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USDOT Interested in ’Bridge in a Backpack’

Wed August 19, 2009 - National Edition

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is going to Maine to get a firsthand look at a new way of reducing construction costs and time needed to build bridges that was pioneered at the University of Maine Advanced Structures and Composites Center.

Dubbed the “bridge in a backpack,’’ the system features a durable carbon fiber fabric that’s unfolded, inflated and coated with a resin at the job site, then filled with concrete.

A small bridge can be built in one day using the system. The composite shell extends the life of the bridge beyond those of traditional concrete-and-steel construction, said Habib Dagher, director of the university’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center.

LaHood will tour the composites center in Orono and see a laboratory demonstration of technology Monday. He won’t have time to visit either of the two bridges that use the technology.

The first bridge, the 36-ft. (11 m) Neal Bridge in Pittsfield, Maine, was completed last year for the Maine Department of Transportation as a demonstration project. A 46-ft.-long (14 m) bridge will be completed by the end of the month in North Anson, Dagher said.

The University of Maine and its partners in the private sector are so enthused about the technology that they created a spinoff company to develop and commercialize the process.

Advanced Infrastructure Technologies LLC, which has the licensing rights, has pledged to raise $20 million in capital to move the process forward. The goal, Dagher said, is to bring the bridge-in-a-backpack system to all corners of a country grappling with aging infrastructure.

Because of the reduced site preparation, bridges could be built in weeks instead of months, and there’s no need for trucks to bring in heavy steel beams.

The composite shell provides a protective barrier that keeps out road salt, chemicals and moisture, which eventually penetrate conventional bridges and cause rust, Dagher said.

The process wouldn’t work for the nation’s largest spans, like the six-lane bridge on Interstate 95 connecting Maine and New Hampshire, said Peter Vigue, chief executive officer of Cianbro, a Maine-based heavy construction company that has been building bridges for six decades.

But the lower cost, reduced maintenance and shortened construction schedule of the new process could benefit smaller bridges, he said.

“I’m bullish on it. I think there are significant opportunities,’’ he said. “This technology has a tremendous future.’’

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, who extended the invitation to LaHood to see the bridge-making process, said he would like to see language included in the transportation funding authorization to encourage the new composite technology.

The new technology might interest the military and others who need to build bridges quickly, said Michaud, who serves on the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

“The work that they’re doing at Orono could save money in the long haul ... and could lessen the maintenance work on those types of bridges,’’ he said.

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