This past September, the International Association of Chinese Geotechnical Engineers (IACGE) met in Los Angeles for a landmark event, deemed the "First U.S.-China Bilateral Seminar on Mega Bridges and Deep Foundations." The event provided a rare information exchange between peer designers and industry influencers, bringing together engineers representing more than 50 firms, as well as agency and political leaders from both the United States and China. While there are numerous other symposiums in which U.S. and Chinese engineers share technical papers, this is one of the few – or perhaps the first of this magnitude and specificity – regarding real-world projects, and their newly established, tested, and proven design philosophies.
Featured speakers included numerous high-ranking professionals in both public and private sectors. Liming Sheng, deputy director and chief engineer of the Engineering Management Center for the Chinese Ministry of Railways, presented on China's mega railway bridges; and Yonggao Yin, director of bridges for the Anhui Expressway Holding Group Co., LTD., presented on the world's first implementation of root foundations on mega highway bridges.
From the United States, Randell Iwasaki, former director of Caltrans, presented on the design and management of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge; and Kenneth Price, vice president at HNTB Corporation, presented on the design, testing, and construction of the I-70 Mississippi River Bridge.
I helped organize this event for two primary reasons – first, to advance the knowledge and expertise of engineers from both countries through the open exchange of ideas; second, to pass along the message to our politicians and agency leaders that we need to continue to accept innovation by eliminating political obstacles and putting funding where it is due.
Obstacles to innovation
U.S. engineers are among the most innovative in the world, but unfortunately, we do not have the opportunities to test and implement our ideas the way engineers in China do. Obviously, the largest obstacle is funding. While China continues to invest 10 percent of GDP into infrastructure, the United States invests only 2 percent. Many U.S. design methodologies were established 50 years ago when our country was developing at the rate China is today. It's often hard for departments of transportation (DOTs) to accept anything other than the status quo, especially when we do not have the funding to test new ideas. Yet, in the long run, the cost of inhibiting innovation will undoubtedly outweigh the cost of testing new design philosophies.
For example, in China, root foundations have been tested and used on the Ma-An-Shan Yangtze River Crossing Bridge, which has proven that skin friction can be enhanced 210 percent by inserting the roots from the caisson wall into outside soils. Despite compelling evidence from China, the United States has not yet accepted the use of root foundations on mega bridges. Many bridges in China also use tip-grouted drilled shaft foundations. Load testing has proven that grouting at the tip can achieve 50 to 100 percent more capacity on mega bridges. While several state DOTs have accepted tip-grouted drilled shaft foundations based on success overseas, California remains among the majority of states that have not.
At the conference, a panel discussion addressed potential benefits associated with California accepting these methodologies. We found that for the two mega bridges that are soon to be built in Southern California – the $700 million Gerald Desmond Bridge at Port of Long Beach and the $400 million 6th Street Viaduct in Los Angeles – the increased capacity by tip grouting could save millions of dollars in future drilled shaft foundation design and construction.
By continuing to share innovations openly between our respective countries' engineers, and inviting U.S. agency leaders and politicians to bear witness to these innovations, we will undoubtedly make progress toward a culture that accepts innovation here at home. If our political leaders aren't going to increase infrastructure spending, the least they could do is eliminate some of the obstacles to innovation.
Endi Zhai, Ph.D., P.E., G.E., is president of both the International Chinese Transportation Professionals Association (ICTPA) and the International Association of Chinese Geotechnical Engineers (IACGE). He is also vice president and transportation director of Southern California at Kleinfelder. He has 26 years of experience in geotechnical and earthquake engineering and has authored a book and numerous papers on related topics.