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InfrastructureChallenges, opportunities ahead for repairing the U.A. aging infrastructure

Published 14 February 2017

President Donald Trump underscored repairing the nation’s aging infrastructure as a national priority both throughout the campaign and in his inauguration address. Senate Democrats last week also unveiled their own $1 trillion plan. But how did the country’s infrastructure fall into a state of such disrepair? What are the greatest challenges facing an infrastructure boom? And how can engineering foster innovation and the development of new technology to address this national priority?

President Donald Trump underscored repairing the nation’s aging infrastructure as a national priority both throughout the campaign and in his inauguration address. Senate Democrats last week also unveiled their own $1 trillion plan. But how did the country’s infrastructure fall into a state of such disrepair? What are the greatest challenges facing an infrastructure boom? And how can engineering foster innovation and the development of new technology to address this national priority? Northeastern News asked Jerome Hajjar, CDM Smith Professor and chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Northeastern: The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2013 Report Card assigned a grade of “D+” to the country’s overall infrastructure and will issue its next report card in March. In a nutshell, how did we get to this point?
Hajjar
: The country went on a significant construction boom after World War II, including building out the federal highway system as well as the energy sector and mass transit. It’s been 50 to 60 years for many of these systems since a lot of the new construction was completed. That’s certainly part of the issue. Infrastructure components are designed with a design life. Usually it’s about 50 years for these systems; for some it’s longer and for some it’s shorter. Some will last longer, but they will eventually break down.

One clear example of this is what’s happened with the nation’s bridges. They have heavy loads traveling over them every day that over time cause fatigue in the steel and cracking and failure in concrete. If this is not addressed, the bridges become deficient and, at a certain point, become dangerous. The federal government and private sector are continually assessing these issues but oftentimes don’t have adequate funds to do the necessary assessments, let alone proper replacement and repair. That’s how we’ve gotten to this point. Infrastructure requires consistent, significant investment from the public and private sectors.

[Hajjar and his colleagues are developing a sophisticated system that uses autonomous small flying robots coupled with 3-D imaging and state-of-the art planning, modeling, and analysis to inspect structures such as bridges.]