Bertha Back on Track

The massive tunneling project to replace the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle seems to be back on track. As of June 23rd, Bertha, the 57-foot diameter tunneling machine, has completed 3,088 feet of the 9,270 foot journey. With an estimated price tag of $3.1 billion, you can bet local residents are eager to see what their tax dollars have bought. However, commuters can expect to pay tolls as the Washington State Legislature mandated that $200 million be raised to meet funding goals. For more on the growing prevalence of tolls, see my June 12 post HERE

The tunnel will have two 11-foot travel lanes with an eight-foot safety shoulder and a two-foot shoulder in each direction. The growing need for an updated option through downtown Seattle became alarmingly apparent in 2001 when the Nisqually quake hit. Simulations showed that an event that was 10 miles closer, lasted 10 seconds longer, and registered 7.0 instead of 6.8 on the Richter scale could quite possibly have brought the double deck bridge, which carries over 110,000 cars per day, crumbling to the ground. WSDOT made some seismic improvements to the Viaduct, but it was ultimately decided that a permanent solution needed to be found.


Bertha got off to a rough start. Tunneling began in July, 2013, but was halted less than six months and 1,000 feet later when she hit a vertical pipe used to measure groundwater, damaging several cutting heads and seals. The project ground to a halt for two years while a pit was constructed to bring the cutting head to the surface for repairs. Work resumed in December of 2015 but was halted just a month later because a tethered barge in Elliott Bay damaged some piers, which opened a sinkhole in the area. After determining it was safe to continue, Bertha began digging again in April 2016 and has been making steady headway ever since. WSDOT hopes to have the project completed by 2018. 

Now go enjoy the day.


To P3 or Not To P3, That is the Question

On June 29, 2006, Mitch Daniels, the governor of Indiana, brokered a deal with a foreign consortium made up of the Spanish construction firm Cintra and the Macquarie Infrastructure Group (MIG) of Australia. The deal would give the foreign partnership operation rights to the 157-mile Indiana Toll Road for the next 75 years in exchange for $3.8 billion up front. By one calculation, the Toll Road would generate more than $11 billion over the 75-year life of the contract.

In what is known as public-private partnerships (P3’s), many states are addressing their budget crises by taking up-front payments from private entities, which, in turn, operate a stretch of road and/or bridge and recoup their investment (and then some) in the form of tolls. This practice draws massive criticism from both sides of the aisle, but it boils down to the desperate need to update this country’s infrastructure with limited resources to pay for it.

The FAST Act, passed into law late 2015, will help alleviate some of the budget woes for transportation departments across the county, but more needs to be done if we are to improve our infrastructure, not just maintain it.

Enter the P3 project. Just like a home mortgage, The People get the immediate benefit, while the deep pockets reap the rewards of long-term investment. While I can certainly understand the negative side of these types of deals (losing control of interstate system, outrageous tolls, profit vs. safety, etc.), the collective We have to shoulder some responsibility. Road and bridge projects aren’t cheap, and the gas tax doesn’t cover the tab any longer. Until we get on board with the fact that our infrastructure is an investment in our economic health, and that taxes and tolls help pay for that investment, we will continue to struggle to fund projects, and the result will be more foreign and domestic conglomerates operating more of our highway system.

Now go enjoy the day.

The Bid Process

We drive on roads and bridges everyday. Ever wonder how they got there? Here is a highly simplified breakdown of a project from conception to completion. While some of these steps can vary slightly in their specifics, this should give you enough general information to impress all your neighbors at the next block party. Assuming, of course, you live in a neighborhood full of engineers.

The Players

  • Funding Agency: the guys picking up the tab. Usually a combination of the Federal Government and a local entity (State DOT, County, City, Public Works Dept., etc).
  • Owner: who the project is being done for. Usually a State DOT or agency that is responsible for the road or bridge (maintenance, repairs, snow removal, etc.).
  • Design Group: responsible for the design of a project, including, but not limited to, running structural calculations for bridges, ensuring design is per latest version of specifications, and that project meets current federal safety standards.
  • Prime Contractor: same as a general contractor who builds houses. They are responsible for getting the project completed and turned over to the Owner for a specified contract amount
  • Sub-Contractor: hired by the Prime Contractor to complete a specific scope of work at the jobsite for a specified contract amount (paving, dirt work, bridge construction).
  • Supplier: hired by either Prime Contractor or Sub-Contractor to provide specific materials, but will not do any work at the jobsite (rebar supplier, bearing manufacturer, anchor bolt supplier).

The Bid

  • Owner will put contract out for bid (generally called a letting). Multiple Prime Contractors will review plans, visit site of proposed work, etc. to determine if they’d like to bid the job.
  • Sub-Contractors and Suppliers will also view the plans to determine if there are products or services they can provide. If so, they will put a bid together and will submit it to the Prime Contractor a few days before the bid date
  • Prime Contractors collect all bids from Sub-Contractors and Suppliers for specified bid items. Based on those bids from multiple subs and suppliers the Prime Contractors will determine a price they are willing to do the entire project for. (example of bid item list here:
  • On bid day Prime Contractor submits their bid to the Owner. The Owner opens and reads each Prime Contractor bid publicly.
  • The low bidder is awarded the project

Once the Prime Contractor is awarded the project from the Owner they will send contracts to all Sub-Contractors and Suppliers they used in their bid to purchase materials and services in each specific scope of work. As you can imagine, one of the biggest challenges Prime Contractors face is coordinating schedules with dozens of different subs and suppliers.

Now go enjoy the day.


ABC’s of Bridge Construction

Accelerated Bridge Construction, or ABC, is being implemented by numerous agencies to help speed up the construction of bridges, and to reduce the necessity to close lanes, detour traffic, etc. Contactors are generally incentivized for finishing work ahead of the target date, thereby reducing the impact to the surrounding communities as well as commuters. I’m always interested in how a “thing” is built, especially something we take for granted everyday like small bridges.

In the first video the contractor actually built the new bridge next to the existing bridge and then “rolled” it into place using cranes and low friction bearings. I’ve been on site for a similar event and the coordination between those on the ground and the crane operator(s) is something to see!              Bridge 1

This second video employs a different method of ABC, but the result is the same…a highly compressed schedule that helps minimize costs. As more and more agencies employ these methods we should all enjoy the benefits!              Bridge 2

Now go enjoy the day.

Tolls: Coming Soon To A Highway Near You

For those of us that didn’t grow up in New York, New Jersey, or Pennsylvania, toll roads might be a new phenomenon, but mark my words, you should probably get used to them. More and more states are moving in the direction of toll roads, and while many of the fees are quite low, there are some routes that will cost big money. Driving into Manhattan on the George Washington Bridge or via Holland Tunnel will run you $15.00. This may seem excessive, but handling tens of millions of cars per year puts a tremendous strain on these systems in the form of maintenance, repairs and monitoring. The funds generated go into the state budget and help offset the costs associated with maintaining existing roads and bridges as well as helping to build new ones.

Being from the west coast, I’ve met many people that bristle at the growing prevalence of tolls. Washington, where I’m originally from, just replaced the SR520 floating bridge, a project with a $4.65 billion price tag. Guess what? That shiny new bridge is now a toll bridge, and Seattleites are not too happy about the $6-8 round trip fare collected from many people making the trip for work. From my perspective, tolls are a “pay to play” device that charge a premium to those that put the most strain that particular system.   Let me be clear in saying that I do believe everyone needs to contribute to the state fund for roads and bridges. Regardless of whether or not you even own a car, you buy groceries that were delivered on trucks, you call the police when there’s a problem, and you might need a ride in an ambulance once day, so while your footprint is smaller than a daily commuter, it is not invisible.

In short, tolling helps state agencies generate revenue. The New Jersey Turnpike Authority generated over $1.5 billion in revenues for the fiscal year ending March 2016 (see chart below). Those funds are crucial to not only maintaining existing roads and bridges, but also helping to build new, safer roadways, as well as mass transit options.


Now go enjoy the day.

Bridge 9340

On August 1, 2007, the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis, MN (bridge 9340) collapsed, leaving 145 people injured and 13 dead. The worst part of this disaster is that it was completely avoidable. While the final findings indicated that under designed gussets were to blame, the bridge had been reported “structurally deficient” 17 years in a row by Minnesota DOT inspectors.


According to the National Transportation Safety Board, “The sufficiency rating of a bridge is a computed numerical value that is used to determine the eligibility of a bridge for Federal funding. This rating formula returns a value from 0–100 and includes factors for structural condition, bridge geometry, and traffic. A bridge with a sufficiency rating of less than 50 is eligible for Federal bridge replacement funding.” Bridge 9340 had received ratings of 46.5 to 50 since 1991, 16 years before the collapse.

Will all structurally deficient bridges collapse? The answer is no, but what the tragedy in Minneapolis illustrates is the dire state of this country’s roads and bridges. In 2007, The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) reported that 12%, or 72,500 bridges, are structurally deficient. The $305 billion FAST Act is a great start to the rebuilding process, but we need to do more, and I’ll spare you the suspense…it’s going to require lots of money, and perhaps more importantly, fiscal responsibility from our leaders.

Now go enjoy the day.

America’s Roads and Bridges

The approval of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act in late 2015 injects $305 billion into this country’s much-needed infrastructure programs. FAST sets federal funding levels for highways, bridges, and rail through 2020, the longest commitment of federal funds in over a decade. While this is a step in the right direction, it is far short of Obama’s original proposal, which called for $478 billion. The multiyear transportation bill is paid for with gas tax revenue and a package of $70 billion in offsets from other areas of the federal budget.

Americans are among the most mobile in the world, with 2013 data showing we travelled 4.99 trillion miles, or an average of nearly 16,000 miles per person. However, these numbers assume all 300+ million Americans drive, so the actual number of miles driven by licensed drivers is much higher. Of those miles, 79.8% are road miles, putting a massive strain on the system. This data released by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) shows the results of that strain:

According to a 2014 study by the Texas Transportation Institute, Americans spent an extra 6.9 billion hours in their vehicles and had to purchase an additional 3.1 billion gallons of fuel due to congestion on our roads. That equates to an economic impact of $160 billion!   This is money that is coming out of your pocket and mine due to our deficient, outdated infrastructure.

The federal gasoline tax is currently 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline, of which 18.3 cents is credited to the Highway Trust Fund and invested in highway and mass transit improvements. Revenues from 0.1 cent per gallon are credited to the Liquid Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund. The federal diesel fuel tax is 24.4 cents per gallon. The revenues collected from these user fees help finance transportation improvements, but it’s not enough. According a study by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), if more money isn’t spent ($1.1 trillion more from all funding sources by 2020), deficiencies in the nation’s infrastructure will cost the country almost $1 trillion a year in lost business sales and 3.5 million jobs. This is a real problem, and one we can no longer ignore. Countries such as China and India are making massive investments in their infrastructure, which further hurts America’s ability to be competitive in many manufacturing and service sectors. The ASCE estimates that the U.S. will lose more than $72 billion in foreign exports if the nation’s highway system is not brought up to speed.

This is a real problem that is not going away. Roads and bridges are called infrastructure for a reason. They, along with elements such as the electrical grid and water/sewer pipeline systems, are the foundation that this country’s wealth was built upon, and it is time to inject the necessary funds to make it great again. While the $305 billion FAST Act is a respectable start, it is merely the first step in a long journey, but a journey well worth the cost.