When local governments ask for help implementing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act

In its journey to build a safe, modernized transportation infrastructure system, the U.S. has a long road ahead. A $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed by Congress in late 2021 promises federal dollars for updating bridges and roads and integrating bike lanes and light rail. The biggest transportation infrastructure investment since former President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, those dollars will be a windfall for the thousands of local government agencies who will benefit, if they can navigate the mire of federal regulations and requirements.

“Some communities lack the knowledge and capacity to take advantage of federal programs; it can hamper their efforts to get funding but also keeps them from thinking outside the box,” says Morteza Farajian (M.S. ’10, Ph.D. ’14), executive director of U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Build America Bureau. “Our question was: How can we close that gap?”

Through its latest collaboration with DOT, Maryland will lead the national effort to connect local authorities with the tools they need to access billions of federal dollars. Launched in April 2022 and supported by a $5 million investment from the DOT, the Build America Center at the University of Maryland (UMD) will help more than 60,000 local public agencies secure funding for repairing roads and bridges and installing bike lanes and EV chargers. 

“This is an unprecedented opportunity, but—unlike state agencies—local governments don’t have the experience or capacity in applying for these grants,” says Maryland Engineering Professor Qingbin Cui, a leading expert in highway project financing and the Build America Center director. 

What UMD brings to the table, adds Farajian, is the innovative and ambitious thinking—free from politics and bureaucracy.

“Those cutting-edge solutions are where universities like Maryland can really impact our work, because they have the time, bold ideas, and unbiased thinking to focus on these challenges,” he says.  
Leveraging expertise and big data from UMD research powerhouses including the Maryland Transportation Institute, Center for Advanced Transportation Technology, School of Public Policy, and National Center for Smart Growth (as well as national associations like AASHTO, ARTBA, NACo, NGA, and NLC), Cui says the center will arm state and local governments with the resources and data they need to fund and deliver on a broad range of projects, from road repair to municipal EV charging stations. This includes navigating federal regulation compliance, complicated aspects of federal law that can easily stall a grant application or halt a project.

“There’s a tremendous amount of money flowing into states, but federal money is not free. Finding those resources can be a big challenge,” explains Cui. “These forums allow stakeholders to share experiences and knowledge. It’s an idea exchange forum in a space previously very siloed.”

Cui hopes that the Build America Center’s resources, opportunities, partnerships, and best practices will create a benchmark for the streamlined, equitable, and transparent systems that will make tomorrow’s roads and bridges shovel-ready.

“Everyone complains that it takes the U.S. years to build infrastructure projects, often decades,” says Cui. “But we can’t wait another decade.”

Smarter systems to keep cities running smoothly

When a water main breaks on Washington, D.C.’s Massachusetts Avenue, flooded streets can quickly become a ripple effect that disrupts transit, traffic, and other systems across the city. But what if digital doppelgangers working behind-the-scenes could help real-life city systems quickly react to manage problems? As part of her dissertation, Maryland Engineering alum Maria Coelho (’15, M.S. ’17, Ph.D. ’22) explored how “digital twins”—virtual simulations of city systems that use artificial intelligence and real-time data from sensors—can help cities monitor systems performance and intervene before inconveniences become major issues. A concept widely used in aerospace and manufacturing, Coelho addressed several challenges associated with digital twins in urban environments, using D.C.’s Metrorail network as one of her case studies. While the idea is in its infancy, her work, she says, provides the theoretical foundations that could eventually help put digital twins to work in urban environments—and make cities smarter. “It’s an exciting area of research, and there’s so much more to be done,” says Coelho, who today is a research scientist at the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory. “Right now, we’re only touching the tip of the iceberg.”

Bridging climate change awareness with engineering practice

The effects of intense heat, flooding, and other symptoms of climate change on the nation’s infrastructure are undeniable, taking environmental, economic, and human tolls. But a new partnership between Maryland Engineering, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will harness NOAA’s climate science for resilient infrastructure solutions. Led by Maryland Engineering Professor Bilal Ayyub and Dan Walker, associate director of UMD’s Center for Technology and Systems Management, the collaboration will create a foundation for updated, climate-smart ASCE codes and standards. The 2023 Leadership Summit coming up in February will engage nearly 100 stakeholders from UMD, ASCE, NOAA, NIST, FEMA, industry, and more in conceptualizing new technology, services, and plans for designing climate-resilient infrastructure.