Who Ya Gonna Call?
Traffic buster seeks engineering solutions for transportation problems
By Robin Herron
Michael Bronzini is the kind of guy the Army Corps of Engineers calls when it needs an expert opinion.
Bronzini, the Sidney O. Dewberry Chair for Civil, Environmental, and Infrastructure Engineering in the School of Information Technology and Engineering, is a highly respected engineer who studies the technical side of transportation. He recently reviewed the Corps’ plan to deepen the Delaware River shipping channel near Camden, N.J. The Corps estimated the dredging would save $40.1 million per year in shipping costs, but a General Accounting Office report disputed that claim. Congress called for a new study, and Bronzini was brought in to review it.
“ I’ve been doing research and consulting on waterway transportation—mostly planning and economic studies—for most of my career, so in the last couple of years I’ve been called to serve on some expert panels reviewing various Corps of Engineers studies. My job is to say whether or not the process they used ended up with appropriate data given the current state of the art.”
Bronzini also studies ground transportation, a hot topic in the Washington, D.C., area. Director of the Center for Transportation Analysis at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee for nine years before joining George Mason in 1999, Bronzini was tapped to head Mason’s participation in a national consortium examining new technologies that can help make highway traffic flow more smoothly. Currently, The Ohio State University and the University of Arizona are also engaged in the four-year, $5 million study financed by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The consortium is looking at combining ground-based traffic measurements with satellite and other airborne remote sensing technologies.
“ Traditionally, you measure traffic on the ground,” Bronzini says. “Most of the time this is through fixed traffic sensors buried in the pavement. If you want to see traffic patterns for the whole area it takes many such sensors, and they have to be in good working order. The hope for remote sensing is that, with one platform, either spacecraft or aircraft, you can see traffic in many locations at a single point in time.”
Bronzini is working closely on the project with Richard Gomez in the School of Computational Sciences, who is an expert in remote sensing and hyperspectral sensing, a technology that can detect the kind of material being observed remotely based on electromagnetic spectral frequencies.
The two professors are studying truck parking at rest areas on interstate highways. A lack of parking leads to unsafe conditions at the rest stop and causes truckers to drive for longer periods without a break. “This is a somewhat prosaic but national problem, and it is very serious in Virginia,” Bronzini says. “The final report is going to include recommendations on how to best combine remote sensing data and ground data for either measuring problems or developing an information system that could be used to advise truckers on whether the next several rest areas have parking space.”
A second aspect of the study involves identifying software used to process remote sensing images. “You can’t just go and find a Microsoft program you can plug an image into to count the traffic for you. Developing the appropriate software is still a research project,” Bronzini says.
Another of his interests is traffic congestion in the Northern Virginia–Washington, D.C., area. “One of the things that intrigued me about coming here in the first place was the huge challenge in trying to deal with urban traffic and the whole transportation–land use relationship. So far, it appears there’s more heat about this issue than light.”
In an attempt to shed some light on the matter, Bronzini is working on a transportation modeling process to analyze the impact of proposed development on transportation and traffic. He envisions a simple computer program—“a sort of desktop system that people could use to experiment with these different kinds of problems and potential solutions.”
While transportation problems consume much of Bronzini’s research time, he is also interested in civil infrastructure security engineering, an area that encompasses transportation systems as well as bridges, dams, water supply systems, energy systems, and buildings that are part of an infrastructure, and that his department decided to focus on after September 11, 2001. He is now teaching a new graduate course on the topic and is working to establish a teaching and research center in the specialty at George Mason.
“ We have a lot of ideas on where this infrastructure security initiative can go. There is clearly a need for research and clearly a need for educating the next generation of engineers. There is also a need to educate the current practitioners in continuing education classes.” Finding sponsors to fund the center is the first step. “We hope to be able to announce big things in the not-too-distant future,” he says.