As a rule, bureaucracies and genius are incompatible. A notable exception will be found in the New York State Department of Transportation and the Vermont Transportation Agency, which recently released plans to replace an 80-year-old bridge spanning Lake Champlain. Leading the team designing the new bridge is consultant Ted Zoli, a 2009 winner of a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as the genius award.
Among other things, the MacArthur Foundation cited Zoli's sensitivity to the context in which his "elegant and enduring" bridges are built, and Zoli clearly appreciates the natural, historical and social context of the bridge at Crown Point.
"There's no more important structure within the built environment of that region," says Zoli. "It's a part of people's lives. So much local sentiment is attached to it."
Zoli is familiar with that sentiment in part because he monitors the residents' email messages that arrive at his firm's offices in Kansas City. He also participated in a series of December public meetings in Ticonderoga on the two states' plans to demolish and replace the bridge.
But the origins of Zoli's appreciation of the Champlain Valley lie much deeper than those relatively casual encounters with the region would suggest.
He was born in Glens Falls and raised in Queensbury, attending local schools before going away to Hotchkiss. He went to summer camp at Dudley, in Westport, a few miles north of the bridge. When he was growing up, his family kept a boat near the bridge in Vermont...
He comes from a family of engineers and roadbuilders, whose firm was selected by New York State to help build the Adirondack Northway.
Zoli says he spent the first months of his life in a trailer near Schroon Lake, when that section of the Northway was under construction.
Zoli's appreciation of the original Lake Champlain Bridge and its designer, Charles M. Spofford, is no less deep.
In addition to being a designer of bridges, Zoli teaches bridge design at Columbia and at Princeton, from which he graduated in 1988.
"The Lake Champlain bridge set a high standard for any new bridge that replaces it; in some respects, it should be as important as the original," he says.
With the Lake Champlain Bridge, Zoli says, Spofford liberated the steel truss from its traditional function as a railroad bridge.
The 2,184-ft-long truss linking Crown Point and West Addison, Vermont is "nearly parabolic" in shape, continuous rather than segmented, and constructed with a "maximum navigational window" to permit steamboats to pass underneath.
Following construction of the bridge (for which Spofford was awarded a gold medal by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1930, the year the bridge was completed), "hundreds of continuous truss bridges were built; it ushered in a whole new typology of bridge engineering," said Zoli.
Spofford, however, did not expect the bridge's piers to deteriorate as quickly as they did.
"We're not here designing a new bridge because of some flaws in the truss, but because of the piers," said Zoli. "Spofford used concrete containing tailings from local iron ore mines. When he tested the concrete at MIT, we surmise that he found it to be twice as strong as conventional concrete and concluded that the piers wouldn't require steel re-enforcement."
Time and ice took their toll on the piers, Zoli said. "Once the process of erosion starts, it's very difficult to stop. Once it gets going, it goes quickly."
After being found to be unsafe because of the condition of the piers, New York and Vermont decided to close the bridge in October.
In December, Zoli unveiled the designs for six possible bridges, any one of which could feasibly replace he old one.
The recommendation of a Public Advisory Committee chaired by Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, as well as the favorite of the public, is a design for a bridge known as a Modified Network Tied Arch Bridge, a steel structure with an arch along the main span that evokes the appearance of Spofford's 1930 bridge.
"The design replicates the truss in a modern way, but with safety enhanced," says Zoli.
"Multiple redundancies in the design make this bridge significantly safer than the existing structure. If one component fails the bridge isn't at risk of collapse," said Zoli.
The new bridge will also be wider, with six-foot shoulders for bicycles and a sidewalk for pedestrians.
The design is based on one developed by Norwegian engineer Per Tveit in the 1950s, now a friend and colleague of Zoli's.
Zoli says he had no interest in introducing radically new concepts into his designs for a Lake Champlain bridge.
"I have a very strong sense of engineering as an incremental process; one that's evolutionary rather than revolutionary. We communicate our ideas to other engineers through these built structures," he said.
The test of a successful bridge design is necessarily the safety of those who use it, Zoli says, and the problems posed by vulnerable structures have occupied his imagination since the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
"Engineers learn from events, and what 9-11 taught us was that we have to design for unforeseen events; that's what I'm interested in: designing for things we can't anticipate," he says.
That interest led Zoli to develop new lightweight, blast-resistant coverings for an array of construction applications, and helped earn him the MacArthur fellowship.
"In an era of aging infrastructure and catastrophic structural collapses, Zoli is safeguarding vulnerable links in the nation's highway system and developing design principles for the construction of robust, new landmarks in the United States and across the globe," the MacArthur Foundation stated when announcing that Zoli was among the winners of the 2009 awards.
Among those "robust, new landmarks" may well be the next Lake Champlain bridge, one that could be, as Zoli said, "in some respects, as important as the original."
Editor's Note: Printed with permission of Tony Hall and the Lake George Mirror.