A Conversation with Sarah Wilson, Bridge Maintenance Engineer with Illinois – DOT District 1

Sarah Wilson with IDOT – District 1

Lorella Angelini, Angelini Consulting Services, LLC

Sarah Wilson, the chair of the TSP2 Midwest Bridge Preservation Partnership Board, has had a long and successful career with Illinois DOT – District 1 that includes the city of Chicago. Her expertise and knowledge of bridge preservation are outstanding. Her passion for bridge preservation comes through, as can be seen by her openness to new ideas, innovations, and willingness to learn about new solutions to address bridge preservation challenges.

What are the highlights of your professional career?

I graduated from college in the late 80s, which was a sort of unfavorable time for business. Black Monday had just occurred and the stock market had crashed. As a consequence, a lot of companies weren’t hiring. The State of Illinois, however, was an exception since they were still hiring. Having already worked for two summers with them, I ended up hiring in with the State. It turned out to be a very good decision for me. I’ve really enjoyed my career with the Illinois DOT.

Getting my Professional Engineer [PE] license was definitively a key point of my career. I got it very quickly after the mandatory four years of training. So, I did four years with the Illinois DOT and then got my PE license. It came at a time when many employees opted for an early retirement. Therefore, I had an opportunity to move up quickly into a mid-level manager position. I was put in charge of the Chicago bridge unit for Illinois DOT, covering maintenance in the Cook County that comprises of 134 municipalities, including the city of Chicago. I worked about 10 years in this capacity. Then, when my supervisor retired, I was appointed to his position.

Have you always been with District 1 managing the Chicago metro area?

Yes, I grew up in Chicago. Working with District 1 has been a very good fit for me

What are your current responsibilities with Illinois DOT – District 1?

I am the bridge maintenance engineer, having the responsibility for bridge inspection, maintenance and operations. I also manage emergency-type repairs through a dedicated maintenance crew, which also work on the six movable bridges that are under my purview. In addition to inspection, maintenance, and operations, I also coordinate with the Bureau of Programming and Design on a listing of bridges that should be repaired. I then provide the Bureau with field notes and other reports on how to do the repairs.

Do you do the inspections for the Local Agencies?

No, in Illinois, the local Agencies have to inspect their bridges on their own.

At District 1 we focus on the DOT inventory. The Chicago metro region has approximately 1,450 bridges that are longer than 20 ft with an average length of 300 ft. Then we have 700 culverts that are from 6 to 20 feet long. We do most of the inspections in-house. Due to lack of staff, sometimes we hire consultants, but, generally, inspections are done by our own staff using in-house equipment.

You most definitively have quite a number of bridges and culverts to inspect and manage.

Yes, it is a good size inventory. Statewide the DOT manages approximately 8,000 bridges. [Ed Note: The State of Illinois has a total of more than 26,000 bridges, which are managed by both the DOT and the Local Authorities]. So, I have 1,450 bridges out of the 8,000. But I’d like to say that it’s not fair to count numbers in this way. You must also take into account the average bridge size.  Downstate an average bridge is typically 30 feet wide and 50 feet long, whereas in Cook County an average bridge is likely to be 4 lanes wide and 300 feet long. So, when you take into account the square footage, District 1 has a considerably greater percentage of the State’s inventory.

There are many bridges in the city of Chicago. How many of these bridges are managed by District 1?

We only manage bridges on the Interstates and those on State routes, such as Illinois Route 64 and Route 72. The other bridges, so called “city bridges”, belong to the City of Chicago. For example, the City manages a bridge like Monroe Street over the Chicago River.

How did you get involved with bridge preservation?

When I started with the Bridge Section, one of the first things I did was to write the Illinois DOT’s bridge condition reports. In order to complete these reports, I made a field assessment of the bridge giving it a list of ratings, but I also had to document all bridge problems. This entailed doing surveys of top and bottom deck, piers, and other structural elements, and then recommending the repairs. So, from the very beginning, I was working with the objective of extending the life of bridges.

As I grew up in the organization, bridge preservation became my main focus. A bridge that’s in better shape is obviously less of a concern and makes you not worry as much at night. Also, repairs that can be done early on are evidently more effective and have a lesser cost that repairs that are done later, when the deterioration has very likely become more extensive. Definitively, keeping bridges in a good shape is a major drive for me.

I’m glad that the industry has started recognizing the importance of bridge preservation. The FHWA Transportation Asset Management Plans [TAMP – see Links] are all beginning to recognize the need of managing bridge assets by utilizing preservation strategies.

Is bridge preservation a sustainable practice?

Yes, getting the most life you can out of a bridge is a sustainable practice.

A lot of people understand the concept of preservation better when it is applied to something they own, such as a car. If you don’t change the oil of your car, you are not smart. Its engine very likely will lock up after 20,000 miles. Similarly, if you’re not taking care of the joints of a bridge, or you do not address the section loss of its structural parts, you are not smart. The bridge will very likely deteriorate quickly You must plan ahead. Otherwise, you will run the risk of dramatically reducing the life of your bridge.

What are the challenges of managing bridge preservation in the Chicago metro area?

Traffic is the most significant challenge for bridge preservation in a dense urban area, such as Chicago metro. Needless to say, closing lanes to do maintenance and repair work is complex when there is a lot of traffic. Do you know that saying: “How many notes do you need to name that tune?” Well, in the case of lane closure you must say: “How many hours do you need to do that repair?”. In the Chicago metro area, it is imperative to reduce the number of hours as much as possible. In order to complete the work in the least amount of time sometimes we are pushed into doing the work differently, for example using more expensive materials, which work faster, but might be less durable. Definitively, these types of repairs are a balancing act between durability, cost, and motorist inconvenience.

Certain repairs are not even possible in a highly trafficked urban bridge. For example, we cannot repair a bad joint that leaks in just 4 hours, from midnight to 5:00 a.m., which is the window of time for lane closure that is available in the city of Chicago.  So, we go underneath the joint and paint the beams periodically so as to protect them from the deterioration caused by the leaking joint. The bottom line is that we handle the result of having a bad joint rather than fixing it. In this case we perform a balancing act between mobility, keeping the lanes open, keeping the bridge in good shape and the cost of doing so.

Due to lower level traffic, in downstate Illinois, they are allowed to close lanes. When they paint an overhead bridge that crosses the interstate, they will close the lanes below for the time it takes to paint the bridge, maybe two weeks. Well, I’m not allowed to do that. I can only close lanes at night. So, it’s a lot more expensive to mobilize in and out. Working at night is also more dangerous for workers. You’re always looking over your shoulder waiting for that car that makes a mistake. So, we have quite difficult tasks to perform where multiple variables must be considered.

Can you speak of your achievements in bridge preservation?

When Obama was President, he issued the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act [ARRA]. In order to have access to the ARRA funds, projects had to be shelf ready. Well, just before ARRA was issued, I had done some preparatory work with our programming department. We identified about 10 large bridges that needed preservation work, such as replacing expansion joints, having a new deck overlay, and so on. The plans were almost ready but we didn’t have the money to implement them. So, when the ARRA funds were made available to the State, District 1 was in an ideal situation to get access to those funds. While the other Districts basically resurfaced roads, at District 1 we were able to do major bridge repair work, in addition to resurfacing roads thanks to ARRA funds.

Our ability of planning ahead definitively paid off. This was particularly important for District 1 because we have large bridges for which the amount of funding for repair and maintenance can be considerable. A large bridge that is 1,000 feet long and 4 lanes wide can easily require $2 million for preservation work. The fact that we got to use those ARRA funds because we planned ahead, and therefore we were able to finish the plans in time, was a win for me. This is how I look it up.  Today we have bridges for which we’re not considering deck replacement because we did the overlay a few years ago through the ARRA funds.

Could you share a successful bridge preservation story?

My predecessor and I had talked about the need of having a kind of recipe book for keeping bridges in good shape. Over time the discussions continued amongst our staff. Eventually the Central Office took this task on and came up with the Bridge Preservation Guide [see Links] for the State. It provides practical recommendations on how to keep bridges in good conditions, such as replacing bridge joints every 12 years, if necessary, or putting an overlay on a new bridge deck after 25 years.

The Guide emphasizes the concept of cyclical maintenance. You do not want a bridge to reach a certain level of deterioration before planning for maintenance and repair. When this happens, you have to take into account the time it takes to develop the repair plan and to put it into action, which can easily add up to more than one year because government bureaucracy moves slowly. In the meantime, the deterioration is not going to stop with the result that the designed repair plan could be insufficient for the new level of deterioration. Practically speaking, you cannot say: “I cannot start repairing an overlay until a minimum of 10% of the deck shows problems. Last year I could not do anything because it was only 9%. This year I can do the repair because the deck reached the minimum 10% deterioration”. The fact is that when you reach 10% deterioration, it can take 18 months for the repair plans to be developed by the Bureau of Design and 6 months for the contract to be let.  You will end up waiting up to two years before starting the repair job. Projects don’t turn around on a dime, but deterioration does not stop.

These constraints due to bureaucracy can be avoided by recommending cyclic maintenance. On an average bridge, the Guide recommends putting an overlay after 25 years.  This doesn’t lock you into 25 years exactly. Maybe the joints are bad at 22 years and you need to do something earlier than 25 years. Maybe you can postpone the overlay of a few years. But the Guide indicates that somewhere in the middle of the 50-year deck life, putting an overlay will help extend the life of the bridge. So, you can plan in advance.

I must add that the Bridge Preservation Guide suggests the types of actions you would have to take for preserving bridges in a good state in a perfect world.  In the reality we don’t have enough money to follow the Guide to the letter. However, the Guide remains a great resource. It helps plan ahead, evaluate how much money you are going to need to do cyclic maintenance on your bridges and also effectively make use of the vast amount of data that is available for the bridge population.

When was the Illinois DOT Bridge Preservation Guide released?

About four years ago, in 2019.

How does the Illinois DOT Guide relate to the Bridge Preservation Guide [see Links] issued by the FHWA in 2018?

The FHWA Guide provides many recommendations but does not give specifics. The Illinois Bridge Preservation Guide is more prescriptive. It provides practical details that help build plan of actions for implementing bridge preservation strategies.

How does TSP2 support your bridge preservation work at District 1?

Sharing success stories and learning how other states are handling bridge preservation issues is a great asset provided by TSP2. For example, some states are using bridge management system programs to help manage bridge preservation and maintenance. Illinois DOT has just started adopting these programs. So, I’m learning from the other states how they’re taking advantage of these tools to help guide their programming and build plans for bridge maintenance.

I am also learning from the vendors that are affiliated with TSP2 about the different materials available on the market and how they can perhaps help us do a better job. At a recent meeting somebody mentioned that the states are slow to take advantage of these materials. This may be true. You must start somewhere and TSP2 is a good place to have an initial knowledge of these materials before bringing them to the DOT and organizing field demonstrations.

Definitively, TSP2 allows me to learn what’s available on the market and what some of the options are for various bridge preservation issues. It is a very good resource where I get input from both DOTs and industry.

I would like to close this conversation with a few questions about your personal life. What do you like to do in your free time? What is your favorite book, movie or television series?

I like spending my free time with my five nephews and two nieces. I have never married and do enjoy their company very much.

I also enjoy going to my retirement house in Wisconsin.  Sometime ago I could have gone from a quarter acre house to a half-acre house in the Chicago metro area. Instead, I chose to stay in my quarter acre house in Chicago and buy a house on a 20-acre land in Wisconsin. It is swampy land, not really farmable. But there are a lot of deer and I have seen badgers and foxes. There are so many different animals up there. So, I’m looking forward to spending time in Wisconsin.

I am fond of my cats.

I do like flea markets. I don’t necessarily buy much, but I like looking and walking, which is actually a fun way to get some exercise.

I won’t say I have a favorite book, but I read a lot of science fiction. I also read romance. I don’t really watch movies or television series.


TAMP: https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/asset/plans.cfm

Illinois DOT Bridge Preservation Guide: https://public.powerdms.com/IDOT/documents/2083419/Bridge%20Preservation%20Guide

FHWA Bridge Preservation Guide: https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/bridge/preservation/guide/guide.pdf

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