detroit largely because of MDOT's work with them on developing carbon fiber, explain it, I guess. What's it all about?

Chynoweth: Yeah, so we started down this road years ago. But when it comes to building bridges, we're always endeavoring to make bridges last longer. We want bridges to go longer time frames without requiring maintenance. So, when you drive around the state and you see an issue with a bridge, it's typically, whether you have a concrete bridge or a steel bridge, due to corrosion. And even concrete bridges have steel reinforcement or steel pre-stressing strand in them, and it corrodes. The concrete still has some permeability, and water still gets in. So, this idea of taking the corrosive element out and replacing it with something that's non-corrosive is huge for us. Again, we are on the path to designing and building bridges that we anticipate will last 100 years with this technology. So, it's carbon fiber composite cable, which is carbon fibers that are mixed with a high strength resin. And it's a very complex manufacturing process where these cables are wound and protruded and then formed into a seven-wire strand that has the same strength characteristics as steel strand. And we've been testing it for years. We've done a lot of research in partnership with Lawrence Tech and Dr. Grace. We've done a lot of work and testing it and proving to engineers that these materials are safe and that these materials can be designed with, and they can behave just like a typical freeway bridge. It's taken us a while. We've done our due diligence. Yeah, we got a plant in Michigan that manufactures the stuff, which has cut down the cost. We're very confident that these are the materials of the future.

Cranson: So, talk a little bit about the application. I mean, is this eventually going to be used everywhere? Is it just a matter of, you know, having to spend more money up front, or is it never going to be the right material for all kinds of bridges?

Chynoweth: Yeah, so it's definitely got what we're calling, you know, the right application it. There is a cost premium up front, so we are paying more on the initial cost end. Then what we're anticipating through, you know, life cycle calculations are that because corrosion is next to zero, well, it doesn't corrode, we're going to have fewer life cycle maintenance activities during the life of the bridge. And that's a benefit in a lot of ways. Number one, it prevents future costs. If you think about it, anytime we have to work on a bridge or a road, we're setting up a work zone. There's a safety component to that, so we're also eliminating setting up work zones and impacting mobility and impacting safety. So, no, it's not intended to be used in every bridge. We're trying to target specific locations, specific high-volume locations. For example, we've just done a couple on I-94 in Metro Detroit as part of the Modernization project. And all of these bridges are over I-94, so we salt I-94, the trucks go 70, 75 miles an hour down I-94. They're kicking up this high velocity mist that actually hits bridge beams, and then the chlorides attack the steel. So, we've done a couple on I-94 that have that same thing, right? They're subject to a lot of road salts and a lot of corrosive chemicals. Hopefully, what we're anticipating with the carbon fiber is there won't be any corrosion in these beams.

Cranson: So, when you say a hundred years, Lawrence Tech, where you've spent a lot of time working with Dr. Grace who you mentioned and who is just an incredible pioneer in developing and innovating these kinds of new technologies, it's very interesting. Describe the process that they use to simulate how these materials will wear over a number of years through a number of weather cycles.

Chynoweth: Yeah, so the first thing that we do with any type of experimental program is we do the numerical modeling. We do the theoretical design piece of this, and then we do durability calculations. We do, you know, load calculations, so we do the theoretical—and it's not just pencil on paper. This is very advanced, you know, finite element modeling, very advanced time dependent analyses for the various things that affect concrete. So, we have a good basis for what we need to look for. Then at Lawrence Tech, Dr. Grace has the Center for Innovative Materials Research, and there we are able to load test beams. So, we will load test them to check for cracking. We'll load and unload millions of times to simulate truck cycles, like what bridges will see in their life. Then we'll load them to failure. We also can do high temperature testing, and then we load it while it's in the fire chamber to make sure that the bridge is stable long enough so that, for example, if we had a tank or fire under a bridge, we could safely close the bridge, get traffic off the bridge and out from underneath the bridge prior to collapse. And then we also do a lot of cold weather testing. He's got an environmental chamber that can simulate freezing conditions and rain and snow. And then just being here in Michigan, we've done a lot with putting these materials in load frames, and then just moving them out behind the lab at Lawrence Tech and letting the natural weather cycles affect it. So, we've been very thorough in investigating these materials in terms of we know they're going to be out in the elements, we know they're going to see heavy truck traffic, so let's simulate all of those things and get the data so that we can be confident that everything's going to be safe.

Cranson: Yeah, it's really quite something to see. I’m always impressed when I’m there and they do those kinds of simulations. Well, thank you, Matt. Good luck today at Tokyo Rope with your quality oversight. It's really interesting, and we'll pay attention as the IIJA money starts to flow and probably talk about it some more.

Chynoweth: Sounds great. Thanks, Jeff.


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.