The Rapid Adoption of Accelerated Bridge Construction

Today, the Federal Highway Administration is pursuing the admirable initiative of Every Day Counts. According to the FHWA website, Every Day Counts is defined as “a state-based model to identify and rapidly deploy proven but underutilized innovations to shorten the project delivery process, enhance roadway safety, reduce congestion and improve environmental sustainability.” Part of the FHWA toolkit is Accelerated Bridge Construction (ABC).

In December, a conference hosted by the Accelerated Bridge Construction Center of Florida International University in Miami drew nearly 700 attendees and exhibitors — proof that ABC is gaining in acceptance and becoming more common. While ABC represents many possible methods of acceleration, the prefabricated bridge elements and system (PBES) is a highly visible component. Using prefabricated pieces, bridge components are replaced in very short timeframes and allow the movement of people and goods with almost no interruption.

For highway bridges, PBES has evolved since the 1980s and really started gathering steam about 15 years ago. However, some of the earliest, most recent and best innovations related to ABC originated in railroad applications. Railroads, by their nature, cannot have detours, so the industry developed a standardized system of bridges in the 1800s. For many years, railroads have replaced track and structures rapidly, because without traffic, there is no revenue.

In less than 10 hours, Canadian Pacific Railway's crews replaced an existing steel bridge with an HCB bridge

In less than 10 hours, Canadian Pacific Railway crews replaced an existing steel bridge with an HCB bridge.

In October 2014, I had the privilege of watching Canadian Pacific Railway crews replace an existing steel bridge with an HCB bridge. In less than 10 hours, crews removed the existing rail and ties, removed the existing steel superstructure, drilled and installed new anchor bolts, set new bearings, set the two HCB bridge modules, and then finished the replacement by installing the new track and ballast. What struck me as I watched the operation is that all the crews worked together like they’ve been doing this same thing for years (which of course they have). It was like watching an orchestra play beautifully without the conductor. Everyone knew his job, his purpose and what needed to be done, and he just did it.

What it showed me is that as the highway construction industry continues to adopt the principles of Accelerated Bridge Construction, the process will become the standard of construction, just as it has always been in the railway industry. Maybe we’re approaching the day when “Accelerated Bridge Construction” will be known as just “Bridge Construction.” Anyone who drives through a work zone will agree that’s a very good thing.