Engineering programs tackling crucial infrastructure issues


Two Swanson School of Engineering programs that aim to foster University research on such transportation projects as the soundness of bridges, road safety and landslide prevention are now under the direction of Pennsylvania Department of Transportation veteran Joseph J. Szczur.

Szczur plans “to continue to expand the roles the University and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering play in the world of vital infrastructure.”

Pitt’s Center for Sustainable Transportation Infrastructure helps the department work with PennDOT’s annual research program, which is always seeking ideas concerning everything from road and bridge improvement to stormwater to geothermal issues. PennDOT and its local districts — such as the one centered on Uniontown, which Szczur headed until retiring two years ago — pick the projects they deem most important for local improvements.

The Impactful Resilient Infrastructure Science and Engineering program was created more recently to examine innovative solutions from local industry experts on infrastructure issues and to foster cooperation between industry and public agencies.

“You’re looking at developing implementable solutions through research,” says Szczur. Right now IRISE has 11 projects underway and seven projects going through the approval process. Projects are matched with primary investigators from Pitt faculty as well as a panel from the public and private agencies involved as a “mini-steering committee” for each project, he says.

IRISE members include Allegheny County, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, Michael Baker International and Golden Triangle Construction. “It would be great to be able to expand our membership” with groups who can help such efforts, Szczur says.

The University’s research is “vital to improving our understanding of infrastructure in this region … and how we can build it so it lasts longer from the start,” he adds.

Research prompted by the work of these two programs creates opportunities for students and faculty to go out and see firsthand construction projects underway locally. They are exposed to the underlying concepts in classrooms, he says, but getting practical exposure to the issues in the field is invaluable, which “ultimately benefits the transportation community.”

Students are involved from a whole slate of classes in the Swanson School, Szczur says. One recent project, for instance — a project begun long before the collapse of Squirrel Hill’s Fern Hollow Bridge in January — is geared toward improving bridge assessment and conditions through developing better visual inspection and what are termed “non-destructive evaluations”: Visual assessments of superstructures and beams, substructures and decks that, unlike removing sections for examination, do not damage their health. The project uses drones to determine the service life of bridges and gain more diverse data. Final reports on this project have already been presented widely, including an international bridge conference held here recently.

Another IRISE project now underway looks at best practices for geothermal management to prevent landslides, examining the kinds of soil failures that have occurred and the known technologies to fix them — not just regionally but across the United States.

“We should be putting into practice what works,” Szczur says, and what is deemed most feasible by local companies.

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.


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