Olsson Inspectors Help Keep Oklahoma Turnpike Safe

Joe Duggan, Communications

March 15, 2021

Olsson’s system for annually inspecting hundreds of bridges on the Oklahoma Turnpike takes precise scheduling, attention to detail, and professional dedication. Most days, it runs like a Rolex.

But when an emergency strikes, the schedule goes out the window while our dedication kicks into an even higher gear. 

That’s how it played out the morning of Aug. 1, 2020, when a driver apparently forgot to lower the bed of a dump truck and slammed into the underside of a bridge spanning the Will Rogers Turnpike. Dayne Weierbach, one of our senior engineers, conducted a visual inspection that same morning, finding a significant bend to an exterior steel beam and deformation to the web, bottom flange, diaphragm, and connection bracket.

Damage to the bridge over the Will Rogers Turnpike weakened the structure and lowered vertical clearance. 

The damage reduced the load carrying capacity of the bridge, requiring its emergency closure. The crossing’s importance to local farmers and the reduction in vertical clearance caused by the bent girder meant a repair needed to be done quickly. Keara Phillips-Berlin, one of Olsson’s project engineers, got right to work on a repair plan and submitted it later that afternoon – which happened to be a Saturday. The repaired bridge reopened within three days.

Responding to these kinds of emergencies – and the numerous routine inspections in between – is all part of working as the consulting engineer for the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority (OTA).

Since 2014, Olsson has held contracts to serve as the independent engineer representing the turnpike’s bonding authority. Our trained, certified, and experienced staff of inspectors conduct regular examination of all in-service facilities in the OTA, including more than 870 bridges, some 8,000 drainage culverts, 606 miles of expressway, and multiple toll facilities.

When it comes to inspections, ensuring the safety of motorists is always our highest priority.

“I’ll never forget what one instructor said when I went through the federal training course,” said Brad Burtch, a senior technician with our Oklahoma Field Operations team. “‘Inspect every bridge as if your family were going to drive over that bridge.’ That always stuck in my mind and that’s how I inspect all my bridges.”

Brad has been inspecting bridges for nearly 16 years and there’s not much he hasn’t seen. He and other members of our team can identify all signs of bridge deterioration, including cracking, flaking, spalling, efflorescence, shifting, and shearing of anchor bolts. Inspectors also closely examine bridge components such as beams, bearing pads, plates, expansion joints, etc.

Olsson's Bill Childress and Gayla Brown record data taken during an inspection of the Will Rogers Turnpike. 

For each formal inspection (generally every two years), our inspectors work through 100-point checklists, take photos and measurements, and log extensive data about the bridge. During off-years, we conduct walk-arounds for each structure to make sure no major issues have cropped up. Our observations and reports are used by the OTA to meet safety and bridge condition compliance requirements of the Federal Highway Administration.  

It takes a lot of windshield time; Brad figures he and his colleagues drive every mile of the turnpike at least twice a year.

Olsson does more than identify issues. We regularly engage with the OTA’s inspectors and maintenance staff to answer their questions and conduct site visits. Good lines of communication make for a productive working relationship, according to Jimmy Sparks, Olsson’s regional leader for Oklahoma.

“Ultimately we want our product for the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority to be not just data, but information and analysis they can use as a planning tool,” Jimmy said. “The information we give them allows us to work together on drawing up their asset preservation plans.”

Like everywhere else in the country, the Oklahoma Turnpike system is made up of aging infrastructure. Elements of the system were constructed nearly 70 years ago and about 75 percent of the bridges were built prior to 1975. It’s another reason why identifying and addressing issues promptly is so critical.

“We take our inspection program very seriously,” Jimmy said. “And we’re not just telling them when their bridge has a problem – our goal is to work with them on solutions to preserve their facilities.”