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Challenges, Innovations Discussed at Bridge Conference

Conventioneers at Pittsburgh's International Bridge Conference are tackling the challenge of the nation's deteriorating infrastructure with new innovations in bridge-building.

Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez said one new, cost-effective trend is the use of prefabricated materials. Bridges are assembled off-site, then installed in a matter of weeks. Mendez compared "prefab" construction to the use of Lego building blocks.

"When you're building with prefab elements, that's really what we're doing. We're piecing together bridges just like you would with your Lego set," said Mendez.

Mendez said the Massachusetts Department of Transportation was able to install fourteen prefabricated bridges along an interstate highway over just ten weekends.

"Our estimate is that it would have taken four to five years, had we done it the traditional way," said Mendez.

The nation's chief highway official said he'd also unveil a robotic bridge inspector later this year. Mendez said the robot was designed at Rutgers University with government funds.

"This technology will assess the condition and health of bridge decks, and it will do so objectively and in a fraction of the time that it takes a human inspector," said Mendez. "This will also cause less disruption for the traveling public."

Pittsburgh Benefits from Yearly Bridge Conference

This is the 29th International Bridge Conference, held, as always, in Pittsburgh. David Teorsky is general manager of the Engineers Society of Western Pennsylvania, which is the host of the IBC. He said the "City of Bridges" is the perfect backdrop for the conference.

"It also gives the visitors the chance to visit many of those structures," said Teorsky. "We have a tour during the conference that takes folks off-site. They get a chance to visit maybe some active construction projects that are close to Pittsburgh, actually get a chance to walk the sites and see some of these structures."

Teorsky also pointed out that many of the 1,500 guests come from around the world, spending money at local hotels and restaurants. Most of the visitors are engineers and designers, he said, but many others are preservationists, construction contractors, and government transportation officials.

Although about 25% of Pennsylvania's bridges are structurally deficient, Teorsky said he doesn't see that as a shadow hanging over the conference.

"I don't know that I would refer to it as a shadow, as much, maybe, an opportunity," said Teorsky. "I think that makes it even more important for the bridge practitioners to get together and figure out ways to improve that lot."