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Crumbling Infrastructure: The Road Ahead

Posted May 31, 2013 & filed under Job Search

Crumbling Infrastructure: The Road Ahead

When a wide-load truck hit a load bearing truss and collapsed a segment of the I-5 Bridge between Seattle & Canada, it forced the American public to resume a discussion that’s been on hold: how are we going to improve our rapidly crumbling infrastructure? The Federal Highway Administration in a 2012 report rated 11% of the nation’s 607,000 bridges as having fracture-critical designs that lack the redundancy measures needed to withstand major damage. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the aging U.S. infrastructure a C+ grade and recommended that an additional $8 billion be invested annually in infrastructure upkeep.

But with the Sequester in place, the solution isn’t so easy.

Highway budgets may avoid the sizable cuts that other programs will see but an $8 billion increase in funding will probably not be slated in the foreseeable future. So, to adjust to these fiscal constraints, a successful upgrade to the national infrastructure will have to include a twofold focus: prioritization & innovation.


To start, state & federal agencies will need to appropriately manage the budgets they are given, spreading monies for bridge & road renovation as far as possible. Triage needs to be performed on each infrastructural project with several factors in mind – the age, the structural integrity, and the daily vehicle traffic – before anything is commissioned on the state or federal level. For those curious about those conditions nationwide, follow this link.

Hopefully, the stewards within Department of Transportation can make prudent decisions and efficiently implement projects in areas with the greatest need. To help their mission along, civil engineers may need to make serious changes to their procedures.


Though redundant designs already exist help to redistribute loads and increase bridge & roadway lifespans, enterprising civil engineers may need to investigate new techniques to function within these budgetary restrictions. Maria Feng, a civil engineering professor at the University of California (Irvine), suggests that civil engineers “more effectively use limited resources to do intelligent renewal.”

High tech innovations – in the way of more durable displacement sensors and damage assessment software – has already been the key to cutting the cost of infrastructure evaluation but even more innovations will be needed to replace fracture critical structures.

One exciting innovation comes from the Lehigh University’s ATLSS (Advanced Technologies for Large Structural Systems) Engineering Research Center. Director Richard Sause and his team have pioneered design concepts that provide “economical long-term utility,” through the use of a concrete-filled tubular girder. The torsional stiffness provided by the rectangular pipe allows for the structure to be more resistant to instability and provide greater cost cuts in the long run.

A Real Opportunity:

For civil engineers looking to take advantage of government contracts through innovation, Sause suggests following relating back to one of the core philosophies of engineering. He says, “much of engineering is understanding what needs improvement and then looking for the best way to make that improvement, even if it’s a small change.”

Numerous small changes to the I-5 bridge and others are where the greatest opportunities lie and may ultimately offer some of the largest economical savings as we put the pieces of our crumbling infrastructure back in place. Will you be part of that movement?

by James Walsh

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