A Conversation with Bill Oliva, Chief of Structural Development for Wisconsin DOT


Bill Oliva (WisDOT)

Author: Lorella Angelini, Angelini Consulting Services, LLC

Bill Oliva is a recognized leader in bridge preservation and asset management at both the national and State level. He is the Chief of Structural Development for Wisconsin DOT (WisDOT) and participates in the activity of the AASHTO Subcommittee on Bridges and Structures T-11 Research, TRB AFH40 Construction of Bridges and Structures and TRB Sub-committee on Accelerated Bridge Construction.

Could you talk about your responsibilities with WisDOT?

As the Chief of Structural Development for WisDOT Bureau of Structures, I oversee the development of policies, standards and automation. I am also in charge of bridge management and asset management, rating and permitting of bridges.

Previously with the Department I was bridge structural engineer, lead hydraulic engineer and I served for 10 years as a project development supervisor in our regional office. I was fortunate that I was given the opportunity to have a broad perspective on WisDOT activities and to relate them to the different business functions.

What does bridge preservation entail at WisDOT?

It entails many aspects from investment strategy to technology development with the common aim of building consistent expectations and goals that will apply to preservation of WisDOT infrastructures.

Building awareness about the challenges that we at the WisDOT face with maintaining the bridge inventory is a key element of bridge preservation. It essentially boils down to risk to operations, which means our ability to operate the transportation facilities without risk for the public.

If we have to close a bridge because some aspects went out of control, such as conditions that deteriorated the bridge to the point that no longer can carry loads, this interferes with our operations and the use of the bridge by the public. People expect to go from point A to B at their desire, without delay or inconvenience. In my opinion a lot of what we do with bridge preservation is really aimed at insuring our ability to maintain infrastructure operations.

Bridge preservation also helps maximize benefits from the investments we make, taking into account we do not have enough money for the many different needs that we face.  The way funds are applied in order to achieve maximum benefits and risk control is what bridge preservation means to me.

Some people look at bridge preservation from the financial aspect, i.e. maximize life-cycle cost and investments, but this other element, operations, sometimes slides under the radar screen while it is actually one of the major components of bridge preservation. By maintaining awareness through inspection and applying the appropriate treatment early, whether through preservation or maintenance, we are controlling operation risk.  Closing infrastructures is more than an inconvenience for users, it is an issue related to safety.

Can you speak of the bridge preservation strategy at WisDOT?

Our strategy stems from some of the changes we are all going through with MAP 21 and FAST Act, which mandated changes that represent opportunities to do things differently and perhaps better.

With regards to the new AASHTO inspection elements, we decided to use our already good inspection program in a broader way, as the foundation of a concept strategy that will allow us to maintain bridges in a more systematic manner. Inspection data are at the core of WisDOT 2016 Bridge Preservation Policy Guide (see below), which was developed with contribution from national experts, our own staff as well as regional bridge practitioners. The Policy Guide, which sets out the framework for performance goals for bridges, NBI and element level goals, created a series of work rules for different actions that must be taken for bridge preservation.

By combining inspection information with work rules, the Policy Guide indicates specific needs for actions related for example to the deterioration of concrete deck, steel girder, expansion joints or bearings. It provides a structured approach to problems, thereby avoiding subjectivity and inconsistency.

The next effort at WisDOT will entail upgrading to our bridge management system as well as developing an asset management program, which all lead to the ability to systematically identify work needs and provide means to establish projects and bridge programs.  Deterioration capabilities are key elements since we want to be able to look out in the future and predict our needs in 5 – 20 years based on current conditions.

Could you elaborate on the work rules?

In a nutshell, the inspection program, the preservation policy, the automation bridge management system all lead to the implementation of a data driven program, which connects information from different sources and provides work rules.

I would like to add that this interactive program can be very helpful to the younger staff, who will not have to spend years of learning before they are able to make decisions and implement actions.

What challenges are you facing in the implementation of the bridge preservation strategy?

In addition to the fact that we have limited dollars to support the program, there is need for more research in certain areas.

We have a good understanding of some mechanisms that influence the deterioration of bridges and how some of the treatments help but there is quite a bit of variability.  We need more confident estimates of when it is time to redo preservation applications, for example, bridge deck overlays and penetrating sealers.

We have a lot of interest in deterioration curves which can allow the optimization of investments and performance.

While different strategies can be used throughout the life-cycle of a bridge, our challenge is to research and adopt the optimal strategy for our environment. Technologies that work in a different climate can very likely be of no use to successfully maintain the 15,000 bridges of the state of Wisconsin.

Is there any bridge preservation success story you would like to share?

Probably the development of our Bridge Preservation Policy Guide and some aspects of our automation systems related to bridge management.

We made a lot of upgrades with our bridge management system supporting the use of mobile devices to do bridge inspections. We can currently conduct a bridge inspection through an I-Pad or a smart phone, which allow downloading information and uploading inspection results. If something critical that can compromise the loading carrying capability of a bridge is found, the bridge rating engineer is alerted almost immediately from the field. The engineer can therefore provide instructions for further information when the inspector is still in the field.

What are the goals of your department in 2017 and as well the long term?

Moving forward we want to do further implementation of our asset management investment process. While it is one thing to build technology and rules, it is a different thing to integrate them into the business process. We are working with investment people and regional people making sure they understand the tool we have and have the opportunity to tell us what they need from it.

I am looking forward to continue working with the TSP2 Partnership in order to try building more uniformity and consistency between Midwestern States in practices, details, policies and specifications, where appropriate and applicable.

Reaching a certain level of consistency between States that share similar climate can bring significant benefits to both DOTs and to industry. As an example, if contractors can work easily in more than one State, they have more opportunities for business while DOTs can benefit from increased competition. Contractors are currently fairly localized to one State since they have to learn new sets of information and rules as they move from one State to another.

The TSP2 Partnership plays a very important role in facilitating dialogue and exchange between DOTs and industry.  While at DOTs we sometimes see ourselves in a mirror, industry can provide insights across the borders and suggest higher level of uniformity in specifications, guidelines and approved product lists.



  • WisDOT 2016 Bridge Preservation Policy Guide


  • Wisconsin DOT Bridge Asset Management presentation by Bill Oliva at 2016 MWBPP Meeting in Milwaukee, WI


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