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A Zest for Bridges: 2012 Award of Excellence Winner Theodore Zoli

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"This is a bridge that is closed," Zoli reasoned, his statements occasionally ending with an agreement-encouraging "yeah?" He pointed out the need for a new, functional, safe structure over a so-called signature one. "Taxpayers are paying my salary, and that begets a certain austerity, yeah? With no [extra] funding, embellishment would not be appropriate."

"You're wrong!" retorted the man. Zoli chuckled in bemused defeat and walked away. Instead of being frustrated, he said later, "I appreciate exchanges like that. He took an enormous interest in the visual quality of the project. These are public works. Public interest should be something that we recognize."

His unflappability has impressed colleagues. "When someone vented their frustration, we had an expression: You need some Ted time," recalls NYSDOT's Ivey. Adds Stephen DelGrosso, Archer Western Contractors' Memorial Bridge project manager, "Ted has made it fun to work 36-hour days, if that's possible."

DelGrosso also praised Zoli's focus on constructibility—praise echoed by other contractors. The 3,000-ft-long cable-stayed Bob Kerrey bridge in Nebraska, opened ahead of schedule in 2008, features sinuous curves that evoke the Missouri River. The contractor, APAC-Kansas, was dubious that such a bridge would be cost-effective or constructible, recalls Scott Gammon, now an American Bridge Co. vice president. "When we started the kickoff meeting for the preliminary design, I stated that we would not consider building a curved cable-stayed bridge," he recalls. "But over the next month, Ted went to work addressing each of the concerns. By the time he finished the concept, he had essentially designed away all of them."

Gammon says the bridge sections are actually all straight but form the optical illusion of curves. Bids initially came in at $45 million, so the town of Council Bluffs, Neb., and Omaha tried again. With APAC and HNTB, they got the desired bridge at $25 million.

In New York City, the goal of the $64-million Atlantic Avenue viaduct project was more mundane: to rehabilitate a century-old, 1.5-mile section of commuter railroad while minimizing disruption to thousands of daily riders. "The preliminary design for our 199-span viaduct called for replacement of existing longitudinal girders and cap beams, while maintaining the existing bracing and column tops," says Paul Dietlin, an LIRR program director. "The goal was to replace three spans each weekend. Over the three phases, it was anticipated that 104 [weekend] outages would be required."

But Zoli and the design-build team of Kiewit Constructors and HNTB created an "elegant, simple" design that required only 56 weekends. Crews replaced the upper column portions and installed new bracing, eliminating multiple field splices. A continuous modular beam with disc bearings that acted as in-span hinges created greater flexibility.

Zoli's most critical contributions to New York City aren't as visible. After the 9/11 attacks, Zoli launched HNTB's infrastructure security practice and developed a lightweight, blast-resistant composite material that has been applied on eight bridges (ENR 10/5/09 p. 10). "Ted has worked with agencies to determine how we can harden our structures against potential attacks," says Paul Yarossi, HNTB president. Such work led to his selection as a 2009 MacArthur Foundation Fellows Grant recipient (ENR 10/5/09 p. 10)—the first structural engineer to win the so-called "genius" grant—and his role as an instructor for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) bridge and tunnel vulnerability workshop.

"Ted's intervention in these sensitive research activities has done more to advance the science of bridge protection than that of any other individual," says Steven L. Ernst, FHWA's senior safety and security engineer. "We're in his debt."

Tao of Technology

Dozens of people speak not only of Zoli's striking skills and smarts but also his enthusiasm, supportiveness and lack of ego. "He is very generous with his ideas," says Sergei Bagrianski, a graduate student at Princeton University. "He would give his brainchild to you. His passion outranks the genius. 'Genius' connotes inaccessible. He makes everything accessible."

Zoli is unselfconscious in his desire to be a good global citizen. It shows in small gestures, such as bending the perforation of an Amtrak ticket to help the conductor tear off the stub. He is a godfather several times over. Colleagues note how he always leaves his office door open for them to wander in and out at will. He displays a down-to-earth humor born of growing up as one of five grandchildren of an Italian immigrant-turned-road contractor.

Zoli grew up on construction sites in the Adirondack mountains of New York (see p. 60). His blue-collar roots, big family and childhood spent in the mountains have shaped his worldview, which seeks to balance industry and environment, always collaborate and build for the public good. He grew up embracing the process of construction.

"I ran a bulldozer when I was five," recalls Zoli. "Dad would say, 'Go get me that.' He always made me feel I could do whatever it was." That sense was enhanced by his time as a Boy Scout. "We often underimagine what kids can accomplish," he muses. "Ultimately, our role as engineers is to instruct and mentor."

In Robert Pirsig's book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," the narrator strives for balance between Zen-like "in the moment" romanticism and a rational approach that grasps the mechanics of the practical world. Zoli aims for this balance in his bridges, and—unlike Howard Roark, Ayn Rand's Objectivist architect whose ego fuels his structures—he believes in collaboration with no ego.

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