U.S. Sen. Susan Collins speaks with University of Maine students who work in the Advanced Structures and Composites Center on Aug. 8. Credit: Alex Acquisto

The University of Maine has received its first check from the U.S. Department of Transportation to spearhead a regional coalition of other universities to improve and prolong the life of New England’s crumbling roads, bridges and railways.

Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins lauded UMaine’s students and staff Wednesday at a press conference in the Advanced Structures & Composites Center after announcing the grant. Up to $14.2 million in federal DOT funds — spread over the next five years — will help the UMaine-led coalition develop longer lasting materials and better bridge-monitoring tools, curbing costs and lengthening the life of roadway infrastructure across New England.

UMaine will lead the newly created Transportation Infrastructure Durability Center in a coalition with five other New England universities.

This is the first time UMaine has received these federal funds, which for the past two decades have been awarded to the Massachusetts Institute for Technology.

Credit: Alex Acquisto

Collins, who also serves as the chairman of the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, praised the “cutting-edge research” being completed in the center, including the recent 40-foot-long composite bridge girder molds made from 3D printers that were on display Wednesday. Composite girders have a lifespan of about 100 years, and can withstand much more weight than steel. The composite bridges being designed in the UMaine center weigh less than steel, are easier to transport and can be built in 72 hours, Habib Dagher, director of the center, said.

“The whole idea is to be able to deploy them quickly,” said Robert Michaud, an undergraduate student and project manager for the composite girder project.

Most bridges in Maine are structurally deficient, and nearly 30 percent of of New England’s roads are in poor condition, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. This condition costs the average driver $584 in vehicle repairs and gas spent idling in traffic, Collins said.

It’s no secret Maine’s roads and bridges are crumbling, Maine Department of Transportation Commissioner David Bernhardt said. Each year, MDOT works on or replaces 70 to 80 bridges across the state, “but we’re still not moving the needle. We cannot build our way out using conventional methods. We need to find different materials to build our structures,” he said, pointing to UMaine’s technology.

Uses for the $14.2 million include continuing to develop new, long-lasting material, like composite girders, that will replace existing bridge infrastructure and reduce the need for costly repairs.

Other uses, Dagher said, include working to develop smart bridges and roads with built-in sensors that are able communicate when and what type of repairs are needed.

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