Nation’s Infrastructure Gets Failing Grade, UA Center Seeks Solutions
With Hurricane Katrina’s intense destruction in 2005, government officials and private citizens can no longer take public infrastructure for granted. Through a series of research projects, The University of Alabama’s Aging Infrastructure Systems Center for Excellence is improving the productivity and resilience of aging assets in America.
“Hurricane Katrina has amplified our awareness of the dramatic and disastrous impact of failing to invest in the maintenance of our nation’s infrastructure,” says Dr. David Hale, director of the one-of-a-kind center at UA and the William White McDonald Family Distinguished Faculty Fellow. “No longer can we pretend that the problem is hypothetical or doesn’t affect us; aging infrastructure is costly to our prosperity and quality of life.”
According to the National Science Foundation, the lack of adequate maintenance contributed to New Orleans levee failures. Such necessary maintenance isn’t cheap and requires coordinated efforts at the national, state and local levels, researchers say.
“The magnitude of the problems seen along the Gulf Coast extend to other areas and infrastructure systems,” says Dr. Edd Gibson, the Center’s research director and the Garry Neil Drummond Endowed Chair of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering at UA. “Recently, we have seen the effects of aging infrastructure on the Alaskan pipeline, the nation’s power grid and its road network. The consequence of failure, too often, is devastating, both financially and socially.”
Gibson cites a 2005 report card issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers that grades the nation’s infrastructure as a D, down from a D+ in 2001. This report card objectively supports the common observations that highways are more congested, sewers are overflowing, pipelines are corroding and the power grid is becoming evermore fragile, he says.
It takes approximately $100 billion annually to maintain the nation’s infrastructure at its current level of service. Over the next five years an estimated $1.6 trillion is required to bring the nation’s infrastructure up to a passing score. In Alabama, $50 million is spent by the state each year to maintain bridge safety. More daunting, the state needs $4 billion over the next 10 years to repair and replace obsolete and structurally deficient bridges. Alabama also has $2.72 billion in wastewater infrastructure needs and is the nation’s only state without a dam safety program.
“While there are several research centers that are devoted to the myriad of issues involved with a single domain such as power system or transportation, the UA center is unique because it focuses on the issue of aging infrastructure systems and investigates commonalities and unique aspects across domains,” says Hale, who also directs the Management Information Systems programs at UA’s College of Commerce and Business.
UA’s center focuses on developing and disseminating tools, techniques and methods to improve the management of the nation’s aging infrastructure. It brings together a multi-disciplinary research team that utilizes a cross-industry approach. The center focuses on the problems associated with aging man-made and environmental systems. This allows best practices from one domain to be reapplied in others, Gibson says.
“Consequently the center has projects that focus on bridges, pavement, waste-water, drinking water systems, dams, telecommunications, power grids, ports, manufacturing facilities, military systems, information technology and high-value vehicles fleets.”
Many of the projects involve faculty and students from business, engineering and the sciences. “The goal is to be a national hub for research and a forum for national policy debate,” said Hale.
The center applies an intelligent command and control systems approach. It focuses on risk and reliability, organizational knowledge retention and monitoring and remediating infrastructure systems’ health condition. The result, the researchers say, is a systematic set of methods that concentrate on system-wide and project-level life extensions to infrastructure systems.
One example is a center proposal for the Woolsey Finnell Bridge, which connects the sections of Tuscaloosa’s McFarland Boulevard divided by the Black Warrior River. During rush-hour, traffic frequently comes to a standstill on the bridge. According to Dr. Dan Daly, associate director of the center, this added weight increases the deterioration of the bridge. A team of the center’s engineers collected data information on the bridge to determine how they could improve the aging of this infrastructure.
“Through the data we collected, we know that placing sensors on the bridge will help track activity such as weight and vibrations that are felt by the bridge at any given time,” says Daly. “The information would be sent to a computer that will be connected to the traffic lights located on either side of the bridge. The data the computer receives will cause the traffic lights sides to respond in sequence to help relieve the traffic on the bridge. Doing this will cause the bridge to last longer.”
The center has forged research partnerships with NASA, the Federal Highway Administration, the Army Corp. of Engineers, the Alabama Department of Transportation and the private sector.
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