From local to global impact, how transportation initiatives can change the world

Author: William Meiners
While economic woes certainly have dominated headlines in recent months, President Barack Obama's plan to create millions of jobs in the United States by "making the single largest investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s" could help overhaul the transportation industry.

The transportation and infrastructure systems specialty group—a longtime strong suit within Purdue’s School of Civil Engineering—promises to provide the cutting-edge research, as well as talented engineers, to help in that restructuring at local, regional, national, and global levels.

John Haddock, associate professor of civil engineering and director of the Indiana Local Technical Assistance Program (LTAP), offers a global perspective on building an economy through infrastructure. China’s tremendous growth, he says, is a classic example of a country capitalizing on its infrastructure explosions. The challenge in the U.S., with so much aging infrastructure, could come with refining current systems, as well as adapting to new ones.

Kumares Sinha is the Edgar B. and Hedwig M. Olson Distinguished Professor of Civil Engineering and director of Joint Transportation Research Program (JTRP). Established in 1937, Purdue’s JTRP is one of the oldest transportation research programs in the United States. In partnership with the Indiana Department of Transportation,  as well as other groups within Civil Engineering, JTRP has become a national model for the successful partnership of government, academia, and the private sector, combining its efforts in a mutually rewarding research program. Sinha suggests that you can put people to work building new roads and highways. But he cautions against development without looking at where these roads will lead 10 and 20 years from now .

Wherever those roads lead, civil engineering acronyms, including LTAP, JTRP, CRS and NEXTRANS, will be offering the much needed expertise to help turn the economic tide.

Regional and global outreach

Transportation Pannel

The NEXTRANS Center (which stands for Next Generation Transportation) is one of 10 regional university transportation centers selected by the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) in 2007. Based at Purdue, NEXTRANS serves Region V, which consists of the states of Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

For Srinivas Peeta, professor of civil engineering and director of NEXTRANS, the strength of his group lies in its ability to look at the challenges through a “system-of-systems” perspective. In other words, how are the various transportation modes working together and affecting one another? The question takes NEXTRANS beyond the Region V boundaries to consider national and global challenges.

Citing the USDOT’s 2006-2011 Strategic Plan, Peeta says that unless the U.S. adopts new technologies and operating procedures soon, rising shipping and travel costs will make it difficult for U.S. businesses to compete in international markets, a situation that could further deepen the world economic crisis.

Great challenges likewise present great opportunities. The 2009 stimulus plan, says Peeta, “is an opportunity not only to improve on past infrastructure projects, but to invest in the future by making America’s transportations systems more efficient, technologically advanced, and multimodal.”

Through the collaborative research efforts of NEXTRANS, Peeta hopes to help create an advanced infrastructure that will accommodate new technologies. These “intelligent” transportation systems would improve mobility and safety for the public sector, while at the same time allowing the private sector to move products more efficiently.

“If we were to upgrade our rail, air, and sea transportation systems and ease intermodal connections, we could further improve congestion on highways and lower freight transportation and energy costs,” he says. “Such integrated solutions do more than repair damage and give our economy a one-time jump start through job creation. They foster lasting solutions that will reap economic benefits for decades to come.”

Since the $80.5 billion promised in the stimulus package can only begin to finance these investments, another goal of NEXTRANS is to foster public-private partnerships, as well as international collaborations.

Local focus and safety initiatives

As Peeta and his colleagues in NEXTRANS take a Midwestern regional view of all things transportation, all the while keeping tabs on the global ramifications, the civil engineers at LTAP have a decidedly more local focus. “We like to take all of the academic and research activities at Purdue and share that expertise with the Indiana counties, cities, and towns,” says John Habermann, the LTAP program manager who helps maintain those relationships in 92 counties, 117 cities, and 456 towns.

Part of the shared expertise is to encourage practices that make infrastructures last longer. Last spring semester’s Road School—the oldest statewide transportation conference in the country, also co-sponsored by JTRP—put state and federal folks alongside private vendors and representatives from counties and towns. “A big emphasis of this last Road School was on the recovery money,” Habermann says. “We focused on the transportation part of the recovery bill, which is in the area of $600 million. We tried to get all the players in one room together so conversations could take place.”

Even in an Internet age, Habermann is concerned that people in rural areas can be left in the woods when it comes to finding out how to get help or secure the proper funding for transportation improvements. For him, it is about helping them make connections. But the challenge is often making the most of scarce resources.

LTAP often takes the show out on the road, offering technical expertise on everything from a chainsaw safety class (to show how to properly trim a tree that falls on the road) to advice on the best snowplow practices. “Another big challenge,” Habermann says, “is the political solution. We’re trying to present a thorough plan to an elected official who has multiple demands from their constituency.”

With many people appointed to road and street departments, LTAP experts look to get the new appointees up to speed. Again, that’s where simple, good networking can come in by introducing someone new to someone experienced.

Many of the economic recovery efforts as they trickle down to local levels are “much more based on system recovery over system expansion,” Habermann says. “We’re looking at the short-term impact of construction and the long-term impact of economic development that can now be served by transportation improvement.”

Case studies can help graduate students like Jen Sharkey and Kevin Gerst, both master’s students in civil engineering, link engineering expertise with economic impact. One such study, for example, detailed how inadequate transportation funding delayed the completion of the Ronald Reagan Parkway in Hendricks County, resulting in lost economic opportunities.

Any improvements to transportation infrastructure systems also should have goals for improved safety. Researches in Purdue’s Center for Road Safety (CRS), directed by Andrew Tarko, professor of civil engineering, are developing engineering tools related to driver, vehicle, and roadway safety characteristics.

“According to the Indiana Crash Facts issued by Indiana Criminal Justice Institute, around 900 people are killed and additional 50,000 injured in 200,000 vehicle accidents in Indiana each year,” says Tarko. “This tragic toll costs Indiana annually more than $4.5 billion dollars due to loss of productivity, medical bills, and property damage.”

CRS has been actively involved for many years in developing tools and performing analysis aimed to help Indiana agencies identify cost-effective safety improvements of the Indiana transportation infrastructure in order to reduce this huge burden.

So safety and sustainability should be byproducts of an economic boost to the transportation sector. And with so many Purdue civil engineering researchers working on so many different transportation fronts, those better times could be arriving soon.

Looking Local, Thinking Impact

Several civil engineering researchers, connected with CRS, JTRP, LTAP, and NEXTRANS are looking at how transportation improvements can reap economic benefits.

  • Darcy Bullock, professor of civil engineering and the associate director of JTRP, is looking to maximize travel times and safety conditions through intelligent transportation systems, real time traffic control, and image-based vehicle detection.
  • Rob Connor, assistant professor of civil engineering, is looking how to effectively rate the more than 250 bridges in Indiana that were built with flatbed railroad cars.
  • Jon Fricker, professor of civil engineering, is determining the impacts of bypasses on communities in order to find mutually agreeable solutions to adverse impacts.
  • John Haddock, of LTAP, is focused on asphalt performance and looking at a cross section of roads (low, median, and high volume) and how they should best be built.
  • Samuel Labi, assistant professor of civil engineering, is studying the feasibility of dynamic congestion pricing in Indiana, which would allow toll prices to increase or decrease in response to traffic conditions.
  • Fred Mannering, the Charles Pankow Professor of Civil Engineering and associate director of research for CRS, is applying cutting-edge technology to develop a model that can accurately measure travel-time reliability on Indiana interstates. 
  • Srinivas Peeta, of NEXTRANS, is developing a model by which small to medium trucking firms can collaborate, leveraging existing infrastructure and technological advancements to improve efficiency.
  • Kumares Sinha, of JTRP, continues his cutting-edge work in transportation systems analysis, transportation economics and management, transportation safety, and urban and regional planning.
  • Andrew Tarko, of CRS, is leading a team that is building the most comprehensive Geographic Information System database for Indiana safety management, developing several computer tools for safety-oriented road planning and design, and annually screening all Indiana roads to identify safety needs.
  • Jason Weiss, professor of civil engineering and director of the Pankow Lab, is developing sustainable concrete (see “Campaign Impact” on page 14) that can be used in place of aging highway and bridge infrastructure.