Purdue Data To Help Drive Indiana Infrastructure, Transportation Funding

Aug 15, 2016

As the state decides how and where to spend future transportation funding dollars, determining the conditions of Indiana’s infrastructure is a vital piece of the puzzle.

Indiana Public Broadcasting’s Brandon Smith reports on efforts within the state that aim to improve this process for Indiana and the nation.

At first look, the Steel Bridge Research, Inspection and Training Engineering Center, or S-BRITE Center, commonly called the bridge gallery, isn’t remarkable.

The grassy field next to the Purdue University Airport has a wide gravel path cutting through its middle, with slabs of concrete dotting the field.

On top of the slabs are pieces of steel, dozens of feet long, most of them a few feet off the ground, elevated by concrete blocks.

As S-BRITE Center director Robert Connor points out, these pieces of steel – parts of decommissioned or collapsed bridges – have been collected from across the country, including a railroad bridge from Lansing County, Michigan and a highway bridge that spanned I-65 on the east side of Indianapolis.

The bridge gallery is Robert Connor’s brainchild. Its purpose is to educate and train bridge inspectors, and to improve the practice of inspecting.

“And it isn’t, then, to just throw up our hands and say ‘Well, we’re no good,’ or ‘This inspector’s no good,’” he explains. “That isn’t what it’s about. It’s to train them better.”

“So once we know what we’re not maybe good at, now I can develop targeted training that might simply mean, ‘You need a magnifying glass and this type of flashlight, and here’s how you hold it,’ and ‘Oh, gee, our detection goes way up,’” he adds. “But we don’t have that data to know that that’s the kind of training we need to develop.”

Then Connor leads the tour to the part of the gallery he seems most excited about.

“So this is our probability of detection study bridge, or POD fixture,” he says. “This is a research project.”

The structure is 30 feet high and 80 feet long. Purdue engineers manufactured the whole thing, down to creating cracks and defects for inspectors to discover.

“It simulates about 400 or 500 feet of real bridge, and what we’ve done is taken all the details that we worry about and kind of accordioned them in,” he says. “The boring stuff, we threw away and we brought all this together.”

And this is where inspectors come to measure their abilities.

“And that allows us to say ‘Well, this type of crack has this probability it would be found,’” he says. “Maybe more importantly, ‘This crack has this probability of being missed.’”

Several states – with Indiana as the lead – contribute to this research by sending inspectors to be tested.

And Robert Connor credits those states for being what he calls “brave” enough to ask the question, ‘What are we missing?’

“We want to make sure that when we send people out and they come back and say that there are no cracks or there’s ten cracks, what level of confidence do we have in that?” he says.

Having confidence in those inspections is important to people like Patrick Conner, no relation to the bridge gallery director, Robert Connor.

Patrick Conner works with transportation departments in Indiana’s counties, cities and towns.

Essentially, if local communities want to know which roads and bridges need the most work, they ask people like Patrick.

Here, he explains a measure called structural deficiency.

“It doesn’t mean it’s unsafe; it just means that it is in poor condition,” Conner says. “So like the deck could be in poor condition, or maybe a portion of that deck is in poor condition, but the rest of bridge may be in good condition.”

Patrick Conner conducts this work as the research manager of Indiana LTAP, the Local Technical Assistance Program.

Part of that technical assistance is the statewide bridge sufficiency report.

The report compiled from data collected by state and local inspectors, including many trained through the bridge gallery, contains information about structural deficiency.

About 10 percent of Indiana’s roughly 13,000 county bridges are rated structurally deficient. About 5 percent of the 6,100 hundred state bridges are structurally deficient.

Patrick Conner stresses, though, it’s not LTAP’s role to say Indiana’s infrastructure is bad or good. 

“But we are here to say, ‘Here is the condition of our roads, here is the condition of our bridges,’” he says. “Now let the legislators and the counties be able to say, ‘Well, this doesn’t meet what we want for our county or for our state.’”

This summer and fall, the state infrastructure task force will develop a recommendation for the 2017 Indiana General Assembly.  That’s expected to culminate in a funding bill next year.

It’s a months-long process, incorporating data Robert Connor and Patrick Conner, no relation, are involved in producing through training and analysis - data that could ultimately help determine the future of Indiana’s roads and bridges.