The U.S. National Highway System (NHS) – the federally managed bridge and road network that moves American people and goods – has suffered from decades of insufficient maintenance and heavy use. Lack of funds, increasing traffic loads, and environmental exposure have encouraged rapid bridge deterioration in an already aging system. In 2016, nearly 40% of the nation’s bridges were over 50 years old and 9.1% were rated “structurally deficient.” To properly prioritize maintenance, repairs, and reconstruction, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has implemented the National Highway Performance Plan (NHPP), which requires states to design and implement management strategies for their NHS assets.
To fulfill Montana’s NHPP requirements, two WTI employees, Senior Research Engineer Damon Fick and Researcher Matt Bell, have developed a bridge assessment program for the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) using three decades of inspection and deterioration data. By performing a time-based statistical analysis on these data Bell and Fick were able to create graphical deterioration projections – or Deterioration Curves – for bridges across the state. These were then adjusted to better reflect the deterioration observed in MDT’s real-world observations. “These bridge deterioration curves guide maintenance planning and decision-making at both the project and network level,” noted Bell. “By reflecting what we see in the real world, MDT can use the curves to appropriately allocate money for future work and make sure maintenance is happening at the right time.
While the deterioration curves indicate the general deterioration rate of bridges across Montana, Bell and Fick will identify specific deterioration variables (deicers, precipitation, traffic volume, etc.) in their next MDT project. “Faster or slower deterioration rates in different Montana districts may be related to maintenance practices, as much as, or in combination with, environmental conditions,” said Bell. “For example, bridges that permit heavy truck loads may experience faster deterioration. If we understand the specific impact, MDT can improve truck permitting and preemptively identify maintenance activities and building specifications. Continually improving the accuracy of the deterioration curves will support the decision-making process for our colleagues at MDT.”
On Wednesday, August 12, the Western Transportation Institute (WTI), Montana State University (MSU), and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) co-hosted a national forum to raise awareness on “The Importance of Focusing on Transportation Safety in Rural America.”
NHTSA officials had
originally planned August field tours to western states and public lands to
view rural safety conditions and engage with state and local stakeholders on
initiatives to enhance rural transportation safety. WTI was slated to host one
of the public meetings on the MSU campus. Due to current travel restrictions,
the entire field visit was transformed into a virtual forum.
Jason Carter, MSU Vice President of
Research, Economic Development and Graduate Education, served as the webinar
host, providing the welcome address and introducing remarks by NHTSA Deputy
Administrator James Owens, USDOT Secretary Elaine Chao, U.S.
Senator Steve Daines (MT), and U.S. Representative Greg Gianforte
In a panel discussion moderated
by WTI Director David Kack, presenters provided an overview of critical
rural transportation issues that impact the safety and effectiveness of the
entire national transportation network, as well as current initiatives to
enhance travel through rural areas:
Nic Ward, Director of the Center for Health and Safety Culture at MSU, discussed the importance of addressing driver behavior to improve safety and gave an overview of how traffic safety culture approaches can be effectively used for issues such as seat belt usage, speeding, and impaired driving.
Loren Smith, USDOT Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, introduced the federal ROUTES Initiative, which addresses transportation infrastructure disparities between rural and urban areas. He included an overview of the new ROUTES Applicant Toolkit, which is designed to help rural agencies access federal grants and resources.