How to Start a Bridge Preservation Program

Funds for maintaining bridges and building new ones are extremely tight these days. Federal and local governments aren’t providing the dollars needed to keep structures in working order. That’s why many municipalities and other organizations that own and manage bridges are looking for ways to make them last longer. One of the best ways to do that is to establish a formal bridge preservation program.

A bridge preservation program ensures that inspections and maintenance activities take place on a calendar or an as-needed basis that cost-effectively prolongs the service lives of bridges. It puts off the need for more costly and intensive rehabilitation efforts or complete bridge replacement.

It makes the most sense to begin bridge preservation activities when structures are relatively new and in good or fair condition. This provides the greatest value over time. When a bridge — or a component of it — is in poor condition, bridge preservation should be postponed until the structure or the damaged part of it is rehabilitated and returned to good working order.

Launching a bridge preservation program isn’t as difficult as you may think. Here are the 10 steps you need to take to develop and launch one.

1. Determine goals and objectives.

The only way a program can succeed is to clearly understand what you want it to accomplish. Start by asking yourself: How much could you save on big-ticket repair and construction work if you did more preservation-related activities?

2. Figure out which bridges to preserve.

Draw up a list of structures that are in good or fair condition, have adequate load capacity, and are able to meet current traffic demands. These are the types of bridges that will benefit most from a maintenance program.

3. Come up with a list of preservation activities.

Your list will be determined by the types of bridges you plan to preserve and how environmental, weather, and traffic patterns impact them. How often and when work gets done may be based on calendar cycles or condition

A calendar or cyclical activity is one that happens regularly, no matter the condition of the structure or element. 

A condition-based activity only takes place when a bridge or a part of it exhibits signs of wear or damage.

Calendar-based activities could include:

  • Washing the bridge deck, superstructure, and substructure.
  • Cleaning and flushing drains.
  • Cleaning deck joints.
  • Sealing connections on the deck, parapet, and railings.

Condition-based activities might include:

  • Repairing or replacing drains.
  • Replacing deck joint seals.
  • Fixing deck joints.
  • Conducting electrochemical extraction or cathodic protection on the deck and substructure.
  • Repairing deck concrete.
  • Sealing, patching, or repairing superstructure concrete.
  • Placing a protective coating on concrete and steel superstructure elements.
  • Painting steel superstructure and substructure parts. 
  • Repairing steel components of the superstructure.
  • Fixing cracks.
  • Replacing pin-and-hanger elements.
  • Retrofitting fractured superstructure components.
  • Cleaning, lubricating, resetting, or replacing bearings.
  • Cleaning, lubricating, and repairing bridge machinery.
  • Patching or repairing concrete substructure elements.
  • Placing a protective coating on concrete and steel substructure parts.
  • Preserving piles using jackets and wraps.
  • Cleaning channels and removing debris.

This list is merely a starting point. Depending on the design of your bridges and local weather and environmental conditions, there could be other activities you’ll need to include as part of your program and some that could be unnecessary.

Once you’ve compiled your list, document rules about how you plan to implement the activities on it. 

  • For calendar-based activities, set dates or time frames for when work gets done. For example, schedule work for the “third week of September” or “first week of every quarter.”
  • For condition-based activities, assign definitions and descriptions that explain when maintenance or repairs should take place. Examples include, “when a crack is two inches in length,” or, “when rust is visible on a surface.”

Make sure your rules are specific and that anyone working in your organization or with business partners will understand them.

4. Develop life cycle plans.

Life cycle planning (LCP) estimates the cost of managing a bridge or a part of one over its entire life, with a focus on minimizing costs while maintaining or improving its condition.

Expand this and consider a complete range of options for handling preservation activities across your bridge network. Evaluate different maintenance actions and timings, levels of upkeep, types of rehabilitation, replacement spending, and funding levels. Find the combination that gets you the optimal level of preservation for the most efficient cost. Update your activities list based on it.

5. Set performance measures.

The only way that you’ll know your program is working and that the life cycle plan is performing as expected is to set defined measurable performance goals. 

Use comparative goals for this purpose rather than absolute ones. Define the costs and conditions you expect after you implement your bridge preservation program versus what they would be if you continued doing business as usual. Project the cost of preventive maintenance and related results. Compare them with the costs and results of continuing your current bridge rehabilitation and replacement efforts. Use this as a measure to determine whether your new way of working is more effective than the old way.

6. Define success.

How will you communicate the performance of your new activities to your stakeholders? The first step is to clearly define what success looks like. 

Your primary goal for your program is to slow deterioration so you can extend the service life of bridges under your care. If everything works out as planned, extended service life means lower annualized costs of rehabilitation and replacement. While you will likely be spending more money on preservation, the additional dollars will be offset by reduced rehab or replacement costs. Plan how you will report the comparative improvement to your stakeholders.

7. Redeploy budget dollars to support preservation activities.

The analysis you’ve completed in section four and throughout the program development and planning process will identify cost-saving opportunities that will help you make the case for transferring budget dollars from rehabilitation and construction projects to preservation-related initiatives. It will also help you prove the value of receiving additional funds to launch a bridge preservation program and cover a transition period from how you maintain bridges today to your future vision. This should help you secure the first year’s budget that you’ll need to launch a program.

8. Get started.

Once you have approval and funding to move ahead, you’ll need to identify current resources and find new ones to handle different types of maintenance projects. (BridgeMaster’s cutting-edge lifts are often used to help inspect and preserve hard-to-reach bridge components.) You’ll also have to come up with project plans that will shift when — and how — the people on your bridge crews and suppliers get work done. Finding a project manager with experience overseeing preservation programs is critical for a smooth transition and ongoing success.

Another thing to consider: Partner with a knowledgeable human resource professional and communicator to come up with a change management plan that helps the people on your team transition into new ways of thinking about and doing their work. Helping them understand the reasons for the shift to preservation makes it more likely that your program will succeed.

9. Monitor results.

The value of bridge preservation can be demonstrated in a number of ways. 

One is to monitor and measure the performance of major bridge components or their condition over time. See how their performance or condition compare when they’re actively preserved versus when they are more passively maintained. Use comparative testing, historic records, or industry statistics to come up with meaningful data.

Another is to monitor the performance of the bridges in your program overall. Compare the amount of major rehabilitation and construction you need to do prior to implementing the program to after its launch. It could take time to gather data gauging the success of your overall program, but you should be able to demonstrate incremental improvement in your first year.

10. Make recommendations for improvement.

No matter how much analysis, research, and planning you do prior to launching a bridge preservation program, nothing replaces real-world learning, experience, and results. Use what you find out during your first year and beyond to come up with ways to make it more efficient and effective over time.