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The Next Generation of Resilient Transportation Infrastructure

By Kate Kurtin

The University of Connecticut was among seven institutions designated as a National Transportation Security Center of Excellence (NTSCOE) in the Improving America’s Security Act of 2007. The Centers of Excellence are intended to conduct research and education activities and to develop or provide professional security training, including the training of transportation employees and transportation professionals (www.tsu.edu). UConn is the research lead for the center while Tougaloo College and Texas Southern University oversee education and training programs, and petrochemical transportation security, respectfully. The network also includes Rutgers University, Long Island University, the University of Arkansas, and San Jose State University.  The joint efforts of these seven national institutions are focused on transportation infrastructure and networks, and transportation systems and operations. UConn’s research activities are investigating novel materials, sensor capabilities, and computer models that can be applied to protect America’s infrastructure.

After the events of 9/11, the U.S government formed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as a means “to secure the nation from the many threats we face” (www.dhs.gov). “After 9/11, people were looking at infrastructure development and saying that ‘we would need to build everything like fortresses,’” said Dr. Michael Accorsi, Director of UConn’s Center for Resilient Transportation Infrastructure. “You had people looking at the Twin Towers collapsing and wondering how we are going to protect all our buildings and bridges,” he finished. Living in fortresses is not a feasible option, leaving the question: ‘How do we build security into infrastructure so that our lifestyle is still enjoyable?’ With this aim as their primary objective, DHS chiefly commissions research that is concerned with managing risk and developing resilient infrastructure.

“DHS has a broad mission, but if you look at it scientifically, the question of how to build security into the engineering process is extremely interesting,” Dr. Accorsi said. Structural design comes very naturally to engineers, but security is typically an afterthought, he noted. For that reason, NTSCOE is focused on resilient infrastructure. “There are many critical infrastructure components that have high risk,” Dr. Accorsi explained. “Due to this, it first requires increased protection against extreme events. Second, if there is a disaster, you must respond quickly and effectively. The third challenge involves recovery following infrastructure damage,” he finished. Following the 9/11 attacks the need to return to a semblance of ‘normalcy’ was a major challenge. It is for this reason that an emerging concept in the field is “minimizing consequences.” “Overall, with resilient infrastructure you are trying to minimize the loss of operational capacity over time. September 11th was a tragedy, but the impact continued for weeks after, with the economic loss during the recovery period.”

In order to achieve these goals, UConn works in the area of infrastructure protection by developing materials capable of withstanding extreme loads, such as blasts, fires, or earthquakes. Additionally, UConn researchers are developing sensors that are able to communicate what is happening inside of the structure. “If the structure can tell you what is going on, it allows you to act more effectively,” Dr. Accorsi said. The third research area that UConn researchers are focused on is modeling, computer simulation and transportation network simulation. This modeling allows researchers to realistically and reliably predict how a structure will respond to any number of loads. Additionally, network simulation allows researchers to predict what would happen to a network if one arm was disturbed.

The scale of the center’s activities is large. During its second year, the center involved 14 faculty members from four engineering departments and 14 graduate students and eight undergraduates. As director, Dr. Accorsi has several roles. The first is to keep a close partnership with DHS to make sure that UConn researchers know the department’s needs, address them through research, and then deliver. Second, Dr. Accorsi feels very strongly about his role in engaging UConn’s faculty in DHS’s mission. “Our work with DHS is a long-term effort,” Dr. Accorsi explained. “We would like the faculty to be able to leverage funding from other sources. Ideally, our faculty could take the idea that was generated by a DHS project and write a successful NSF proposal.” Dr. Accorsi’s third responsibility is to serve as a facilitator between UConn’s faculty and other agencies. “I try to arrange meetings with faculty and other agencies that work with DHS. This is all in an attempt to transition our research out of the lab and to make an impact,” he explained. One example of this is a new project with Drs. Christenson and Tang that involves scaled model testing at the Army Corps of Engineers. Dr. Accorsi works tirelessly to grow the center at UConn with the goal to make it sustainable. “I put the icing on the cake,” Dr. Accorsi said. “Sometimes I also work on the cake itself,” he said, referring to his own project on ultra-high performance concrete.

The NTSCOE is initially a four-year engagement and UConn is currently finishing its second year. “The upcoming year is critical,” said Dr. Accorsi. “We have done really well with basic research; it was really strong and relevant, but this year we need to transition and increase our outreach,” Dr. Accorsi stated. “It is a tremendous pleasure to work with the dedicated personnel at DHS and the talented faculty and students at UConn on this important mission.”