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Pittsburgh bridge collapse shows importance of infrastructure data

The Fern Hollow Bridge collapse prompted news outlets to look at data on bridges. That data could help officials improve infrastructure.

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Fern Hollow Bridge after its collapse

The collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh has prompted a discussion on the value of infrastructure data and research. Photo credit: National Transportation Safety Board/Wikimedia Commons

In the aftermath of the collapse of the Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh on Jan. 28, many regional news outlets nationwide pondered if a similar infrastructure disaster could happen in their areas. Many of those stories had one big thing in common: They cite data from the Federal Highway Administration’s National Bridge Inventory, which includes the number of bridges that are structurally deficient and considered to be in poor condition in each state. The American Road & Transportation Builders Association recently analyzed that data for its 2022 bridge report and noted it would take $260 billion to fix about 224,000 bridges nationwide that need repairs, and 43,578 of them are in poor condition. Those figures might sound staggering, but ARTBA’s report noted the number of structurally deficient bridges in the US has declined steadily each year since 2017. 

However, the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2021 Infrastructure Report Card gave the nation’s bridges a C, down from the C+ bridges received in the 2017 report card. The reason for that, according to Maria Lehman, director of U.S. Infrastructure at GHD and ASCE’s president for 2023, is that for the first time, there are now more bridges rated “poor” and “fair” than there are “good.”

The bipartisan infrastructure law provides about $27 billion over the next five years to repair bridges nationwide. That includes full funding for structures that aren’t part of the federal highway system. Each state will receive different levels of funding based on the relative costs of rehabilitating its poor- and fair-conditioned bridges listed in the National Bridge Inventory. 

But Richard Coffin, chief product officer at USAFacts, says that while the national numbers are important, they can potentially obscure infrastructure issues at the local level. Coffin notes that in 2020, Allegheny County, Pa., had a lower percentage of bridges in poor condition (8.8%) than the total statewide (13.8%), but still worse than the nation overall (7.3%). 

Knowledge of that kind of data is vital to decision-making by local governments that now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to maximize federal assistance on infrastructure projects. But not all infrastructure sectors have the same level of data availability or transparency. Coffin says the Bureau of Transportation Statistics used to show train infrastructure data roughly every other year from the mid-1990s to 2014. But since then, that data hasn’t been made readily accessible. And the data that was released prior to 2014 showed some of the trends were trending in the wrong directions. Specifically, underground train tunnels went from 18% being substandard before 1985 to 65.3% being substandard or poor by 2014. 

“And then the data just stopped,” Coffin says. “If you follow the trends, without knowing for sure, you would get nervous. I would say this is one of those places where making sure the data continues to be available is really, really important. I’d care about it if I was a government official trying to make a decision about infrastructure.” 

Another pain point, according to Coffin, is data formatting. When data are made available, they typically come in the form of comprehensive spreadsheets and large, downloadable files. 

“Not a lot has been done to really visualize some of these things,” Coffin says. “I mean, to really be able to go in, look at my city, my county, where is infrastructure a struggle? Mostly you have to rely on newspapers that probably do it at local levels. And [they] don’t necessarily go to the national level. There really should be a source in the government that does that. One thing that [USAFacts is] trying to do is really provide that choice where the government doesn’t.” 

However, according to Lehman, the infrastructure law represents a federal “acknowledgement … that we have to spend more money on research,” and much of that research is rooted in building robust data that could ultimately make structures safer. Data and research programs set to receive funds from the law include:

  • A pilot program to conduct research on emerging technologies, specifically including advanced and additive manufacturing technologies, as well as research into activities to reduce the impact of automated driving systems and advanced driver automation systems technologies on pavement and infrastructure performance, and to improve transportation infrastructure design. 
  • Efforts to research and develop models that integrate real-time information, including weather conditions, roadway conditions and information from emergency responders. This directive, according to a fact sheet on the law, authorizes Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg “to facilitate data integration between the Transportation Department and the National Weather Service, as well as address safety, resiliency, and vulnerability threats, by providing tools to help public safety officials and end users make important transportation decisions.”
  • Efforts to help the Federal Highway Administration develop, use and maintain data sets and data analysis tools that can help state and metropolitan area planners conduct performance management analyses. “A national performance management program provides information to help Federal, State, and local governments and others in their decision-making as they consider strategic transportation investments and policies,” according to the fact sheet.

The law also increases the amount of state incentive payment at-grade crossing closures from $7,500 to $100,000, and increases the set-aside for compilation and analysis of data from 2% to 8%.

Perhaps more importantly, though, the law will designate ten regional Centers of Excellence for Resilience and Adaptation and one national Center of Excellence for Resilience and Adaptation. Those centers will support efforts to develop feasibility analyses of resilient transportation improvements, as well as develop new design, operations and maintenance standards for transportation infrastructure. The data generated by those efforts will be disseminated to local governments, which in turn can inform policies, planning and investments. 

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