A Conversation with Michael Johnson, Caltrans
Author: Lorella Angelini, Angelini Consulting Services, LLC
Michael Johnson is the State Transportation Asset Management Engineer at Caltrans, a responsibility that includes the management of both bridges and roads. Beyond his work at Caltrans, Michael is very active in the bridge preservation community and with TSP2. He is the Chair of the AHD37 Bridge Preservation Committee, which gathers more 80 people representing DOTs, Academia, FHWA, and TSP2. He is also a member of TRB AHD00 Section – Maintenance and Preservation, ABC40 Standing Committee on Transportation Asset Management and AHD35 Standing Committee on Bridge Management.
I had quite a long conversation with Michael about his job, career and commitment with bridge preservation.
Could you talk about your education and career path?
My education includes a Bachelor of Science Degree in Civil Engineering from California State University in Sacramento and a Master in Science with Structural Engineering concentration from the same University. I am a licensed Professional Engineer in California.
My 28-year long career has been entirely with Caltrans. I spent my first two years going through the Caltrans’ rotation program, which is a great program for new engineers in the bridge area. During the first two years of employment, a new engineer gains experience of bridge maintenance, bridge design and bridge construction, thus getting a broad understanding of how to design and construct a bridge, and also what kind of maintenance issues a bridge may have.
I started out as bridge inspector and worked for a number of years in this position. Since California was a pilot State for element level bridge inspection, I was very involved with this program early on. It ultimately led me down a path that included co-authoring the AASHTO Bridge Element Inspection Guide Manual that is used today nationwide.
I then progressed to Bridge Management. I ran bridge programs with focus on project scope, funding and decision-making in order to prioritize projects. I was also managing the underwater inspection program, the fracture critical inspection program, in-house paint programs and all of data management for bridge inspection. This job married my prior inspection background with my management expertise.
My current position was created to implement asset management across all of Caltrans managed assets. In this role I have extended many of the concepts I learned in Bridge Management to a broader set of assets. The biggest physical asset in California is represented by pavement. Bridges are the second most heavily invested asset. We also have a fairly large program for culverts, and transportation management system elements. The big four assets are definitively pavements, bridges, culverts, and our transportation management system elements.
What are your current responsibilities?
I have two broad responsibilities as Caltrans State Asset Management Engineer. The first is to oversee the implementation of asset management in Caltrans. The second broad duty involves the management of Caltrans rehabilitation program, which is $4.4 billion annually. This program covers rehabilitation and replacement of physical infrastructure, safety preservation operations and more. It includes all the facilities that Caltrans owns. It is quite broad.
Could you talk about Caltrans Transportation Asset Management Plan (TAMP), its goals, challenges and achievements?
The TAMP (Ed Note, see links below) presents a fairly high level of strategic framework for how we are managing infrastructures in California. There are many components in this plan, but its core is what we call the three-prong asset management approach.
The first component includes programs to support highway and bridge crews, thus recognizing their importance for the preservation and maintenance of the State Highway System. Caltrans has crews that specialize in bridge maintenance and repairs. Caltrans is also one of the few DOTs that have in-house structural steel painting crews with the number of painters totaling more than 100.
The second aspect of the three-prong asset management approach is the preservation program. The goal of this program is to slow down deterioration or delay future rehabilitation and replacement. We have a very robust maintenance program including many types of preservation treatments. This program’s expenditure is approximately $500 million per year for pavements, bridges and culverts.
The third and final element of the three-prong approach entails the major rehabilitation and replacement program, which is about $4.4 billion annually. This program covers physical asset as well as operational aspects, safety, congestion and others.
A major overall achievement of the TAMP program has been the implementation of a Performance driven approach, which is helping us to be more consistent with our investments over time. In the past, the emphasis was on the value of what was spent on a single asset, while now it is on how much the conditions or the performance of that asset have improved. In the past we also had a tendency to invest heavily in the hot item of the time, thus moving from one hot item to another instead of having a more consistent and disciplined approach.
Finally, through the asset management plan development, we enhanced transparency and accountability in our management. Since we are bringing good results, this approach has led us to get additional resources for the preservation and rehabilitation of our system. So there has been a very positive outcome as a result of the implementation of TAMP. We now have people and funding to take proper care of our highway system.
How can bridge maintenance engineers at Caltrans take advantage of TAMP?
TAMP’s focus is on measured performance outcomes. By doing this, the program really highlights the benefits that maintenance programs bring to the Department. The recognition of these benefits has in turn led to more funding and more people being available for maintenance and preservation statewide. These are certainly of great assistance to maintenance engineers.
California recently enacted a significant gas tax increase; the first one in many years. Politically it was not an easy thing to do. Our work in asset management helped provide confidence that we had a good management structure in place and we can quantify needs very well. A solid asset management approach helped to justify a significant funding package for transportation.
As we are implementing the asset management plan, with focus on performance management, we are also developing a number of new software tools that are available to bridge engineers. As an example, our maintenance engineers can now go to the web site and see every asset in the highway system, color-coded based on current condition and planned projects. This tool allows engineers to understand the relationship between the assets, their condition and the project portfolios. In Caltrans we could easily be juggling 3,000 projects at a time between planning, design, and construction. Knowing what is going on and what is going to happen for each asset helps maintenance engineers make better decisions about what they want to do and where they want to work.
As the chair of TRB “AHD37 Standing Committee on Bridge Preservation”, could you illustrate activity and goals of this Committee?
The TRB Bridge Preservation Committee has a fairly broad and general scope advocating for research and activities that extend the life of existing bridges, communicate measures and benefits of preservation, and expand the development of tools and techniques that further bridge preservation.
Our effort in the Committee takes us into several areas such as non-destructive evaluation and monitoring, design and construction, strategies for improved service life, bridge preservation training, bridge preservation research, products and materials for bridge preservation. We are also looking at bridge preservation reports and research that are being published around the country, and the development of policies related to bridge preservation at national and state level.
Innovation for preservation is one of our general objectives. We want to know what kind of innovation ideas are starting to emerge. Another key objective entails communication. We are looking at how to communicate bridge preservation benefits and to market the value of preservation.
We work seamlessly with various aspects of AASHTO, such as the Maintenance Committee and the Committee on Bridge and Structures. We also work with the TSP2 Regional Partnerships and FHWA. The chairs of the AASHTO Committees and the lead of FHWA and TSP2 Bridge Preservation are all members of the TRB Bridge Preservation Committee AHD37. We have basically brought together the leadership of AASTHO, FHWA and TSP2 in the TRB Committee. This makes it easy for the members of the Committee to keep track what is going on in the area of bridge preservation between the various groups and organizations.
You also have a strong representation from Academia and industry in the TRB Bridge Preservation Committee AHD37. Could you comment about it?
As with all TRB Committees, the AHD37 includes industry members and academic members, in addition to DOTs representatives. At the core, TRB is a research focused organization and we rely on our academic partners for research.
The industry is also a critical partner, in particular manufacturers who are producing products and materials for bridge preservation and consultants who provide supporting services. The more we engage with the industry representatives, the more they understand the kind of issues DOTs are having and, in turn, can work on developing products, materials and services that are solutions to the problems that have been identified. Our balanced mix of members on the AHD37 helps make the Committee more successful.
What are the focus areas of the AHD37 Committee?
A topic of particular interest to the Committee is trying to answer the question of when and why bridges are taken out of service. We are researching questions like: how old should a bridge be when it is taken out of service? When should a bridge be replaced with a new bridge? We initiated a number of different research projects related to this topic.
We are interested in the condition and performance of a bridge during the last year of service but also in what functional features the replacement bridge has that the prior bridge did not have. More than one research report shows that bridges are not always being replaced because of condition. A lot of times bridges are replaced because they are no longer functionally adequate or they have other sorts of vulnerabilities. This viewpoint gives us a very broad definition of bridge preservation.
Another area of interest to the Committee is understanding the decision variables that should be considered before deciding to replace a bridge. There have been a number of instances where there was the perception that the service life of a particular bridge was near the end. However, when the bridge did not actually get replaced for various reasons, it ended up remaining in service and functional adequate for ten or fifteen more years. This makes us wonder if there might be a better criterion for deciding when it is time to replace a bridge. In other words, preservation may be simply a matter of making better decisions of when a bridge is at end of its life.
You are active in a number of TRB Committees. What is the best way for a bridge preservation engineer to keep up with the work of TRB?
There is a lot going on in bridge preservation between AASTHO, FHWA, TRB, TSP2 Regional Partnerships and State DOTs. It is therefore really difficult to stay on top what is happening.
In order to spread bridge preservation information to all interested people, who many times do not have the opportunity to participate in meetings of the different organizations, we have created the bridge preservation newsletter that is available from the TSP2 Bridge Preservation web site. The newsletter has sections that highlight new innovative products and practices, provides a listing of recently completed and on-going research projects, and has a links to research results.
The first publication highlights an innovative product for corrosion protection of bridge deck reinforcement. It also highlights some work that is going on between FHWA Bridge Preservation Expert Task Group and TSP2 to produce bridge preservation pocket guides. The newsletter has a fairly comprehensive list of research projects completed in the last couple of years or that are ongoing.
In a limited number of pages, one can get a quick insight of some of the hottest things that are going on in preservation. The publication is scheduled to be released with some frequency and offers opportunity for publication of topics from different bridge preservation avenues.
Could you comment about TSP2 and your involvement with this organization?
TSP2 is unique in many respects. It brings together peers from neighboring Agencies, thus helping create personal relationships between them. It gathers industry expertise and academic perspective all focused on bridge preservation. Meetings are hands-on and very practical. At TSP2 people do not generally talk about research programs that are going to happen, but the talk is about everyday preservation problems and sharing different ideas on how to address these problems.
I became active with TSP2 because of its peer connection. It can really benefit you to know the people who do your same job in the nearby States. Once you develop the relationship, you can call these people, exchange ideas and get the benefit of their experience.
I have an example of this. The State of Utah’s TSP2 member was concerned about cutting access openings to the bottom of box girder bridges. He was worried that it would cause damage to the bridges. When he called me to ask about my experience with this practice, I had to chuckle. We cut hundreds, if not thousands, of access holes into bridges in California following major earthquakes and we have never had a problem. I was able to provide reassurance to the engineer from Utah DOT about the reliability of the practice. I was also able to share Caltrans standard plan showing how and where to cut access openings in box girder bridges. I am sure that in 20 minutes the Utah representative felt a lot better about what he was going to do and how to plan for its execution. This is an example of the power of TSP2.
In your opinion, what are the major challenges that DOTs and local owners face in the implementation of successful bridge preservation strategies?
I can boil it down to two primary challenges. First and foremost preservation is not really as celebrated as new construction is. Preservation is not particularly attractive in this regard. I think that our culture needs to change. We need to celebrate preservation the same way we would host a ribbon cutting ceremony for a new facility.
The second challenge is closely related to the previous one. In order to make preservation more attractive and investments more appealing broadly, we have to do a better job of communicating the benefits of preservation in a very clear and understandable way.
Could you point out one or more projects that you fondly remember?
I had the benefit of being involved in two projects that kind of stand out for me.
One was an emergency repair of a collapsed bridge at the MacArthur Maze that approaches the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge. A gas truck had caught fire at the interchange causing the collapse of a second level bridge that landed on the bridge underneath and heavily damaged it. This is a very busy highway in California. My team worked on restoring the bridge that was damaged by the upper bridge collapse by implementing a massive heat straightening effort. Within a relatively short time we actually brought the bridge back from the grave, as badly as it was damaged.
I also worked on another project that was notable, but for a different reason. We had installed an acoustic monitoring system for steel cracking on the old San Francisco Bay Bridge before it was demolished. This project was very innovative and ground breaking. It proved the value of structural health monitoring on large scale bridges. To this day the San Francisco Bay Bridge remains one of the few bridges in the world that had such a system installed. This project demonstrated how we can effectively use structural health monitoring to safely extend the life of bridges.