Trapani’s bridge expertise goes over well in China

Lynn BurtonPost Independent Staff

Ralph Trapani traveled to China with innovative bridges and tunnels on his mind. He returned with the inkling his mission is helping to unify the world’s largest country, and nudge it toward a more open economic system.”We discovered that building roads and tunnels is a cornerstone in keeping China unified,” said Trapani, an engineer for Yeh & Associates. “But they are also being used to promote the concept of free enterprise.”Trapani seemed a little awed by his recent trip to Lanzhou, China. “Here I am from little Glenwood Springs, who worked on a couple of high profile projects, and I’m in the middle of this interesting reform and progression in the Chinese culture.”

Lanzhou is a city of three million, located in north central China, east of the Gobi desert. “The area reminded me of Rifle,” Trapani said from his office, across the street from the Glenwood Springs train station. “It seemed like we were on the edge of civilization. Lanzhou is a two-hour airplane trip from Beijing, 30 hours by train, and forget it by road. We were told it would take weeks if we drove it.”Trapani, and Yeh & Associates founder Shan-Tai Yeh, were invited to China by a joint venture that includes an Iowa contractor, Iowa State University and the Gansu Province-based Chinese Design Institute.”Shan-Tai speaks Mandarin and understands the culture,” Trapani said. “The Chinese Design Institute is a state-owned enterprise.”Trapani himself is a retired Colorado Department of Transportation engineer, who managed the Interstate 70 project through Glenwood Canyon. “We have expertise in innovative highway design and construction,” Trapani said.The 12-mile Glenwood Canyon project, which started in the early 1980s and took more than a decade to complete, won numerous awards for its design and environmental considerations. Trapani said the Chinese take the environment into account when they design highways, but for different reasons than in the United States.”In Glenwood Canyon, we used bridges, tunnels and retaining walls to narrow the foot print to minimize disturbance to the natural environment,” Trapani said. “In China they want to minimize the foot print because they need all the land they can get for farming. They are very careful about minimizing the foot print, so as not to affect subsistence farmers’ corn or wheat fields.”Trapani’s visit included a trip to a new bridge site on the Yellow River, about 50 miles south of Lanzhou. The site, called Qi Jia Du, is near a village that is about the same size as Glenwood Springs geographically. Chinese officials are considering whether to build an 800-foot bridge to replace a ferry that connects the village with the rest of the country.The village is a popular summer vacation spot for boat owners, who can dock on the wide river’s beach. “It’s a beautiful little resort,” Trapani said.Chinese officials told their American guests they might not really need this “big, fancy bridge” because they’ve got a ferry. When the party wanted to board the ferry to cross the river, the captain told them he wasn’t leaving until he had a boat full of cars.”So that’s why they need a bridge instead of a ferry,” Trapani said. “It’s a `If you build it they will come’ kind of thing.”With Yeh acting as an interpreter, Trapani addressed a room full of Chinese engineers, and showed them videos and slides of Glenwood Canyon. “Everyone got excited when we started talking about the Glenwood Canyon project,” Trapani said. “They are darn good engineers.”Trapani told the Chinese about the innovations that went into Glenwood Canyon bridges and tunnels. There’s at least one big difference between the American and Chinese approach to tunnel building. In China, most tunnels are built the same, with thick concrete ceilings, and a “one size fits all” approach. In the United States, tunnels are individually designed and engineered.”Theirs is a relatively expensive way to build tunnels, but they do it that way because there are not a lot of trained engineers,” Trapani said. “They were very pleased, of course, to hear the Hanging Lake tunnel came in under budget and a year before schedule. This got their juices flowing and showed them advantages our technology would give them. Judging by their level of enthusiasm, we were pushing that button.”The younger engineers at the Chinese Design Institute were most eager to learn more about American highway construction techniques. “It was a very collegiate environment,” Trapani said. “They were warm and friendly and generous. They were interested in what we had to say, and bounced ideas off us. It was an interesting environment.”Other engineers, who feared their guaranteed positions would be jeopardized if reforms created a more competitive work atmosphere, were less receptive.Trapani said he learned that China is spending “hundreds” of billions of dollars to build dams, highways, tunnels and railroads, in an attempt to unify the country. A driving force is the fact that the standard of living in eastern China is growing, but it is lagging behind in the west.”The west isn’t getting the benefits from the manufacturing and jobs in the east,” Trapani said. “So four of the western provinces form their own coalition to put the central government on notice they want a little piece of the pie, too.”

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