Tag Archives: bridge

Kansas City Interstate Overpass Closed Due to 20′ Crack

By Angela Griffith

A bridge engineer watching a crack (previously described as “tight”) under the Grand Boulevard bridge noticed it had extended to 20′ on May 6, 2016. He immediately ordered the bridge closed, requiring the rerouting of the more than 9,000 vehicles that use the bridge every day. Replacing the bridge is estimated to cost $5 million.

Luckily, due to the quick action of the engineer, there were no injuries or fatalities as could have occurred due to either the bridge catastrophically collapsing while in use, or for motorists on the Interstate below being struck by large chunks of concrete falling from the overpass.

The overpass failure can be addressed in a Cause Map, or visual root cause analysis. The process begins by capturing the what, when and where of the incident (a bridge failure May 6 in Kansas City) and the impacts to the goals. Because there was the potential for injuries, the safety goal is impacted. The re-routing of over 9,000 vehicles a day is an impact to the customer service goal. The closing of the bridge’s overpass/ sidewalks is an impact to the production goal, and the cost of replacing the bridge is an impact to the property/ labor goal.

By beginning with an impacted goal and asking ‘Why’ questions, cause-and-effect relationships that lay out the causes of an incident can be developed. In this case, the impacted goals are caused by the significant damage to the bridge, due to a rapidly spreading crack.

The failure of any material or object, including all or part of a bridge, results from the stress on that object from all sources overcoming the strength of the object. In this case the stress on the bridge was greater than the strength of the bridge. Stress on the bridge results from each pass of a vehicle over the life of the bridge. In this case, 9,300 vehicles a day transit the bridge, which has been in service since 1963.

Stress also results from large trucks traveling over the bridge. The engineers suspect this is what happened, possibly due to an apartment construction project near the bridge. Says Brian Kidwell, an assistant engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation, “My hunch is a very heavy load went over it. It could have been a totally legal load.” A “hunch” by an experienced professional is included in the Cause Map as a potential cause. This is indicated with a “?” and requires more evidence.

Legal loads on bridges are based on the allowable stress for a bridge’s strength. However, the strength of the bridge can change over the years. It is likely that happened in this case. Previous damage has been noted on the bridge, which also required bracing last month to fix a sagging section. However, the bridge was deemed “adequate” in an inspection eight months ago. Any needed repairs may not have occurred – there’s never enough money for needed infrastructure improvements. It’s also possible that water entered the empty cylinders that make up the part of the span of the bridge (this is called a “sonovoid” design) and they could have filled with water and later frozen, causing damage that can’t be easily seen externally.

For now, more information will be required to determine what led to the bridge failure. At that point, bridges of similar design may face additional inspections, or be replaced on the long waiting list for repairs. For Kansas City, some are taking a broader – and bolder – view and are recommending the older section of the Interstate “loop” be removed altogether.

To view the Cause Map of the bridge failure, click on “Download PDF” above. Or, click here to learn.

Failure of the Nipigon River Bridge

By Kim Smiley

On the afternoon of January 10, 2016, the deck of the Nipigon River Bridge in Ontario unexpectedly shifted up about 2 feet, closing the bridge to all vehicle traffic for about a day.  After an inspection by government officials and the addition of 100 large cement blocks to lower the bridge deck, one lane was reopened to traffic, with the exception of oversized trucks. Heavier trucks are required to detour around the bridge with the main alternative route requiring crossing into the United States.  This failure is still being investigated and it isn’t known yet when it will be safe to open all lanes on the bridge.

More information is needed to understand all the details that led to this failure, but an initial Cause Map, a visual root cause analysis, can be built to illustrate what is currently known. The first step in the Cause Mapping process is to fill in the Outline to document the basic background information (the what, when and where) and the impacts to the organization’s goals resulting from the issue.  For this example, the bridge was damaged and significant resources will be needed to investigate the failure and repair the bridge.  The closure of the bridge, and subsequently having only a single open lane, is also having a sizable impact on transportation of both people and goods in the area.  It is estimated that about $100 million worth of goods are moved over the bridge daily and there are limited alternative routes.

Once the Outline is completed, the Cause Map is built by asking “why” questions and visually laying out the cause-and-effect relationships.  Why did the deck of the bridge shift up?  Investigators still don’t have the whole answer. The Nipigon River Bridge is a cable stayed bridge and bolts holding the bridge cables failed, resulting in the deck of the bridge being pulled up at an expansion joint.  Two independent testing facilities, National Research Council of Canada in Ottawa and Surface Science Western at Western University, are conducting tests to determine the cause of the bolt failures, but no information has been released at this time.

The Nipigon River Bridge is a new bridge that has only been open since November 29, 2015. Some hard questions about the adequacy of the bridge design have been asked because the failure occurred so soon after construction.  Officials have stated that the bridge design meets all applicable standards, but investigators will review the design and structure during the investigation to ensure it is safe.  Ontario winters can be harsh and investigators are going to look into whether cold temperatures and/or wind played a role in the failure.  Eyewitnesses have reported a large gust of wind just prior to the bolt failure.  Investigators will determine what role the wind played.

The Cause Map can easily be expanded to incorporate new information as it becomes available. Once the Cause Map is completed, the final step in the Cause Mapping process is to develop solutions to prevent a similar problem from recurring.  In this example, adding the concrete blocks as counter weights allowed one lane of the bridge to be opened in the short term, but clearly a longer-term solution will be needed to repair the bridge and ensure a similar failure does not occur again.

Fatal Bridge Collapse Near Cincinnati

By Kim Smiley

On the evening of January 19, 2015, an overpass on Interstate 75 near Cincinnati collapsed, killing one and injuring another.  The overpass was undergoing construction when it unexpectedly collapsed onto the road below it, which was still open to traffic.

This incident can be analyzed by building a Cause Map, a visual root cause analysis, to intuitively lay out the many causes that contributed to an accident by showing the cause-and-effect relationships.  Understanding all the causes that played a role, as opposed to focusing on a single root cause, expands the potential solutions that can be considered and can lead to better problem prevention.  A Cause Map is built by asking “why” questions and documenting the answers.

In this example, a construction worker was operating an excavator on the overpass when it collapsed.  When the bridge collapsed the worker was crushed by the steel beams he was moving.   The additional weight of evacuator and steel beams on the overpass likely contributed to the collapse.   The overpass was being demolished as part of a project to remake this section of the Interstate and a portion of the overpass had already been removed.  The work that had been done appears to have made the structure of the bridge unstable, but the construction company was not aware of the potential danger so the worker was operating on top of the overpass and the road beneath it was still open to traffic.

A truck driver traveling under the overpass at the time of collapse suffered only minor injuries, but came within inches of being crushed by the bridge. It really was simple luck that no other vehicles were involved.  Had the collapse happened earlier in the day when there was more traffic, the number of fatalities may very well have been higher.  As investigators review this accident, one of the things they will need to review is the fact that the road below the bridge was open to traffic at the time of the collapse.  An additional relevant piece of information is that the construction company had financial incentives to keep the road open as much as possible because they would be fined for any amount of time that traffic was disrupted.

In addition to the safety impacts of this accident, the overpass collapse dramatically impacted traffic on a busy road with an estimated 200,000 vehicles traveling on it daily.  It took nearly a day to get all lanes of the interstate cleaned up and reopened to traffic.  No one wants to close roads unnecessarily and the goal of minimizing traffic is an excellent one, but it has to be balanced with safety.  The collapse of the overpass wasn’t an unforeseeable random accident and the demolition needs to be done in a safe manner.

Bridge Collapse In Washington Dumps Cars in River

By Kim Smiley

On May 23, 2013, a section of a four lane bridge over Skagit River near Mount Vernon, Washington unexpectedly collapsed, sending two cars into the river.  No one was killed, but the bridge failure is going to take months and an estimated $15 million to repair.  Additionally, the bridge was one of Washington’s main arteries to Canada with around 70,000 vehicles crossing it a day and detours during the repairs are significantly impacting the region.

So what caused the bridge to fail and how can a similar collapse be prevented in the future? This issue can be analyzed by building a Cause Map, a visual root cause analysis.  A Cause Map intuitively shows the causes that contributed to an issue and the cause-and-effect relationships between them. The collapse occurred after the top of an oversized truck hit a steel girder.  The bridge was a ‘fracture critical’ design, meaning that the design had little redundancy and fracture of one critical component, in this case the overhead steel girder, caused the whole bridge to collapse.  This type of design was common when the bridge was built in the 1950s because it was relatively quick and cheap to build.  Newer designs typically incorporate more redundancy to prevent a single failure from causing significantly damage, but the average bridge in the United States is 42 years old and there are thousands of fracture critical bridges across the nation.

So why did the truck impact the bridge?  This question is more complicated than it might appear on the surface.  The driver appears to have done his due diligence, but he had no warning that his truck was taller than the clearance.  The driver had a permit for hauling an oversized load on this stretch of highway.  The truck was also following a guide who gave no indication of potential clearance issues.  Additionally, there was no sign about low overhead clearance on the bridge because signage wasn’t required.  Signs are only required for overcrossing less than 14 feet and the lowest point on the bridge was higher than that.

The truck was traveling in the outside lane at the time it impacted the bridge.  The clearance over the outside lane of the bridge is lower than the inside lane because of the arch design of the bridge.  The truck’s load was 15 feet 9 inches high and the lowest clearance over the outside lane was 14 feet and 7 inches, but the inside lane has about a 17 feet clearance.  Bottom line, if the truck had simply moved into the inside lane it should have had the clearance to safely cross over the bridge.

This incident is certainly a warning about the need for redundancy in designs, but it also illustrates the need for clear communication.  If the driver had been aware that there was a potential issue, he could have changed lanes (which is a free and relatively easy solution) and the bridge collapse wouldn’t have happened.  Something needs to be changed to ensure that drivers are aware of any potential clearance issues.  In an ideal world, all bridges would be the safest, most up to date designs available, but the reality is that there are thousands of “fracture critical” bridges in use throughout the United States and we’re going to have to find ways to use them as safely as possible for quite some time.

Click here to see a Cause Map of another bridge failure, the 2007 I-35 Bridge Collapse and here to see a Cause Map of the failure of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.