Are Expansion Joints The Culprits? – A Conversation with Debbie Steiger with Watson Bowman Acme

By Lorella Angelini, Angelini Consulting Services, LLC

Debbie Steiger at the TSP2 Outdoor Demo in Orlando

It is widely acknowledged that many bridge deterioration problems stem from the malfunctioning of the expansion joints. When these joints do not work properly, they can compromise the integrity of bridges over time and reducing their service life. To discuss bridge expansion joints, I spoke with Debbie Steiger, who developed her remarkable and successful career in the bridge sector. She is the National Sales Manager for the Bridge and Tunnel Sector with Watson Bowman Acme, a company that has been in the forefront of manufacturing and designing expansion joint systems for 70 years.

Can you highlight the pivotal points of your professional career?

I have a long tenure and a fulfilling career with Watson Bowman Acme. I joined the firm right out of college as a detailer drawing expansion joints in the engineering department. Even though I have an architectural engineering degree, my whole career has been on the civil side of the construction industry. Over the years, I was afforded career opportunities in both marketing and sales. I do like the fact that my career path has encompassed all three of these areas: engineering, marketing and sales. It has allowed me to have a wider perspective of the business and the industry.

There are two pivotal points in my career worth mentioning. The first one was when I took a position in sales and moved from New York State, where Watson Bowman Acme is based,  to California to run the West Coast bridge division of the company. It was definitely a sink or swim moment, both personally and from a career perspective. It was also probably one of the most exciting times to be involved in our industry. California was in the middle of rebuilding its infrastructures after it was hit by two major earthquakes, the Loma Prieta in 1989 and the Northridge in 1994. At the same time major design-build projects were just being adopted in the West Coast.  I had the opportunity of working on several high-profile design-build projects, such as the San Joaquin Corridor and the Eastern Transportation Corridor, both located in Southern California, and the Interstate 15 reconstruction in Utah for the Winter Olympics. It was a very fast paced and stimulating time.

Years later I ended up moving back to New York State.  As the market started shifting toward bridge maintenance and preservation, I was able to establish a focused market sector team for Watson Bowman Acme dedicated to the understanding of this new trend with the goal of taking advantage of the opportunities that it offered.  This is one of the accomplishments in my career I’m most proud of. This is also when my involvement with TSP2 really began as well.

Looking back at these two pivotal moments of my career, I see that there are strong similarities between them. In both cases I started from infancy, the West Coast territory and establishing a market sector focus for Watson Bowman Acme.  Fundamentally I am a strategist with the capacity of evaluating markets and creating paths for business growth.

When I started working for Watson Bowman Acme, I never had any intention of being in marketing and sales.  However, I accepted the opportunity I was offered that ended up broadening and enriching my career.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

The part I enjoy the most is learning and understanding the overall market dynamics, steering the ship and setting the team up for success by growing the business and capitalizing on market opportunities.  I have the great honor of working with a team of very talented, capable and successful professionals.

Could you talk of your leadership style?

I like to lead my team by example. I favor clear communication and goal setting based on detailed and shared plans. Employee engagement and transparency are the major drivers of my leadership style.

In my experience, hiring the best employees with diverse experiences and proper skill sets is perhaps the most critical step of team building. I look for traits and backgrounds that would strengthen and fill any gaps within the team.  Ultimately, great teams lead to great results.

Definitively, I don’t like micromanaging and would rather let each person’s ingenuity shine.

You have a lot of knowledge and experience with expansion joints. How has the technology evolved over the last 10-15 years?

I continue to learn everyday but certainly I do have a good understanding of how the different bridge expansion joints function, the various types and movements that joint systems are capable of handling, criteria for proper joint selection and overall best practices in terms of installation.

The expansion joint technology has evolved over the years to match new, complex bridge design standards and movement challenges but also to address the demands of time constraints and constructability of smaller bridges and the needs for the joints’ systematic maintenance, repair and replacement.

Watson Bowman Acme has always focused on innovation. We have a strong commitment toward meeting the most challenging industry requirements by designing enhanced features for our structural systems and providing the ability of engineering custom joint system solutions for specific projects. We strive toward the use of new materials that allow more movement capabilities, reduce installation time and increase ease of installation, especially for small movement joints and joint repairs.

What do you mean by small movement joints?

Expansion joints are categorized by movement. Small movement bridge joint’s seals and systems are typically designed to accommodate movement of 4 inches or less. There are a variety of small movement joints being utilized today that are manufactured with new materials that go beyond the traditional neoprene and steel technology. The innovative armorless joints address issues of time constraints during installation, constructability, and allow spot repairs instead of full joint replacement.

On the other hand, large movement joints are commonly used throughout the industry to address movements exceeding 4 inches and must meet updated AASHTO LRFD design criteria that address the various loadings and degrees of movement.   System validation and testing is often required to determine whether a large movement expansion joint is suitable to a specific bridge structure.  Frequently these large movement joints require performance evaluation in case of a seismic event.

It is said that most bridge preservation problems entail the deck, and most deck problems entail the joints. Could you speak of what can go wrong with bridge expansion joints and why?

Bridge structures present a lot of challenges with regard to the design and installation of the expansion joints. There are many reasons for these challenges. Bridge deck expansion joints are subject to various types of impact, a significant range of movements, exposure to harsh environments, and, of course, construction time constraints. Most common joint failures entail leakage, seal adhesion, seal damage due to debris, detachment and failure of the joint header, metal deterioration, and, lastly, impact damage.

Design and maintenance requirements for bridge expansion joints are not always met for a variety of reasons. From a design perspective, many DOTs have standards that were issued years ago and have not been updated since. In many instances these standards do not take into consideration the actual field conditions. When it comes to maintenance, repair or replacement projects, field conditions, such as deteriorated concrete substrate, are particularly important and can be detrimental to the proper installation of expansion joints. Also, many of the repair projects are being performed under challenging outdoor working conditions at night, in order to minimize traffic interruption.

I must underscore that in most cases, bridge expansion joints are not expected to last through the anticipated life of the bridge structure, but only a fraction of it. In order to meet the expected service life, expansion joints must be inspected, maintained, repaired, and replaced on a regular basis.

I know that expansion joints can get a bad rap. I do not agree with it. Failure can be avoided with proper design and preservation practices. Avoiding failure starts by choosing the right joint based on the conditions of each particular bridge structure.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a proper joint system selection. It should take into consideration first and foremost the joint movement and the limitations that define each joint system. Especially in the maintenance side, I see that when someone has a preference for a particular joint system, that system is installed everywhere. However, it is evident that there’s not one system that’s going to work for all applications.

An important part of the joint system selection is the evaluation of a proper joint sizing. Gap opening must be correlated with the knowledge of the movement range and the temperature of placement. Most standards and plans refer to the mid-range even though contactors are installing at various times throughout the year where the gap can be different rom the mid-range. That’s where understanding field sizing becomes very important.

In conclusion, choosing the right joint system based on the field conditions of the bridge deck is a critical step in order to prevent joint failures. Then the long-term performance of a bridge expansion joint is also going to depend on the quality of the initial construction and the concrete substrate, the type and quality of the joint seal and the lifetime field maintenance program.

You laid out the essential requirements to achieve full functionality of bridge deck expansion joints and avoid failures.  Could you summarize them?

Sure. When it comes to bridge expansion joints there are four critical areas that are essential in order to reach the designed service life and sustain high overall performance. The first entails the deck evaluation and surface preparation. A full understanding of the existing conditions of the deck, whether there are underlying problems or not, is very important.  Only when problems are properly evaluated in advance to joint installation, the design engineer is able to recommend an appropriate system solution.  Unfortunately, in many instances unknowns are a given for a bridge structure. Also, surface preparation is often an overlooked area where shortcuts are taken. Using the best designed systems and the most advanced performing materials available in the market can be meaningless if there are underlying issues and the substrate has not been properly prepared. Definitively, proper deck evaluation and preparation are essential factors in order to reach, and potentially extend, the life expectancy of bridge expansion joints.

Secondly, a careful attention must be given to the expansion joint header, its installation and the materials used. Amplified loading due to impact, especially on the far side of the joint length, requires materials that will not crack and remain flexible over time.

Thirdly, the joint selection process and the installation must be performed accurately according to specifications and taking into account the manufacturers’ recommendations. The selection process must consider deck movement plus deck joint opening, temperature plus time of installation and then proper positioning and placement.  All these three aspects of the process are equally important.

Lastly an essential requirement to avoid joint failures consists in the adoption of proactive rather than reactive bridge preservation strategies. Implementation of proactive strategies includes routine inspections and maintenance checks for the life of the joint and also a full understanding the limitations of the selected joint system.

When you consider the overall cost of building a bridge, the cost of expansion joints is in most cases negligible. However, when it comes to maintaining a bridge over time, expansion joints play a pivotal role, since their failure could contribute significantly to reducing the life expectancy of the bridge structure.

Watson Bowman Acme has been a National Industry Member of the TSP2 Bridge Preservation Partnership for many years. Has the affiliation with TSP2 been beneficial to your company and to you?

I was excited when TSP2 came into place in 2011 championing a proactive approach toward the preservation of bridges. For the first-time, TSP2 brought together industry, owners, and academia, who started exchanging knowledge, ideas, information and sharing best practices.

I have to give a high five to Ed Welch and John Hooks, who have run the bridge preservation program for the last 10 years. They really should be commended for their effort in this area.

Bridge expansion joints always get attention at the regional and national meetings of the TSP2 Bridge Preservation Partnership and they are part of roundtable peer exchange discussions. Needless to say, Watson Bowman Acme was one of the first National Members of the TSP2 Bridge Preservation Partnership.

I was involved early on with TSP2 as an industry director for the Western Bridge Preservation Partnership (WBPP). I was also the chair of the team that worked on developing the Bridge Expansion Joint Pocket Guide through the FHWA Bridge Preservation Expert Task Group (BP-ETG). The Guide, which provides a state-of-the-art knowledge about bridge expansion joint, is currently in a draft phase. I worked closely with Ralph Dornsife of Washington DOT and Tony Brake of Caltrans on the draft Pocket Guide, which encompasses every type of joint systems, including both large, medium and small movements, as well as best practices based on movement criteria.   There have been a number of funded research studies on bridge joints through NCHRP. Certainly, the SCAN Team Report NCHRP Project 20 68A has taken center stage as a reference document. The AASHTO New Small Bridge Expansion Joints Guide that stems from NCHRP 12-100 is regarded as reference document for small joints.

Through the TSP2 Bridge Preservation Partnership, I have also got involved with the Local Technical Assistance Program (LTAP) programs, which provides a valuable opportunity to reach out to local and city county agencies. Definitively, being part of the TSP2 group has been beneficial to Watson Bowman Acme and to me personally.

Do you have any recommendations for the TSP2 Bridge Preservation Partnership in order to increase the value that it provides to manufacturers like Watson Bowman Acme?

It would be great to have more contractors involved in the TSP2 Bridge Preservation Partnership meetings along with different departments within the DOTs. I would love to see representatives from bridge design, construction, maintenance and materials at roundtables, sharing their perspectives and challenges. As an industry representative, I see a level of disconnection between the engineers who write policies, those who approve materials and technologies and those that oversee joint installations or the repair of joints.

I must underscore the importance of having contractors at the roundtables since they can certainly bring great depth to the discussion and awareness of problems. Awareness is the first step in fixing what isn’t working.

The outdoor demonstrations that are organized the National Meetings of the TSP2 Bridge Preservation Partnership provide a lot of valuable information to those who want to learn about best practices. The session that was organized at the last National Meeting that took place in Orlando in 2018 was outstanding from an industry perspective

Would you like to have outdoor demonstrations at the four annual Regional Partnership meetings of TSP2?

No, I am not advocating four demonstrations every year at each regional Bridge Preservation Partnership meeting of TSP2. I am satisfied with one outdoor demonstration session every four years at the National Meeting.  I was hoping to have the opportunity for the outdoor demonstration in 2022. However, the National Meeting, which brings together the four TSP2 Regional Partnerships, will not take place this year. I presume it was postponed due to the COVID pandemic.

Could you say a few words about things you enjoy doing in your free time? Do you have any hobbies?

In my free time I love to garden. Whether ornamental or food, I find it satisfying and, at times, a good escape from the day’s challenges.

When the weather is nice, which is limited in Buffalo, NY, where I live, you will find me by the water. Buffalo is located on Lake Erie, which is a great place to find beach glass. I have jars of this washed-up treasure.

When time permits, I venture to the Finger Lakes region, which is about an hour and half from Buffalo. This region is famous for a number of elongated lakes that are surrounded by wineries. It is a wonderful place for boating and relaxation. I spend as much time there as possible.



Watson Bowman Acme



NCHRP Project 20 68A Scan Report 17-03

AASHTO’s New Small Bridge Expansion Joints Guide


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