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Beam bridge Beam bridge
Beam Bridge

A beam or "girder" bridge is the simplest and most inexpensive kind of bridge. According to Craig Finley of Finley/McNary Engineering, "they're basically the vanillas of the bridge world."

In its most basic form, a beam bridge consists of a horizontal beam that is supported at each end by piers. The weight of the beam pushes straight down on the piers.

The beam itself must be strong so that it doesn't bend under its own weight and the added weight of crossing traffic. When a load pushes down on the beam, the beam's top edge is pushed together (compression) while the bottom edge is stretched (tension).

Try It!
What happens when a load pushes down on a beam bridge?

Illustration of cut eraser as beam, showing compression and tension Take a flat eraser or a small sponge and slice a shallow notch across the top and bottom. Create a beam bridge by supporting each end of the eraser (or sponge) with a stack of books. Press down on the center of the bridge. What happens to the top and bottom notches? Notice how the top notch squeezes together in compression, while the bottom notch spreads apart under tension.

Pre-stressed concrete is an ideal material for beam bridge construction; the concrete withstands the forces of compression well and the steel rods imbedded within resist the forces of tension. Pre-stressed concrete also tends to be one of the least expensive materials in construction. But even the best materials can't compensate for the beam bridge's biggest limitation: its length.

The farther apart its supports, the weaker a beam bridge gets. As a result, beam bridges rarely span more than 250 feet. This doesn't mean beam bridges aren't used to cross great distances—it only means that they must be daisy-chained together, creating what's known in the bridge world as a "continuous span."

Lake Ponchartrain Causeway Lake Ponchartrain Causeway, Louisiana
In fact, the world's longest bridge is a continuous span beam bridge. Almost 24 miles long, the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway consists of two, two-lane sections that run parallel to one another. The Southbound Lane, completed in 1956, is made up of 2243 separate spans, while the Northbound Lane, completed in 1969, is pieced together from 1500 longer spans. Seven cross-over lanes connect the two main sections and function as pull-over bays in emergencies. Although impressive, the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway bridge underscores the drawback of continuous spans: they are not well suited for locations that require unobstructed clearance below.

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Photos: (1) Rita Serderian-Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute; (2) Gulf Engineers and Consultants, Inc.

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