A new kind of bridge installation with time and labor-saving benefits made its debut in the United States for the first time in Eau Claire.
The Eau Claire County Highway Department installed a bridge with prefabricated parts on County Highway V. Australian company InQuik Bridging Systems manufactured bridge components in a Virginia factory and shipped them to western Wisconsin, where highway department crews placed the structure and poured concrete under the watch of structural engineers.
The bridge took only four weeks to install compared to traditional bridge construction which usually takes several months, said Jon Johnson, the highway commissioner for Eau Claire County. Crews poured the last of the concrete on Tuesday and are performing roadwork around the bridge, he added.
The structure is under 20-feet long and under the threshold for federal infrastructure funding, a challenge for many townships and municipalities, Johnson said. He said his goal was to save time and keep construction costs under 50% of the cost of a regular bridge project.
“Right now, a lot of bridge builders in Wisconsin are busy with state program level bridges, so there’s not a lot of availability schedule-wise for us at the local level to get these small structures constructed. Having an option to do this with standard construction equipment rather than special bridge equipment was the other factor,” Johnson said, noting project design started last fall.
This was InQuik’s first bridge project in the U.S with new installation process technology, said Steve Noble, a business development manager at InQuik. Founded in 2014, the company built more than 200 bridges around the world and forecasted dozens more projects in the U.S.
During traditional construction, many interruptions such as weather or supply chain issues can slow a project, but manufacturing components off site avoids some delays, Noble explained.
“A lot of the construction happens on-site. It can be slow, interrupted by weather, supply chain issues. There’s a variety of aspects that will slow the process of traditional construction method. What’s innovative about InQuik is we manufacture the components in a factory in a controlled environment, so there’s consistency in the process and quality control assured,” he added.
In Eau Claire County, highway department crews installed abutments on opposite sides of the river, poured concrete, lifted and tied panels and replaced concrete over the course of days, Noble said. The modular, lightweight steel parts fit in a shipping container and were towed across the country by Ford F-250 trucks. Steel is used for the formwork and concrete makes up more than 80% of the bridge weight, Noble added.
The bridge’s width is nearly 30 feet and will accommodate a two-lane county road, Noble said. While the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) requires bridges to last a minimum of 75 years, the bridge is designed to have a 100-year design life per Australian requirements, he added.
Because the bridge is already prefabricated and engineered, it used the least amount of equipment and skilled personnel on site to install, Noble said.
“We’re hearing a lot, particularly through the Midwest, counties and construction companies are struggling to find skilled labor. It’s a real struggle now across the country and we’ve taken a lot of that challenge out because we prefabricate and ship it out to the county. On site, it’s a simple process to do the installation work. A highway maintenance crew used to fill in potholes can install our bridges, because it’s a very simple system,” Noble added, noting it took crews seven hours to tie panels together with rebar.
County officials estimated they saved around 30% on expenses compared to using traditional bridge construction methods. In Johnson’s preliminary estimates, the county spent around $190,000 with some increases in the metal and steel market. Based on current state bid lettings, a similar project would cost $460,000 to build with traditional methods, he added.
The bridge was identified in critical condition during an information system inventory in 2018, Johnson said. Now that the bridge has been built, the highway department will monitor it for years ahead and watch it in the fluctuating Wisconsin climate.
According to company officials, InQuik has around 50 projects in different design stages with different transportation departments, agencies, counties and townships in states such as Washington, New York and Florida.
Johnson said he’s confident that with one project completed, the county will start similar construction for two other projects on County Highway KK and Highway H next year. County officials are also drafting an application with Ho Chunk tribes to replace a bridge inside tribal boundaries.
The highway commissioner says he could see prefabricated buildings catching on, but the trend would hinge on funding for local governments.
“Funding is the big key part. In some states where they can prioritize funding for structures less than 20 feet, it will be accepted a lot quicker where you have to pay for it locally. Unless we can come up with funding to help, it’s going to be a costly replacement for a township or a county, and not a lot of them have the funds to do that. The bigger barrier is the state accepting it as an option to receive federal funding,” Johnson said.
Eau Claire County hired Waukesha-based Ayres Associate as a design consultant, said Dan Sydow, a structural engineering manager for Ayres. The firm helped with a hydraulic analysis for permitting purposes for any flooding that may happen, he added.
“I can see it becoming more and more of a good option with the number of bridge projects. It allows the option of using different labor sources than just the bridge contractors,” Sydow said.
Counties from Minnesota and other state transportation agencies looked at the construction site before the bridge was complete, Johnson said.