The first to spot signs of trouble in our nation’s infrastructure
While Congress dithers over what to do about the future of America’s highways, people like Keith Vaughn are out trying to preserve what we’ve got a little longer. He’s a bridge inspector for the Maryland State Highway Administration, an inspection team leader for two decades.
Maryland has 5,243 bridges, and the SHA is responsible for maintaining 2,570 of them. Vaughn’s territory is southern Maryland, and he took me along for a checkup on the bridge that carries Alternate Route 1 traffic over the Northeast Branch of the Anacostia River.
This bridge isn’t particularly high, or long, or attractive. But it’s got a terrific health plan, thanks to people like Vaughn. Every two years, the SHA sends out a crew to give it a top-tobottom physical.
The road surface, which supports about 15,000 vehicles daily, is examined for wear and tear. The steel girders and rivets on the underside are probed for peeling paint and rust. The concrete foundations below the water’s surface are checked for evidence of deterioration.
The SHA has a list of 69 bridges considered “structurally deficient,” which means its Office of Structures begins designing fixes, and the work becomes eligible for federal funds. The most common cause of concern is the bridge deck.
The twin-span bridge over the Northeast Branch in Prince George’s County isn’t in that category. Built in 1955, it got a new deck in 1999, and was it last inspected in fall 2013.
To start, Vaughn walked the sidewalk, checking the road’s concrete, the guard rails, the nearby vegetation and the bridge expansion joints. The worst thing we saw was dirt that had gotten into the little rut that’s part of the expansion joint, something that’s easily cleared out.
Cracks sometimes appear in the concrete, but that’s not necessarily a problem. It depends on the characteristics. Your tax dollars are paying for an experienced guy such as Vaughn to recognize the differences.
While he did this surface review, a crew shut a northbound lane to position a “snooper truck.” It’s like a utility company bucket truck, but more versatile. The twoperson bucket is attached to a long, extendable arm that swings it over the river and under the bridge.
This involves as many ups and downs as a theme-park ride. But Vaughn looked comfortable in his movable work space suspended between the river and the bridge beams. He lowered and raised the bucket to check paint, rivets, girders and concrete supports. After a section between beams was reviewed, Vaughn pressed the levers that lowered the bucket, shifted position and rose up again to examine another section.
All the ups and downs held my attention. The shallow river was a comfortable distance below, but the beams and the bridge deck were really close. Vaughn’s experience kept us from closer encounters with steel.
He told me that this type of inspection is normally a twoperson job, with him doing the inspecting and another SHA staffer operating the bucket. “I guess you’re thinking, ‘Now he tells me,’ ” Vaughn said.
From his point of view, there’s not much to worry about with this structure. He took out a pick of the type you might see a prospector swing to take an ore sample, but he used it to reveal the extent of peeling paint, rust or crumbling concrete.
If he found anything serious, he could call in to an engineer responsible for the bridge. In an extreme case, a bridge could be shut and an emergency repair ordered. But there’s nothing more than a few flesh wounds here, which can be easily cured with follow-up maintenance.
Over the years, these inspections build up quite a case file on even a small bridge such as this one. Vaughn is supplementing the file by pausing to jot down notes and take photos.
“Information is good,” he said of the new chapter he was adding to the bridge’s life story.
Not all the information is visual.
He tapped his hammer against steel and listened. He might also need to detect the smell of gas if there were a problem with a utility line.
The bucket swayed. Like Vaughn, I was in a safety harness clamped to the bucket.
But this swaying, caused by the motion of the snooper arm, the truck above us and the traffic vibration, was a nearly constant presence. Although Vaughn has made a career of this, he said he still notices the motion.
I wonder if there was any particular bridge job that was memorable to him. He immediately named the Gov. Thomas Johnson span over the Patuxent River. It’s two lanes wide, 11/2 miles long and about 135 feet high.
I’m sure the view from a snooper truck would be spectacular, but that’s one tour I’d pass on.