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

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Photo by Eric Millette
By Tom Sawyer and Luke Abaffy
Watch the Award of Excellence video presented to industry professionals at ENR's 2012 Award of Excellence ceremony in New York City on April 12.
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One recent Sunday afternoon while he was biking in New York City's Central Park, Theodore Zoli's cell phone rang. It was a call from James Ray, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers senior researcher with the Engineering Research and Development Center in Biloxi, Miss. Troops in Afghanistan were concerned about a bridge that had been damaged by fire. Could they safely cross it?

Ray hated to interrupt the notoriously busy Zoli on a rare day off, but he urgently needed an answer. Ray knew he had to call HNTB Corp.'s national chief bridge engineer, known for his work in making structures more resistant to blasts and fires—whether from accidents, terrorism or enemy fire.

"He sat there on the bike pathway and elaborated at length and really helped me out," says Ray. "I have witnessed Ted on numerous occasions put what is right as the priority over any other consideration, including money. His concern for his fellow man and our country are his utmost priorities."

In fall 2009, the New York State Dept. of Transportation (NYSDOT) had to shut down the Lake Champlain Bridge between New York and Vermont—a lifeline for two communities with no other links within 100 miles. Would it be possible to design a bridge that could be built quickly and economically while also satisfying the communities? NYSDOT officials weren't sure—until they met Zoli.

"Ted was instrumental in our being able to communicate the message about the closure to the public," recalls Mary Ivey, NYSDOT regional director. "He was so convincing to the [stakeholder] committee that even the historians said to me, 'Now that we've heard Ted Zoli, we understand.' " Zoli went through input from hundreds of residents and created a half-dozen options for them to evaluate. He produced a modified network tied arch design that echoes the old bridge, yet is safer and sleeker. Inclined crisscrossing hanger cables redistribute the main span's weight throughout, creating redundancy. The $76-million crossing opened two years later (ENR 11/7/11 p. 17). "People are thrilled," says Ivey. "It could have been out of character or more of a signature bridge, but it's a beautiful fit."

Zoli's work has been at or near the center of multiple similar scenarios: on the Mary Avenue Bridge in Cupertino, Calif. (ENR 3/9/09 p. 17); the Happy Hollow Bridge in San Jose, Calif.; the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge in Omaha; the Blennerhassett Bridge in West Virginia; and the Long Island Rail Road's (LIRR) Atlantic Avenue viaduct in New York City (ENR N.Y. 11/07/11 p. 84).

"He's not only an engineer's engineer, superb in the technical fields, but a Renaissance [man]," says Joe Deneault, former West Va. Dept. of Transportation chief engineer, now with Terradon Corp. "His knowledge base is so broad, and his ability to work with people and get the best out of a design team set him apart. I will not be greatly surprised if he becomes one of the giants in the history of bridgebuilding."

For these reasons and for his consistent ability to optimize and integrate innovation with practicality as well as his tireless dedication to enhancing the safety and well-being of society in multiple aspects, Engineering News-Record has chosen Zoli as its 2012 Award of Excellence winner.

Bridging Communities

Despite frigid January weather in Portsmouth, N.H., residents came out in droves to an open house to learn about the planned new design for the movable Memorial Bridge across the Piscataqua River. The old truss bridge was an emergency closure.

Sporting a close-cropped haircut, glasses, a preppy sweater and tie, the compactly muscled Zoli looked like both an Ivy League professor and the descendent of a blue-collar contractor—and he is both. In professorial tones and layman's terms, he patiently explained to the audience the reasons for his design of the new lift bridge. The discussion went on for hours.

The structure will be the first truss bridge in the world with no gusset plates, using uniform 65-ft metal sections spliced and reinforced by plates. Zoli used cold-bent steel—another first for bridges—and located the machine rooms under the main span.

With new generations of steel available and a better understanding of cold bending, Zoli saw these aspects of the new bridge as examples of "a very subtle departure in the way we do things, yet very big. We tend to do the same things over and over again. We should always be trying to expand upon what we know about."

Most attendees seemed pleased by the explanations, and many praised him. But one man demanded to know why the bridge could not be more of a signature bridge. He asked, didn't Portsmouth deserve its own version of Boston's Zakim Bridge?

Zoli listened attentively, then described the legacy of the original movable bridge's designer, John A.L. Waddell, and explained how the planned gray zinc coat for the new bridge would be not only the most anti-corrosive but also echo the region's Navy shipbuilding history. But the man persisted.

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