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Historic bridges are a passion for Dr. Abba G. Lichtenstein, so much so that he has spent his professional life working for their salvation and rehabilitation
When I ended my interview with Dr. Abba G. Lichtenstein, P.E., following his acceptance of the John A. Roebling Medal for Lifetime Achievement at this year’s International Bridge Conference in Pittsburgh in June, I asked if I could call him if I had more questions. He said, “Yes,” in an accommodating, yet firm, tone, “But not next week. I’ll be on a boat, fishing with my grandchildren.”
Although gracious in his acceptance of the award given him by the Engineers’ Society of Western Pennsylvania, in association with ROADS & BRIDGES, and appreciative of the recognition that comes with it, he seemed equally as excited about the coming boating excursion, of which he delayed so he could accept the medal in person.
These days, Lichtenstein is trying to enjoy some well-earned time away from the profession that has kept him extremely busy for more than 40 years. His efforts, though, appear to be failing miserably. As an independent consultant, the founder and former chairman of A.G. Lichtenstein & Associates is constantly being asked by citizen groups—or, as he calls them, “SOB committees” (save our bridge committees)—to evaluate and rehabilitate older bridges that have been targeted for tear down.
“It is something I feel is important,” Lichtenstein told the gathering of engineers at the awards luncheon, “that is, the saving of our heritage.
“No deserving bridge in this country should be demolished without some effort undertaken to save it.”
Lichtenstein is so fervent about this belief that he told ROADS & BRIDGES that he wants his epitaph to read, “This is a guy who fought for bridges.”
His fight began at Ohio State University, where the Buckeye was a graduate of the university’s Civil Engineering Department. His accomplishments are such that the school has awarded him an honorary degree of Doctor of Engineering. He is a generous supporter of his alma mater, helping it establish the Abba G. Lichtenstein Professorship in Civil Engineering. The endowed professorship provides salary and program support for a faculty member who focuses on design, construction maintenance and restoration of surface transportation systems, including bridges, highways, railroads and historic structures.
In a university publication, Keith Bedford, chairman of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Geodetic Science, said, “During the years since his graduation, Abba has been this department’s most ardent and consistent supporter. He has helped our students, faculty and graduates. We can’t begin to find a satisfactory way to say ‘thank you.’”
“Ohio State has been good to me and I’ve always had a warm spot for it [in my heart],” Lichtenstein said in the publication. “The country’s infrastructure is getting old, and needs to be repaired and replaced. Ohio State is just the place to do it.”
Everybody knew his name
Well before attending Ohio State, Lichtenstein was fascinated by bridges. “I always wanted to be a bridge engineer,” he said. Upon graduation from Ohio State, he went to work for the engineering firm of Howard Needles, then onto Goodkind & O’Dea. At Goodkind & O’Dea, he was put in charge of working with county engineers. “Every county engineer knew me,” he said. At the time, according to Lichtenstein, engineering firms were not paying much attention to the engineering needs of county engineers. “I decided it was a good time to open an office to service the county engineers,” he said.
During this time he developed his own bridge inspection method. The Silver Bridge collapse in 1967 brought his bridge inspection method into popular use and served as the model for the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials (AASHTO) bridge inspection guide.
“Old bridges were my love,” Lichtenstein said. But in July 1986 he realized he needed a change. “I decided I had had enough of being the boss.
“Since then, I have had a lot of clients; a lot of SOBs. They’re the ones that add spice to my life.” Occasionally that “spice” becomes hot. “You have to know how to handle ‘historic’ people,” he said. “Sometimes they can get carried away.”
Philosophical about his restoration efforts, he said, “I’m batting about .500, which is pretty good.”
Although a fighter for bridge preservation, he is an engineer who knows his boundaries. “I don’t bend over backwards to say ‘you must’ do something.” At the same time he said, “I hate to see a county or a city bamboozle people and say, ‘if you sneeze on this bridge it’ll collapse.’
“The tendency of bridge owners is to replace a bridge because it’s a little less work for them. But it can be more economical many times to rehab.” He credits the last two federal surface transportation bills, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) and the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) for making rehab a more viable option for DOTs. ISTEA and TEA-21 have added an economic incentive for highway departments to consider rehab rather than demolition of historic bridges. “According to ISTEA and TEA-21, if you don’t demolish an historic bridge, then the cost can go to rehab,” Lichtenstein said.
“What you cannot do is widen a bridge very easily,” he said. “Either the bridge goes or you build a bridge next to it.
“My point of view is, ‘I want to save this bridge and you tell me why I can’t’ versus, ‘I’m going to knock this bridge down and you tell me why I shouldn’t.’”
Rehab of Roebling bridges
Two of Lichtenstein’s most notable restoration and preservation efforts involved bridges that were influenced by John A. Roebling.
His restoration of the cables and piers of the renowned Roebling Aqueduct Suspension Bridge crossing the Delaware River near Lackawaxen, Pa., received much acclaim. In 1988, he accepted on behalf of his firm the Presidential and Federal awards for the company’s work on the project. Built in 1847, the government had purchased the bridge from the owner who was charging a 25¢ toll to cross it. “The owner did not maintain it and a truck collapsed the bridge,” Lichtenstein said.
His honesty and dry humor was reflected in his assessment of the wooden walls added to the structure that shields the view of motorists. “Ammann & Whitney designed the prism, but you can’t see the river and you can’t see my cables,” he said in an effortless, deadpan delivery.
In the ’30s, the Roebling Co. was asked to design an upgrade for a 1903 suspension bridge that spanned the Delaware River between Kellum N.Y., and Stalker, Pa. Lichtenstein again spearheaded the restoration.
Among the metal truss bridge restoration projects with which he has been involved, the Nishanic Station, N.J., lenticular truss, which is similar to that of Roebling’s Smithfield Street Bridge in Pittsburgh, is a standout. The bridge along with another metal truss, the Hanalei, Kauai, Hawaii, dual-truss combination bridges, have received awards from the Federal Highway Administration.
In addition to having evaluated and designed the restoration and rehabilitation of hundreds of bridges in many states over the years, Lichtenstein’s recent experiences with historic bridges include involvement in a statewide study of county bridges in Kansas; preparation of a preservation plan for historic bridges in Maryland; an Indiana program for bridge evaluation in three counties; and evaluation and preservation projects focusing on historic bridges in New York, Virginia, Maine, Kentucky and other states. In Maryland, his evaluation and preservation design of historic structures of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal included the Monocacy Aqueduct.
Lichtenstein keeps active in his role as a consultant with research and practice on many topics related to bridges and canals. He has been active in the Transportation Research Board (TRB) Committee A1F05 on Preservation in Transportation, chairing the Subcommittee on Bridges and Canals. Other TRB committees in which he has been active are the committees on steel, fabrication of steel and dynamic testing.
A resident of Tenafly, N.J., in 1989, the governor and Awards Academy of New Jersey selected Lichtenstein for the prestigious Lindbergh Transportation Award as part of the annual Pride of New Jersey Program.
In 1991, the American Society of Civil Engineers elected him to its highest grade of Honorary Member, when he also received the coveted History and Heritage Award.
In recent years, Lichtenstein has delivered several lectures historic bridges, including the lecture, “Decision Time: Rehab or Replace.”
What challenges remain for Lichtenstein after more than 40 years in bridge engineering? “I still don’t know how to increase the capacity of concrete,” he said. “I am waiting for these new plastics to come along and help me.”
One can always use a little help in fighting the good fight.