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The Federal Highway Administration has issued a final rule that will extend inspection requirements for some of the nation’s bridges from 24 months to 48 months, and in some cases, 72 months.
The final rule, announced in a Federal Register post on May 6, also will permit the use of technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles and sonar to perform some of the inspections.
FHWA’s new bridge inspection rulemaking seeks to comply with provisions contained in MAP-21, the 2012 transportation reauthorization law that established new requirements to update the National Bridge Inspection Standards program. The standards program maintains a bridge inventory and reports to FHWA bridge inspection results — especially, critical findings of structural or safety-related deficiencies.
FHWA said the new rule also is repealing two outdated regulations: the Highway Bridge Replacement and Rehabilitation Program and the Discretionary Bridge Candidate Rating Factor.
Two provisions in the regulation were modified to allow a special inspection in lieu of routine or underwater inspection reduced interval inspections. “This modification provides an option to monitor areas of concern, rather than requiring inspection of the entire bridge at reduced intervals,” FHWA said.
“Periodic and thorough inspections of our nation’s bridges are necessary to maintain safe bridge operation and prevent structural and functional failures,” the rule said. “In addition, data on the condition and operation of our nation’s bridges is necessary for bridge owners to make informed investment decisions as part of an asset management program.”
The regulations require inspections of bridges on all public roads, on and off federal-aid highways, including tribally and federally owned bridges, and private bridges connected on each end by a public road, the agency said.
The new rule establishes updates to allow for extended routine inspection intervals up to 48 months, and 72 months for underwater inspections, FHWA said. “Similarly, requirements are described to enable the establishment of more rigorous, risk-based intervals in consideration of certain factors associated with bridges for routine, underwater and non-redundant steel tension member inspections that would allow some inspection intervals to be up to 72 months.”
The risk-based approach intervals will allow for many bridges to move to a 48-month interval, which offers “substantial relief as compared to current requirements,” the agency said. “FHWA will continue to evaluate research in this area and the performance of this step and may consider longer intervals in future regulation.”
The change in inspection intervals is expected to cut some costs, according to FHWA.
According to The American Road and Transportation Builders Association’s 2022 Bridge Report, more than 43,500 bridges are rated in poor condition and classified as “structurally deficient.” Motorists cross these structures 167.5 million times a day, the report said.
“Thirty-six percent of U.S. bridges — nearly 224,000 spans — need repair work and 78,800 bridges should be replaced,” ARTBA’s report said.
The good news is that the number of structurally deficient bridges declined by 1,445 compared to 2020, according to the report. “At current pace, it would take nearly 30 years to repair them all,” it said.
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The report said that nearly half of the 619,588 U.S. bridges, or 48%, are rated in fair condition, meaning that the bridge shows some evidence of minor deterioration or minor cracks. The number of bridges in fair condition grew by 2,916 in 2021, reaching 297,888 structures.
“The risk-based inspection intervals will support more effective use of bridge inspection resources over time,” the engineering firm of Greenman Pedersen Inc. of Albany, N.Y., wrote in comments on the 2019 FHWA proposed rule. “For example, the inspection time gained from the greater inspection interval of bridges in good condition could be added to the inspection time on bridges in fair and poor condition. Additionally, as agencies implement and increase their bridge preservation activities on their bridges in good condition, those activities will result in other inspection opportunities between their scheduled bridge inspections.”
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