Looking down the road to better transportation infrastructure

Semi-truck transporting over a bridge

College of Engineering researchers are playing prominent roles in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s $435 million program to make the nation’s transportation system safer, more innovative, and more efficient.

The program funds 34 university transportation centers, or UTCs. Each center comprises a consortium of researchers from a number of universities and is tasked with conducting research and technology transfer in its assigned topic area. The centers will also help to develop the next generation of transportation professionals.

UTC member institutions are selected based on their research track record, potential impact, location, facilities, and several other factors.

Oregon State is represented on three UTCs:

  • The Center for Freight Transportation for Efficient and Resilient Supply Chain.
  • The Center for Coastal Research and Education Actions for Transportation Equity.
  • The Center for Durable and Resilient Transportation Infrastructure.

Over the course of the five-year program, each of the three centers will receive $2 million annually in DOT grants, which will be divided up among consortium members. Each member institution will also raise partial matching funds, totaling 50% of their grant amounts, from nonfederal sources.

UTC members can collaborate with one another in their research pursuits, thereby benefiting from their colleagues’ expertise, or they can operate independently, depending on the demands of a particular research project.

According to Sal Hernandez, associate professor in the School of Civil and Construction Engineering and associate director of the Center for Freight Transportation for Efficient and Resilient Supply Chain (led by the University of Tennessee Knoxville), one of his center’s first research projects will collect and analyze telematic data (such as information from GPS receivers and the electronic logging devices that truckers carry) to develop a better understanding of disruptions to the freight distribution network and identify strategies to mitigate them.

For instance, if a blizzard shuts down an interstate, researchers would want to know the magnitude of delivery delays, what facilities are in place for trucks to wait out the storm, and what alternative routes could be used to continue moving freight.

“The outcome could provide valuable insights that lead to the development of measures to aid disaster planning and optimize freight movements during disruptive events,” Hernandez said. “Freight is the backbone of the U.S. economy, and we want to keep it moving safely and efficiently.”

Another project will investigate the impact of public multimodal freight networks on private global distribution systems. Both projects are expected to begin later this summer.

The priority for the Center for Coastal Research and Education Actions for Transportation Equity (led by Texas State University) is to improve the durability and extend the life of transportation infrastructure in coastal areas, said Christopher Higgins, the Cecil and Sally Drinkward Professor in Structural Engineering and associate director of the center.

“Compared with inland areas, the coastal environment presents unique challenges for transportation infrastructure,” Higgins said. “The conditions are harsh because of salt and corrosion, storms, rising sea levels, and flooding. Our job is to work on some of the most pressing issues facing coastal transportation.”

Because replacing existing infrastructure is often prohibitively expensive, the center will seek solutions that focus on rehabilitating existing infrastructure, such as bridges that have deteriorated after years of exposure to chlorides.

“We want to know what techniques, what rehabilitation strategies, what analysis methods could be used to evaluate the capacity of existing, deteriorated infrastructure and then look for methods that could be used to restore strength, or even increase strength, so roads, bridges, and other structures can continue to be used safely. We’ve got to figure out the best ways to maintain what we have.”

At first, the center plans to distribute funding to existing research projects, according to Higgins.

“That way, we can increase the impact of ongoing work,” he said.

After that, the center will issue a call for research proposals. Submissions will be ranked to develop a research portfolio that best fulfills the center’s mission in subsequent years.

The Center for Durable and Resilient Transportation Infrastructure (led by the University of Texas, Arlington) will seek ways to repair and rebuild the nation’s transportation infrastructure while working toward net-zero carbon emissions, said Jason Weiss, Miles Lowell and Margaret Watt Edwards Distinguished Chair in Engineering and an associate director of the center.

Its first-year projects include developing multiphysics models to simulate the service life of concrete; developing low-carbon methods for making cement and concrete; research into fiber- reinforced concrete; and extending the life of bridge decks using coatings and other materials.

Success of the UTCs will be gauged not by the volume of published research, but how often their findings lead to policy or rules changes at government agencies, or by the adoption of new construction or maintenance techniques within the construction and transportation industries.

“We want to go beyond just issuing reports and move from scientific exercises to results, such as changing specifications or demonstration projects where findings are put into practice,” Weiss said.

An equally significant outcome will be education and professional development.

“The graduate students who will be doing a lot of the research will be able to go into the workforce, apply their knowledge in the professional world, and potentially have a major impact in their fields.” Higgins said.

“This is a way for us to bring students into the discussion of the changing needs of the nation’s infrastructure and expose them to state-of-the art knowledge,” Weiss added. “There are some great opportunities there.”

Aug. 11, 2023