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Theodore Zoli: Engineering 'Genius' Builds Bridges Across Communities

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ENR Art Dept.
Photo Courtesy HNTB/Trey Cambern
Theodore Zoli led a fast-track design for the new Lake Champlain bridge, winning hearts and minds in the process.
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ZOLI
The Lake Champlain bridge between New York and Vermont is the only viable crossing for 3,000 residents, as well as one of the first continuous truss road bridges built in the nation. So when inspections in 2009 found structural problems in the piers and forced a subsequent shutdown, fast-tracking the design of a new bridge—while gaining multiple stakeholder buy-in—was crucial.

Enter Theodore Zoli, an HNTB Corp. vice president, and the first in his industry to win a MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellowship, in 2009. That year, he had also swooped to the rescue of a bridge project that was on emergency call: the city of Cupertino's planned Mary Avenue footbridge over Interstate 280 (ENR 3/9/09 p. 17).

For Lake Champlain, Zoli led a team procuring a modified network tied-arch design that satisified a demanding population. Zoli became a hometown hero in the process. "Growing up in the region may have given me a deeper appreciation of the site, the region and the people the bridge serves," he says. "However, as a project it was our hope that the [replacement] bridge would live up to the both the site and the bridge it replaces."

Zoli is now leading the design of another span in similar circumstances: the Memorial Bridge between New Hampshire and Maine. But Zoli's bridge work goes beyond replacement and preservation to hardening against potential terrorist attacks. "A very notable characteristic of Ted is his selfless dedication to the job at hand," says James C. Ray, research structural engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Engineer Research and Development Center. "I am impressed and inspired by his unchanging concern for what is right."

Building infrastructure is in Zoli's blood. His grandfather had a roadbuilding construction company that built a portion of Interstate 87 in the Adirondacks. "My first years were spent in a construction trailer on the Schroon Lake segment," he says. "When I was in 4th grade, there was an essay contest on what you wanted to be when you grew up. The winner would spend a day with someone in that particular field. I wrote then about my interest in becoming a civil engineer and I spent the day with the county engineer from Warren County," he recalls.

Zoli, who has been featured in Esquire magazine and NBC Nightly News, has consistently used the media attention he receives to spread the word about the nation's infrastructure needs.

"It's necessary that we start to move away from an approach that is dominated by material efficiency and focus more on structural safety and constructibility," he says.

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