Steelmakers take aim at bridge market

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Some of the nation's most debilitated bridges are the battleground for a steel industry initiative to recapture a chunk of a market it lost to concrete.

An alliance of steel producers, distributors, fabricators and other groups have developed software that, in a matter of minutes, produces preliminary designs for short-span bridges -- those up to 140 feet long -- based on steel.

By standardizing the steel and limiting the number of designs, steel producers believe they can offer bridges that are quicker and less expensive to build than a concrete version.

Software turned the tide of the battle 20 years ago, when the concrete industry developed is own, similar program that produced designs for concrete bridges.

"We learned from the concrete industry that we had to simplify the design approach," said Dan Snyder of the American Iron and Steel Institute's steel market development group. "Our whole approach was to make this very easy, very simple, very cost-effective."

While the bridges are short, the opportunity is long.

The steel industry estimates there are about 77,000 short-span bridges in the United States rated either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Most of them belong to cities and counties whose stretched finances demand an inexpensive solution to the deteriorating infrastructure.

Mr. Snyder said a short-span bridge could use anywhere from 35 to 55 tons of steel, depending on its length and width. About 800 preliminary bridge designs have been produced for potential customers since the software was introduced in June 2012, he said.

Mr. Snyder estimated concrete has captured about 80 percent of that market, but says the new software could give steelmakers a bigger piece of the pie.

"I think they give us too much credit," said Hank Bonstedt of Central Atlantic Bridge Associates, an Allentown, Pa., group that represents concrete bridge beam producers in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. "Concrete definitely has the lion's share of the market. We probably have in the 70s [percent] somewhere."

Mr. Bonstedt's group grew out of an alliance of Pennsylvania concrete producers formed about 20 years ago to produce standardized designs based on concrete. The group worked with PennDOT to develop basic designs that are easy to build, he said. The designs have been updated as state and national highway standards changed, Mr. Bonstedt said.

The steel industry's version of the software is eSPAN140. Bridge designers can type in the length and width of a bridge, the number of lanes and a few other variables and get suggested designs, as well as a list of fabricators that can provide additional information, including a bid.

"It's really a huge opportunity for the North American steel industry," said Karl Barth, a West Virginia University professor who is a consultant on the project.

Mr. Barth said the industry group "met with virtually every sector involved in producing a bridge." The idea was to develop designs that used readily available sizes and shapes of steel, including fasteners, and that would take the least amount of time and money to build.

"You can really cut out a lot of the cost if you cut down the amount of fabrication," said Robert Wills, who also works for the steel industry's market development group.

"What bridge owners, developers and designers wanted was something simple, something safe ... something that was cost-effective," he said. "We think we've got that in this package."

Len Boselovic: or 412-263-1941.

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