A Conversation with Sarah Sondag, Principal Engineer with Minnesota DOT
By Lorella Angelini, Angelini Consulting Services, LLC
A registered Professional Engineer in the State of Minnesota, Sarah Sondag is the Bridge Operations Support Engineer with the Bridge Office at Minnesota DOT. She is a prominent advocate for bridge preservation as is evident from the programs that she supports at Minnesota DOT. Sarah is active with TSP2 where she sits on the Board of the Midwest Bridge Preservation Partnership, as Vice Chair representing the States.
I had a conversation with Sarah, who like myself lives in the Twin Cities, about her career and her vision for bridge preservation.
Could you outline the pivotal points of your professional career?
After earning a Bachelor of Civil Engineering degree and a Master of Science degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Minnesota, I started my professional career with Mark Thomas & Company in San Jose’, California. I worked for that company for three years on a wide range of design projects, from highway to flood walls.
I then moved to Duluth, Minnesota, where I started with the Minnesota Department of Transportation in District 1. I was hired as a graduate engineer and rotated through different areas within the District, including hydraulics and soils, before ending in construction as a Project Engineer. After having my first child, I went part-time and focused on specialized projects. One of these projects entailed the creation of a database for construction documentation with the goal of providing easier methods to collect data in the field. After my second child, I transferred to the Traffic Department, where I was the Work Zone Safety Engineer, assisting maintenance and construction crews with work zone layout and safety. I also assisted the crews with traffic control plans for bridge inspection and maintenance, and with traffic management plans.
While I was in District 1, I was given the opportunity to develop a database for bridge maintenance activity tracking. This opportunity ultimately led to my transfer to the Bridge Office in Oakdale, in the eastern side of the Minneapolis – St. Paul Metropolitan area. I was hired as the Bridge Operations Support Engineer, a new position created in the Bridge Office to provide greater support for Minnesota DOT’s District bridge maintenance crews.
One of my first assignments with the Bridge Office entailed coordinating the integration of the bridge maintenance activity tracking system into Minnesota’s bridge inspection software. It required detailing the requirements to track bridge maintenance activities for our crews and tying these activities to inspection findings within the software.
One of my other main responsibilities was to evaluate best practices, with the objective to update the bridge maintenance manual and provide useful resources for our bridge maintenance crews. A Bridge Maintenance Supervisor was hired to assist me in supporting the Districts. Ultimately, opening communication lines between our District bridge crews and the Bridge Office was an important piece in promoting consistent best practices statewide.
The Bridge Office had created a Bridge Maintenance Supervisor Organization with the goal to facilitate communication between this Office and the Districts and to assist with promoting consistency, efficiency and best practices statewide. We hold semi-annual meetings with Bridge Maintenance Supervisors and lead workers from all of the Districts as well as a safety and training workshop every two years for all of our bridge workers. We exchange ideas, promote best practices, discuss challenges and issues, and explore new technologies and innovation. We also devised task groups within the organization, which work as a vehicle to raise construction or design issues experienced by the crews to the Bridge Operation Support Unit and ultimately to the Structural Standards Research Committee in the Bridge Office.
You are saying that providing tools for bridge preservation practitioners is a good practice but it may not be sufficient. These tools should be supported by a strong communication exchange between the field and the office in order to create the conditions for cultural change. Is this at the core of Minnesota DOT communication policy that you have explained?
Yes, but there is more. We realized that we also needed a way to transfer knowledge more effectively to crew members. In 2010, the Minnesota DOT had a high turnover due to early retirement incentives. We lost approximately half of our bridge maintenance crew members and seven of the seventeen bridge maintenance supervisors. Had this continued to happen, we would have lost a lot of knowledge. We decided to begin working toward the implementation of a Bridge Maintenance Training Program to capture some of this institutional knowledge before it was lost.
We started with a skills assessment evaluation in order to understand the needs of the crews. We sent questionnaires to our Districts asking about their level of experience with bridge maintenance activities, tools and equipment, along with everything else we thought the crews would need to know.
Was Minnesota DOT able to capture its in-house knowledge before so many bridge preservation experts retired?
Yes, this did happen through the development of the Bridge Maintenance Academy. Based on the statewide skills’ assessment, we defined our top training needs. For some of these needs we could work with technical colleges and outside training vendors. However, for routine bridge maintenance tasks, we realized that we would need to create some sort of in-house academy. We also recognized that it was essential to have hands-on classes instead of just PowerPoint presentations. We certainly needed introductory courses surrounding bridge basics and what bridge preservation entails. However, we were convinced that in order for our crews to really learn, it was necessary that the Academy be hands-on and participants be able to actually read plans and work with tools, equipment and materials. We brought in our more experienced supervisors as lead and assistant instructors. We also contracted with two former Bridge Maintenance Supervisors that had retired from the Minnesota DOT to assist with the hands-on portion of the class.
Bridge Maintenance Academy was originally set up as three separate week-long courses. Bridge Maintenance Academy I consists of primarily classroom sessions introducing topics such as bridge mechanics, bridge components and elements, bridge design concepts, plan reading, introduction to basic types of materials like concrete and steel, as well as an introduction to preservation, traffic control and safety. Bridge Maintenance Academy II and III are hands-on courses, each a week long, that ultimately result in the actual construction of a small single span bridge.
How is constructing a bridge is related to bridge preservation, which is essentially about maintenance and repair?
There are multiple connections. Many aspects of new construction can also apply to bridge preservation, starting with the knowledge of basic materials, the ability to read a plan, to build formwork, and to work with reinforcing steel. All this knowledge may also be needed to perform repairs.
In addition, during the bridge construction we purposely build in delaminated areas using Styrofoam in the abutment slab and bridge deck so as participants can learn detecting delamination through hammer sounding and chain dragging. Participants then remove the delaminated areas and perform patching with various materials, including a full depth deck patch. We also place a strip seal extrusion in the bridge deck so as participants can install and patch a gland. Furthermore, once the bridge is fully built, we can discuss bridge jacking considerations and provide a hands-on exercise for the participants to practice bridge jacking, which can be a complex and highly significant technique.
During Bridge Maintenance Academy II participants receive an introduction to the fundamentals of structural steel, timber bridge maintenance and formwork. Participants are also given the opportunity to observe the work performed by experts and execute hands-on bridge maintenance tasks, such as concrete formwork, rebar placement, concrete placement, finishing and curing, chain dragging, concrete removal, patching and structural steel repair.
During Bridge Maintenance Academy III participants construct a small single span bridge in order to facilitate bridge jacking training. As part of this exercise, participants are able to observe experts and perform hands-on bridge maintenance tasks, such as setting elastomeric bearings, setting steel beams, fastening steel diaphragms, constructing bridge deck formwork, placing rebar, placing, finishing and curing bridge deck concrete, installing a strip seal joint and performing full depth deck patching. Following the construction of the bridge, participants receive an introduction to bridge jacking, bearing and joint maintenance fundamentals as well as perform a bridge jacking exercise.
Who participates in the Academy? Are the participants new employees of Minnesota DOT?
The Bridge Maintenance Academy is open to Minnesota DOT bridge crew employees with less than five years of experience and also to other Agencies, such as Cities and Counties in Minnesota and other state Agencies.
How much does it cost to take Minnesota DOT Bridge Maintenance Academy courses?
Currently, we charge a small registration fee of $100 for local Agencies within Minnesota since the program is supported by our State Aid Office. We charge a $1000 registration fee for out-of-state participants.
Could the Academy develop into a self-supported program?
There might be an opportunity to extend the program and become self-supported. We have had interest from other states in our Academy training program. It takes significant effort from our Bridge Maintenance Supervisors and lead workers as well as a high level of management support to effectively deliver this type of training. We are fortunate to have dedicated staff and support for bridge programs at the Minnesota DOT.
Are you planning to develop Bridge Maintenance Academy IV?
It has not been determined yet. Right now, our focus is on converting Bridge Maintenance Academy I into eLearning modules and delivering Bridge Maintenance Academy II and III.
In addition to the Academy, we have also developed on-line resources for some bridge maintenance activities, such as bridge flushing, that are harder to facilitate in a classroom session. The goal of the eLearning modules is to introduce these activities to a crew member who has not had the opportunity to perform them yet or recently. The eLearning focuses on the benefits of performing these types of activities, their safety and environmental issues, and best practices and procedures for performing the activities on the job site.
We currently have four eLearning courses for bridge preventive maintenance: These are bridge flushing, crack sealing, gland repair, and poured joint sealing, which are available on the MnDOT Bridge Training Website.
What is your current role with the Bridge Academy program? Are you the leader?
It is a group effort. We have many supervisors and lead workers along with a technical college involved in delivering the training. For Bridge Maintenance Academy II and III, we divide the participants into six groups and provide an assistant instructor for each group.
My role is to continue developing and improving the curriculum in collaboration with the instruction team and coordinating training preparation and delivery.
Is managing the Bridge Maintenance Academy the major responsibility of your team? It looks like a big commitment to me.
During the winter months, we focus on the bridge maintenance training program, planning the semiannual meetings with the Districts’ bridge staff and providing resources and tools to assist the Districts with work planning and data driven staffing decisions. In the summer months we support the crews on a variety of activities, including maintenance data tracking, product field testing and evaluation, equipment training, performance measures, best practices and research. Districts’ crews install many different types of products, so it is important to evaluate these products for performance. We have set up sites to test various crack sealers, approach relief joints and spot painting products.
Over the last few years, I have returned to full-time and was also able to expand my knowledge in the areas of bridge inspection and bridge construction support through mobility opportunities within the DOT. In 2017 I worked with our Metro District to advance their bridge inspection program. For a portion of 2018 I worked with our southern Districts as the South Region Bridge Construction Engineer assisting with scoping, foundation recommendations, plan review and questions during construction. In 2019 I returned to my role as the Bridge Operations Support Engineer and hope to support the Districts more effectively with the knowledge and experience I have gained.
Could you speak of your involvement with TSP2 Bridge Preservation? Has TSP2 been of help in reaching your goals with Minnesota DOT?
I have been involved with TSP2 for a few years. A couple of years ago, I was elected to a Director role and I am now the Vice Chair on the Board of the Mid-West Bridge Preservation Partnership. I also serve as Secretary for the National Bridge Deck Preservation Working Group. My involvement in the Partnership has been of great benefit to me. The partnership conference calls, regional meetings and working groups provide opportunities to learn about effective and innovative bridge preservation practices performed by other Agencies. We have found a lot of value in the presentations and product demonstrations. These practices and innovations can be brought back to our Agency and help us to identify improvements for Minnesota’s bridge preservation program.
Partnership is really a great word to describe TSP2 because it has truly created a partnership between state Agencies, local Agencies and Industry, where knowledge can be shared and best practices can be discussed with the goal to improve bridge preservation.
Could you share something about your personal life?
I have been married for 17 years. We have two children, a son who just turned 13 in January and a daughter who is 11. Both kids are very involved in club soccer teams. Our daughter also practices dance and is on a Destination Imagination team. We love to travel, watch the kids’ activities and spend time outside camping, hiking, skiing and enjoying time at the lake.
Minnesota DOT Bridge Maintenance Training
Minnesota DOT Bridge Maintenance Manual
Concrete Bridge Deck Crack Sealant Evaluation and Implementation
Transportation Agency Practices Currently Employed for Bridge Maintenance Painting Operations: Findings from a National Survey
Bridge Maintenance Painting Guidance, Training and Test Site