FHWA publishes proposed changes to bridge inspection standards

November 14, 2019

Tyson Fisher


As mandated by the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), the Federal Highway Administration has issued a notice of proposed rulemaking that would update the National Bridge Inspection Standards for the first time since 2009.

On Tuesday, Nov. 12, FHWA published a notice of proposed rulemaking to address revisions to bridge inspections. In addition to revisions to the National Bridge Inspection Standards, FHWA also proposes to repeal two outdated regulations: The Highway Bridge Replacement and Rehabilitation Program and the Discretionary Bridge Candidate Rating Factor.

Although the proposed rulemaking includes dozens of amendments, additions and deletions from the National Bridge Inspection Standards sections 650.301-650.317 of federal regulations, significant changes come in the form of inspector qualifications, inspection intervals and collection of data.

Proposed bridge inspection updates

Currently, inspection standards regulations apply to “highway bridges located on all public roads, on and off federal-aid highways, including tribally owned, federally owned” bridges. FHWA proposed to add “privately owned bridges that are connected to a public road on both ends.” FHWA explains that most people do not know the difference between a publicly owned and a privately-owned bridge.

“The inspection of privately owned bridges connected to privately owned roads that are open to the public are not typically the responsibility of the public authority.” FHWA states. “State DOTs, federal agencies and tribal governments are strongly encouraged to inspect or cause the inspection of these bridges in accordance with the National Bridge Inspection Standards.”

FHWA also wants to clarify who is responsible for inspecting certain bridges. More specifically, the agency has found that inspection responsibilities on some bridges on bordering states have not been clear, causing delays in inspections and issues with overall management.

Present day regulations vaguely outline what is expected of inspection organizations. Proposed changes will require inspection organizations to have documented policies/procedures and maintain a central registry of nationally certified bridge inspectors.

“There have been instances in which the lack of clearly documented delegations has led to delinquent inspections, neglected load postings and delayed repairs,” FHWA explains. “The states in these instances did not have a clear understanding as to what authority it had over the owners of these bridges, which led to inaction to correct these issues. A documented and agreed upon delegation of responsibilities could have prevented these situations.”

A similar lack of clarity is seen with individual inspectors. Current qualifications mostly include education/experience prerequisites and completion of bridge inspection training courses. FHWA proposes a 70% minimum passing score on course assessments.

Another proposal will require managers to complete 18 hours of FHWA-approved bridge inspection refresher training every 60 months.

Existing regulations require bridges to be inspected at regular intervals not to exceed 24 months. Certain bridges require inspection at less than 24-month intervals. The regulations also allow bridges to be inspected at intervals greater than 24 months. However, intervals cannot exceed 48 months with written FHWA approval. FHWA proposes loosening criteria for shorter inspection intervals.

Conversely, FHWA also wants to tighten the criteria that allows extended bridge inspection intervals. Qualifying bridges can receive extended inspection intervals of up to 72 months, lower than the 96 months allowed in a National Cooperative Highway Research Program report.

All new bridges must have an initial inspection and a follow-up inspection within 24 months of service. Other required inspections must be completed within another 24 months before being considered for extended intervals.

FHWA proposes to add a subsection for closing of bridges. The proposal would require agencies to establish condition thresholds at which a bridge must be closed. This includes identifying vehicle types for the rating analysis for the minimum load carrying capacity.

Nation’s bridges in poor condition

Improved bridge inspection standards may hopefully be part of the solution for tens of thousands of poorly rated bridges nationwide. According to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association’s latest report, more than 47,000 bridges are classified as structurally deficient.

The number of structurally deficient bridges has been declining each year since at least 2014. However, the rate of improvements in 2018 slowed to a crawl. Compared to the previous year, structurally deficient bridges declined by 0.1%. The decline was more rapid in 2015 and 2016 before slowing down in 2017 and 2018.

According to ARTBA, it would take more than 80 years to make repairs to the number of structurally deficient bridges at the current pace.

According to MAP-21, “the condition of the bridges of the United States has improved since the date of enactment of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, yet continued improvement to bridge conditions is essential to protect the safety of the traveling public and allow for the efficient movement of people and goods on which the economy of the United States relies.”

That statement by Congress was the impetus for the NPRM recently published by FMCSA. Addressing bridges in poor condition, Congress directed the U.S. DOT to:

  • Specify in detail the method by which the inspections shall be carried out.
  • Establish the maximum time period between inspections.
  • Set up qualifications for those charged with carrying out the inspections.
  • Establish a procedure for national certification of highway bridge inspectors.

The comment period for FHWA’s proposed changes ends on Jan. 13. Click here for details regarding filing comments and to review the full notice of proposed rulemaking.