WASHINGTON - Highways in eight Great Lakes states could be a showcase of composites technology if a new initiative can lure federal money to the region and persuade state civil engineers to use advanced materials in rebuilding its aging infrastructure. The Polymer Composites Initiative of the Council of Great Lakes Governors wants to make composites a major tool for highway infrastructure rehabilitation-in composite wraps to shore up deteriorating bridge columns and in carbon plate strengthening of road salt-plagued bridge beams.
But the group first hopes to secure federal funding for two demonstration projects: an all-composite Polsky Pedestrian Skyway on the campus of the University of Akron and a portable elevated walkway to the infield for the 1996 Indy Car Grand Prix auto race in Cleveland.
The Great Lakes governors of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota so far have used their council to bring more federal research and development funds to the region for water-quality improvement.
The council's clout is expected to grow in federal circles, since all statehouses but Indiana's are Republican following the November elections.
The initiative is the brainchild of John Hemann, chair and professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at Cleveland State University. His task is to round up Federal Highway Administration funds and private support for the improvement plan.
``It seems to me it's going to take in the millions [of dollars] per year to support demonstration projects, to support a [research and development] effort, to support an education program. All these civil engineers out there don't know how to use these materials,'' he said.
Hemann brought his idea to the governors' council through the Edison Polymer Innovation Corp., a state-funded consortium linking the polymer industry and universities in northeast Ohio.
``Our basic theme is that the users - the states, counties and cities - must pull this technology from within their organizations. The Great Lakes states possess major manufacturing capability: one-third of the country's population and half the polymer and composites activity,'' he said.
``The region is a real challenge for highway engineers. [The states] have large infrastructure repair needs and they have in common severe environmental and climate conditions.''
There is innovation at stake, too. Bids are expected to be awarded ``any day now'' for design and construction of the $750,000 Polsky Bridge, said E. Charles Galloway, president of EPIC in Brecksville, Ohio. The bridge is already 80 percent funded by the Federal Highway Administration. The initiative could help secure remaining funding still needed for R&D.
Two private proposals already have been offered to construct the composite portable bridge to the infield portion of the Grand Prix race, held each July at Burke Airport on Cleveland's Lake Erie shore. Not only would the structure allow race fans to see the action from the infield, it could be broken down and carried from race to race on a flat-bed semitrailer.
Hemann and another member of the initiative's steering council, Max Yen of the Department of Civil Engineering and Mechanics at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, outlined their plan before civil engineers, academics and industry representatives before the Transportation Research Board's Structural Fiber Reinforced Plastics Committee Jan. 22 in Washington.
Hemann said the respective state transportation departments will choose and undertake highway demonstration projects and an R&D program.
``We expect to get all the states involved and networking on a coordinated program to maximize technology transfer and usage,'' he said.
A federal transportation official at the Washington meeting seemed excited about the use of federal money in the initiative.
Theodore C. Reuther Jr., visiting staff for the Federal Highway Administration, noted: ``This is a new venture in federal program research. The Clinton Administration has lobbied for public-private partnerships and with the way the elections went in November, the changing political scene indicates even more support for this.''
Hemann and Reuther took pains to differentiate the Great Lakes initiative from the Great Lakes Composites Consortium, a public-private partnership that manages the Center of Excellence for Composites Manufacturing Technology for the U.S. Navy in Kenosha, Wis.
Another part of the Navy group is an industry-led composites program that, among other projects, plans to build the $51 million all-composites Gilman Drive Bridge over Interstate 5 in San Diego.
``The bridge is almost a private one,'' Reuther said. ``It goes from one part of [the University of California at San Diego] to another part. It doesn't really deal with the highway infrastructure of the state or the motivations of the state to hire people - very, very different from the Council of Great Lakes Governors, who are saying, `Let's start economic development.' ''
Reuther noted that at the first composites initiative meeting in August, half the people there were state engineers.