In 1985, when John W. Fisher first visited China, the country’s Yangtze River was traversed by just two bridges—one in the city of Nanjing and one in the city of Wuhan.
And it took an entire day to drive on gravel roads from the city of Chongqing to the ancient Dazu Rock Carvings about 40 miles away.
Fisher, a world-renowned expert in bridge engineering, spent seven weeks in China in 1985, delivering lectures in Chongqing and the country’s other major cities.
He returned to China last month for the seventh time since 2000 and found a different country.
“The pace at which the Chinese are building new infrastructure is just mind-boggling,” says Fisher, professor emeritus of civil engineering. “They’re building more high-rises than you can think of, and there are new bridges all over.”
The Yangtze, at 4,000 miles the world’s third-longest river, now boasts scores of major bridges. Dazu, a World Heritage Site, is just two hours from Chongqing on paved roads.
Celebrating an engineering legend
Fisher was one of four Americans invited to Chongqing to take part in the International Summit Forum on Bridge and Tunnel Engineering and Commemoration Assembly. John M. Kulicki ’73 Ph.D., president and CEO of Modjeski & Masters in Harrisburg, was also invited.
Co-sponsored by the Chinese Academy of Engineering, the forum honored the 115th anniversary of the birth of Mao Yisheng. One of China’s preeminent 20th-century engineers, Mao was structural designer of the Yangtze River Bridge at Wuhan as well as the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Fisher, who was appointed a special technical adviser to the city of Chongqing in 2010, gave an address titled “Fatigue Design Criteria for Welded Bridges in the U.S.”
One purpose of the forum was to solicit advice from international engineers on China’s infrastructure plans.
“The Chinese are investing heavily in hard engineering infrastructure, such as bridges, tunnels, highways and high-speed trains,” said Fisher. “One of their more ambitious proposals is a 150-kilometer-long underwater tunnel that would connect China to Taiwan.”
The need for ongoing investment
China’s new infrastructure is generally well-built, said Fisher, but the pace of construction poses problems for the future, particularly from the truck loads that cause the most wear to bridges.
“The Chinese have don’t yet have a handle on truck traffic and loads, and this has caused some serious overload problems. We in the U.S. have neglected some of our structures, with corrosion and fatigue damage as a result.
“It takes a lot of money to monitor and maintain bridges, and some of China’s are now among the longest in the world. The question is whether the Chinese will make the investment required to take care of this new infrastructure.”
Fisher looked at several new bridges in June 2010 when he and Alan W. Pense, provost emeritus and professor emeritus of materials science and engineering, attended the High-Level Forum on Steel Bridge Design in Chongqing after teaching a three-day course on fatigue and fracture for the Chinese Society of Steel Construction and the Chinese Rail Society in Wuhan.
As a result of their talks, Bin Cheng, assistant professor of civil engineering at Shanghai’s Jiaotong University, will join Lehigh’s ATLSS Center (Advanced Technology for Large Structural Systems) in 2012-13 as a visiting engineer scholar.
Fisher has earned national and international recognition while investigating many noted structural failures, including failures triggered by the 1994 Northridge-Los Angeles Earthquake and the collapse of the World Trade Center following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack.
He holds an M.S. and Ph.D. from Lehigh.