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Bridging the Gap: The Future of Bridge Construction

Bridging the Gap: The Future of Bridge Construction

A Complicated Matrix That Calls for Innovation  

By Dan Straub

In the fall of 2021, the federal government ushered in a new era of infrastructure investment with the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which represents the largest such commitment of dollars to rebuilding roads and bridges in the nation’s history. The windfall for communities large and small comes at a time when a paradigm shift is occurring in the construction industry, and the shift promises to have ripple effects on the future of bridge construction.

From Florida to California, urbanization and the growing societal emphasis on sustainable travel have led to an increase in train development. High-speed rails between cities and light rail systems within major cities are expanding networks at rapid rates. The transportation methods common in Europe and Asia are entering the North American market, bringing the need for new bridges and tunnels to connect travelers across varying terrains. Combine the passenger rail developments with highway bridge replacements and widenings across the United States, and the result is hundreds of miles of bridge structures to build each year. 

Foreign construction companies and developers have introduced alternative methods to fund large transportation projects and have influenced an increase in innovative bridge construction methods. For example, mechanized bridge construction is more common in Europe and is growing in the United States as European companies invest and manage job sites. 

At the same time, there is an increased awareness of safety on the construction jobsite, whether it is a bridge, a tunnel, or a building. With high-profile projects and greater collaboration among large companies, crews are working across teams and sharing best practices. This is guiding the industry into a more safety-focused approach to decision making and material selection. Safety is now often the first topic contractors address in meetings and the priority for them in their day-to-day operations.  

Product innovation in bridge formwork is poised to meet these challenges at a time when it has never been more critical.  

Monumental Investment, Massive Improvement   

In the United States, one in five miles of highways and major roads and 45,000 bridges are in poor condition. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law invests $110 billion in additional funding to repair those roads and bridges that are failing and rebuild the most economically significant bridges in the country as well as several thousand smaller bridges. 

Part of the law also includes an investment in passenger rail, the largest since the creation of Amtrak. The venture enables the United States to enhance transportation and create safe, efficient, and climate-friendly alternatives for moving people and freight. The development of the passenger rail network will require an investment in bridges and elevated track to maintain level rails. 

As the need to build or replace bridges is on the rise, the country faces a challenge that must be addressed to fulfill that need: the ongoing skilled labor shortage will be magnified as stimulus funding is pumped into the market, outpacing the ability to generate a skilled craft labor force. Builders will continue to face the challenges of finding skilled labor and training teams quickly. Formwork companies will be bidding business while contractors contend with fresh teams on job sites. Teams populated by unskilled workers will face steeper learning curves, impacting completion timelines.  

In bridge construction, one thing remains constant: Bridge designers and owners steer designs toward the most economical style, known as a girder element or composite bridge. This bridge style employs an assembly line approach with crews first constructing piles, then footings, columns, caps, girders, and then the bridge deck. Contractors will always be looking for an advantage to building these typical bridges faster and cheaper without sacrificing quality. 

Considerations & Innovations: PERI VPS

For the vast majority of bridge caps, there are a few considerations when selecting a formwork system to ensure it will meet project requirements and crew needs. Companies often cater to one style of bridge design or the other – self-spanning bridges or dancefloor bridges. 

In reviewing industry trends and gaps in product offerings, PERI saw the opportunity to innovate a stagnant market through conversations with customers, who continue to face cost pressures and the shortage of skilled workers. 

PERI’s solution: The VARIOKIT Pier System (VPS), which offers innovation the industry has not seen in decades. VPS bridges the gap between safety and efficiency to provide a versatile, rentable, and high-performing system for the smart construction of bridge columns and caps. It brings together the advantages of the industry standard girder dancefloor systems and self-spanning systems to deliver the highest safety level with standardized platform solutions and the elimination of potential safety hazards on site. 

In doing so, VPS helps specifiers and contractors answer critical questions connected to the construction of a bridge:

  • Repetition of Structure. Is every cap the same? Do the bridge caps have variable dimensions in the cap cross section or column spacing from one bent to the next?
    Identical structures lend themselves to steel girder forming, and projects with variable dimensions tend to lend themselves to dancefloor methods. VPS caters to both, offering flexibility and a simplified process to take the platform apart in only two pieces and reassemble again on the next cap. 
  • Crew Experience. What experience with formwork systems does the crew have? How much of the crew is a new hire and requires training on the systems?
    From the first test site, VPS proved to be intuitive and easy to learn. With a simplified group of components, reduced quantity of bolt connections, and the innovative one-sided X-bolt, the room for user error is minimized, and crews are immediately empowered to build. 
  • Safety Features. Safety is top of mind for everyone in the decision chain. What is the vendor able to provide to keep a crew safe? How does the system offer a safe working environment?
    With a large, comfortable working platform with fall protection and walkway brackets and handrails that install within an hour from the ground, VPS delivers safety from the first step before equipment is lifted to its working position. The system is designed to split into two pieces to cycle by accessing and operating bolts on the top of the platform with handrails. There is no need to access any part of the system from underneath while the system is suspended by a crane, and the system is mechanically stripped from the concrete in a fully controlled manner that does not rely on the self-weight of the system. 
  • Vendor Experience. What experience does the vendor bring to the project? How can they help mitigate any risk associated with building bridges?
    PERI collaborated with customers on projects and worked with industry leaders to develop VPS to address the bulk of the bridge market. PERI has more than 40 years of infrastructure formwork experience in the United States, and 50 years globally, on nearly all bridge construction methods. VPS was designed with feedback from the market and PERI’s expertise.  
  • Tied-in-Place or Prefabricated Reinforcement Bars. How will the steel rebar be installed?
    If the rebar will be tied in-place, the crew will benefit from the open workspace to store and handle rebar. If a cage is prefabricated, the access to tie column rebar to cap rebar is simplified.  
  • Total Equipment Needed. Can the vendor provide a solution to reduce the total amount of formwork on the jobsite?
    VPS was designed for versatility and simplifying material flow at the jobsite. The system requires less equipment to achieve the same cycle as compared to existing methods. This translates into less equipment demand and less material sorting and handling on a daily basis.
  • Concrete Finish Quality. What type of finish can be expected? How much work needs to be done to make it acceptable by the owner?
    The quality of the concrete finish is largely affected by the form face, the concrete mix itself, and the vibration techniques. VPS form panels are designed to have single joints where the plywood from one panel meets the plywood of the adjacent panel, resulting in clean, visually appealing lines. For a decorative finish or form liner on a column, it is easier to attach and remove that form liner from the plywood face. Resin-coated form ply has the durability for use on heavy civil projects up to 70 pours, and in the event of damage to the form face, the replacement of plywood is a simple and practical solution to meet the highest standards for concrete finish requirements.

Ongoing Analysis

Additional aspects of a project must be considered when selecting a formwork system and designing a bridge. While these considerations may not lead to the selection of a specific product, it is critical to be aware of the impact of each on the crew, the jobsite, and the end result:

  • Access Restrictions. Is there space to lay down equipment, or does it need to come off the truck and directly onto the structure? What does access to the structure look like?
  • Vehicle Clearance. Where is the traffic envelope under a new bridge cap while under construction? The falsework must not interfere for active traffic lanes and for tractor trailers to travel safely underneath. 
  • Crane Size Required. How heavy is the equipment? Is there an opportunity to save on crane rentals to support the construction of columns and caps with a lighter-weight system, or is it more important to minimize the number of picks? 
  • Duration of Project. How long will the project take to complete? Is there risk of schedule overrun that can be mitigated by a system purchase? Could a system purchase reduce cost on upcoming projects in the pipeline?
  • Cycle Time and Schedule. To win projects, builders must find ways to compress scheduled activities and reduce man hours to remain competitive and profitable. What system will offer the best opportunity to meet and beat estimated productivity and cycle times to keep the project on schedule and on budget?

The Time is Now   

Communities large and small across the country may finally see improvements to aging bridges, roadways, and tunnels thanks to the historic investment in infrastructure. 

For developers, specifiers, and contractors charged with doing the work, the challenges remain the same: Drive efficiency to accelerate project timelines, and ensure the safety of workers during the construction phase. 

Safer, faster, and more flexible bridge construction means tapping into the latest product innovations that break the mold of the past and are primed to address today’s complicated construction paradigm.  

Dan Straub is civil segment manager at PERI USA