Under construction at Columbia: a revolution in New York City's infrastructure

John O. Green

Bud Griffis and his colleagues have a big dream. These civil engineering faculty and their students at Columbia's Center for Infrastructure Studies (CIS) have created a plan for a 21st century New York City that doesn't just get by; it works well. This metropolis will include reclaimed and revitalized waterfront and abandoned lots; bridges, tunnels, and roads maintained in top shape by advanced technologies; and a coordinated system of rapid transit, roadway, rail, and air traffic in and out of the zone all surrounded by strategic areas of greensward. By dramatically revamping the whole infrastructure, the plan can revitalize commerce, culture, environment, and quality of life. As Griffis puts it, "Nothing else works without it."

This vision appears in Griffis' book Infrastructure of New York City: A Policymaker's Guide,1 one key result of a major collaboration among Brookhaven National Laboratory, Columbia's CIS, and several other universities. This consortium, the National Infrastructure Center for Engineering Systems and Technologies (NICEST), using a half-million-dollar project grant from New York State, spent a year mapping out the plan and technologies the city needs to revolutionize its maintenance.

These technologies -- not yet developed, but feasible -- include such intriguing concepts as the 70-year highway, ironable asphalt, hollow streets, robotic repair of bridge decks, magnetic imaging of steel-reinforced structures, automated inspection and repair of underground pipes, and rapid quiet cutting of concrete pavement and structures. That's just a sampling; the plan will take a few billion dollars and an unusual amount of political courage. But more on that later.

F. H. (Bud) Griffis has been at Columbia some 10 years, starting as adjunct professor while still a colonel in the Army Corps of Engineers, where he was responsible for all Army and Air Force construction from southern New Jersey up through Maine, Greenland, and Labrador. Morton Friedman, vice dean of the School of Engineering, first recruited Griffis and describes him as "one of these people who knows everybody in the city and his way around."

Griffis and his colleagues' activities are part of a rethinking of engineering education at Columbia, an effort near to Friedman's heart. "Even though engineers have created much of the new technology," he says, "engineering education is still a little old-fashioned. But we're changing it." As one of several engineering schools receiving a five-year renewal from the National Science Foundation, Friedman says, the School of Engineering is pursuing a mission to revamp engineering education so that it keeps pace with information technology and developments in industry, along with attracting a broader range of students.

While Friedman agrees with Griffis on the primacy of infrastructure -- "It's about time the city wised up," he comments -- he also places infrastructure scholarship in a realistic historical perspective. "Columbia," says Friedman, "viewed infrastructure work as something to deal with on the job and not in academia. But new materials, computer technologies, and societal concerns are encouraging faculty and students to view infrastructure work in a new light." CIS faculty have negotiated city contracts and obtained state and federal grants to attack some of the city's intransigent infrastructure problems as well as bring students real-world experience.

The CIS is updating a system the center developed in 1989 for the city Department of Transportation of preventive maintenance management of NYC bridges. A related project is a new examination of corrosion on the bridge cables, a joint effort with the DOT and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. For some 20 years, civil engineering professors Maciej Bieniek and Raimondo Betti and their students working out of Carleton Laboratory have been instrumental in diagnosis and testing of the city's bridges, developing methods for strengthening and repair. Bieniek explains that each cable in a suspension bridge can contain 8,000 to 25,000 wires, any of which can become corroded or weakened. The lab has a machine that can apply loads of up to 600,000 pounds on individual wires and wire bundles. Every year wire samples from the bridge cables are extracted and tested. To date, Betti and Bieniek and their students have been involved in major efforts on behalf of the Brooklyn, Verrazano, Williamsburg, Manhattan, and George Washington bridges.

Professor Lionel McIntyre runs another promising program, the Urban Technical Assistance Project. Working closely with citizens' associations in disadvantaged neighborhoods, he and his students use 3-D imaging and virtual reality programs on Silicon Graphics engines to design improved community facilities. One recent project in Harlem took ideas from a group of neighbors for turning vacant lots into a playlot and park. McIntyre's group created a realistic "virtual park" by capturing digital photos of the area and actual residents, then combining them with shots of similar features in other parks. "They were flabbergasted," says McIntyre. The association will be armed with a superb tool for obtaining funds to make the virtual park an actual one.

Funding and politics, as Griffis has learned, determine success at both the micro and macro levels. He knows the obstacles intimately. One immediate infrastructure crisis facing the city is the dredging of its harbor; 5 million to 10 million cubic yards of muck have to be hauled every year, and the last available ocean dumping site for dredge material has just been closed. Says Griffis: "If we don't deepen the harbor to 50 feet (it's only 42 right now), we're going to lose world share of commerce and our status as a major port. That's a serious danger to the city."

Griffis and his students have been involved in seminars and workshops on disposal alternatives for dredge material in New York harbor and work closely with the Hudson River Foundation to develop demonstration projects of disposal technologies. Griffis admires what Baltimore has done in creating artificial islands to handle the problem, though he's fully aware of the controversy such a plan will cause in New York's fractious political climate. "I've been trying for many years to get the city to consider [islands] for both trash and solid waste material. Nobody's come up with the political courage to do that yet. But we keep trying."

He sums up the University's efforts: "We're hitting a lot of singles. We just haven't gotten a home run yet." Still, he has a visionary's optimism: "We're going to be successful. It's just a question whether it's going to be this year or 10 years from now."

1. NY: National Infrastructure Center for Engineering Systems and Technology, 1996.

JOHN O. GREEN, has written for 21stC, Wired, and other publications and is active in new media development. His book The New Age of Communications (NY: Henry Holt, 1997) recently appeared in paperback.