Q&A: Prof. Ted Zoli Steps into the Spotlight

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“If you had the chance to design something for the people around you who you cared deeply about, what would be good enough?” — Prof. Ted Zoli, HNTB National Bridge Chief Engineer

Building a bridge “takes a cast of characters — the bridge and people involved: engineers, fabricators, erectors, owners and is a public project,” Zoli said. Mention the Lake Champlain Bridge connecting Crown Point, NY, and Addison, VT, and he softens.

“It has a special place for me, so near where I grew up and to people I feel a close kinship with,” the Glen Falls native explained. “When we were deciding what the bridge would be I’d see old friends and people who knew me as a small boy, before my earliest memories, at public meetings.”

Talking with a group of international engineers/NNYB
Talking with a group of international engineers/NNYB

Zoli, a visiting lecturer in Princeton’s Department of Civil Engineering and an adjunct professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at Columbia University, and HNTB make sure Tappan Zee Constructors, LLC (TZC) lives up to the contract it signed with the NYS Thruway Authority.

A recognized figure in the bridge engineering and design industry, Zoli is the first structural engineer to receive the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Genius Award in 2009. He’ll apply the $500,000 grant toward projects that solve problems for remote disaster-affected populations.

What was your reaction when you heard the news?

My initial reaction was shock. It’s the sort of thing you need to hear when you are sitting down. It’s particularly overwhelming for an engineer used to being in the background. I like to think that engineers are intrinsic to life as we know it; you don’t flip the light on or turn on the water faucet and say, ‘Thank goodness for all the engineers, past and present, who make this happen so reliably.”

You applied the $500,000 grant toward lightweight shelter roofs, extensions to temporary bridges and, in Morocco, a 210 -ft-long synthetic rope bridge. 

Synthetic rope pedestrian bridges and extending the span range of modular vehicular bridges are clear focus areas. Even the lightweight shelter has some bridge DNA in it, a structural form that I am exploring for buried structures, to construct a sort of land bridge. (These) are becoming an important way to connect habitats cut off by highways.

I am using the grant to pay for not just the research and engineering but the prototyping and construction of these types of projects. This work will continue over the next decade, and I hope to further develop ideas on these fronts.

Another honor was Engineering-News Record’s 2012 Award of Excellence Winner. Congratulations for this as well. How did you did you feel earning that distinction?

This is a tremendous honor in my industry. It should also be clear that engineering is a team sport. Anyone with a successful career has had the good fortune to be surrounded by incredibly talented people who have no small stake in that success, particularly true in my case.

The first thing that came to my mind is how many people contributed to the success of the work we have undertaken together — including engineers (particularly my staff without which I could accomplish very little), contractors, fabricators, erectors, who are integrally engaged in every aspect of the work. Projects don’t happen without owners — too often overlooked — who have vision, capability, and the courage to make tough decisions every day.

Who/what were your influences?

I remain very interested in the work of bridge engineers, influenced by Waddell, Ammann, Maillart, and Menn. There are many less-recognized who made enormous contributions: Per Tveit from Norway the inventor of the Network Arch, and the Tibetan Monk Thang Tong Gyalpo who build iron chain bridges in remote areas in the late 1400’s. 

“Even in the bridge world, I’m a bit of a contrarian.” (Engineering-News Record, April 16, 2012) What did you mean?

I like to question whether we are on the right path. In engineering, so much we know is based upon what we did in the past, that we tend to evolve slowly, and it takes time for new ideas to take root. A foundational principle is to be efficient with quantities, an example of the industry’s path. Minimizing materials is the wrong path. Costs associated with fabricating, transporting, and erecting dominate modern construction costs.  

How does the new bridge’s shared use path compare to other like bridges, i.e., the Golden Gate Bridge, which is slightly more than half its length?

At over three miles, the scale of the New NY Bridge separates it from other projects. In most other aspects it is quite typical of new bridge projects from the perspective of width, grades, the use of belvederes (rest areas), etc.

“Now every major project I’m working on has a shared-use path—a bicycle- or pedestrian-defined path—integrated into the design.” (CityLab, January 30, 2015). “I would say the future of pedestrian bridges is significant in the practice of bridge design in urban areas.”

How would you advise students interested in construction, project management, and STEM careers who aspire to a project like the NNYB? What steps can they take now?

Creativity is a crucial part of any career in engineering. Study the work of others critically, but remember that engineering is incremental, discover what you can add to the body of work you see around you.

What lasting impression do you want the public to have after the project is completed?

The best outcome is for the public to have a sense that the bridge is a great value. That it is well worth the investment.

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