Transportation research often focuses on finding safer and more efficient ways of doing things. A case in point is older bridges. Some features may need to be modernized to make older bridges safer and more reliable.
“The nation’s infrastructure is wearing out,” says William Williams, an associate research engineer at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI). “Many bridges were built over 50 years ago. Although they are structurally fine, the railing designs are outdated, and that makes them less safe than they could be.”
Williams is becoming known across the country as the “Retrofit Man.” In fact, when the phone rings in his office, there’s a good chance the person on the other end wants to talk about replacing worn-out bridge railings with something safer and a lot more modern. Since Williams is a structural engineer with a passion for design work, he doesn’t mind taking those calls.
“As the infrastructure ages, retrofitting bridge railings becomes more and more important,” Williams says. That’s not to say he only does bridge railings. In fact, in October, he received national attention for designing a security barrier for the U.S. State Department. Highlighted in the last issue of the Researcher, a video of a truck smashing into the barrier went viral. The barrier crash test was successful.
His latest test involves crashing a car into a railing that’s being considered for installation on Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. At 24 miles, it’s the longest bridge in the world.
“Built in the 1950s, the bridge railings on the causeway are too low and don’t meet current safety requirements. It’s not unusual for cars and pickups to hit the railings, go over them, and wind up in Lake Pontchartrain. It’s especially dangerous when fog sets in, which happens a lot,” he says.
Williams was awarded the massive project after he completed another Louisiana retrofitting job — on Route 11 — that impressed sponsors. “Word of mouth is good for business,” he says. “The transportation community is large but close-knit.”
Williams’ name comes up a lot in places like Pennsylvania, where a thousand rural, small and outdated concrete bridge barriers are attached above narrow creeks that weave across the state. Some of the rails were put in place when folks were driving around in Model Ts. Williams designed several options the state is considering.
He has refitted bridges in Florida, Washington, Virginia, Minnesota and, so far, one other country: Argentina. That bridge, located in downtown Buenos Aires, provides elevated roadway access to the city. The need for the refit originated from numerous fatal crashes that occurred on the bridge, including a bus crash in 2007, which resulted in 12 fatalities. On average, seven fatal crashes occur on the elevated bridge each year.
After reviewing railing designs, project engineers selected a concrete single-slope barrier that meets the requirements of National Cooperative Highway Research Program Report 350 TL-5. Williams ran a full-scale TL-5 test in Buenos Aires, and the barrier is now being installed. He’s currently working on another Argentinian project and evaluating several others.
“Most foreign countries have the same problem we do: aging infrastructure and dangerous bridge railings,” he says. “Helping them address roadside safety is personally rewarding.”
Even so, Williams is busy here at home. “Because of the condition of bridge railings across the country, we are poised to do a lot more research,” he says. “I think sponsors know that we can take what they have, update it, and help them get a crashworthy railing that’s modern and meets the current safety standards.”