Quantifying the Seismic Vulnerability of Bridges in Low to Moderate Seismicity Regions

John Edward Lens, University of Vermont


The U.S. Congressional Research Service issued a report for Congress in May 2016, entitled” Earthquake Risk and U.S. Highway Infrastructure: Frequently Asked Questions” which highlighted the absence of a national database on the status of seismic vulnerability of bridges or other infrastructure, and thus no estimate of costs to retrofit vulnerable bridges. Low to moderate seismicity regions exist in each of the continental United States, with over 30 states having mostly or entirely low-to-moderate seismicity. Resources at state transportation agencies and municipalities are focused on higher seismicity regions, creating a gap in quantifying the system-wide seismic vulnerability despite an overall aging bridge inventory, much of which was built before current seismic design standards.

This research addressed this data gap and reduces barriers to quantifying seismic vulnerability of existing bridges in low-to-moderate seismicity regions. The work included nonlinear dynamic numerical modeling of typical multiple span bridge configurations in both pristine and deteriorated conditions, by subjecting them to seventy ground motions across four low-to-moderate seismic hazard levels, to evaluate their seismic performance. These typical bridge configurations represent over 160,000 bridges, which comprise 55 % of the multiple span bridges nationwide.

The research results indicate that there is an overall low probability of significant seismic damage to these typical bridges in such regions. The results also show that current seismic hazard thresholds used for the design of new bridges, and for retrofit of existing bridges, which provide the basis for exempting some bridges from specific seismic analysis and design, can underestimate the expected seismic forces. Those results can be used to refine those exemption thresholds to provide appropriate protection against potential seismic damage in those cases. The study results also formed the basis for a system-wide rapid seismic vulnerability screening algorithm developed for the Vermont bridge inventory, which is applicable to other states with low to moderate seismicity regions.