U.S. DOT Official Peter Appel Visits McCormick

When Peter Appel was finishing up his undergraduate studies at Brandeis University in the 1980s, he met with his adviser and discussed his plans for the future: he wanted to go to graduate school to prepare for a career in transportation.

His adviser, a well-known economics professor, was not pleased.

“He said, don’t do it. You don’t want to box yourself in,” Appel said. Appel, now the administrator of the Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA) of the U.S. Department of Transportation, went on to study airline scheduling before embarking on a career that would take him through nearly every mode of transportation: rail, air, trucking, and ocean shipping.

“The field of transportation is as wide as you can possibly imagine,” he said while talking to Northwestern transportation faculty and students. “It is inherently interdisciplinary.”

On his visit to Northwestern University on Sept. 28, Appel got a taste of the interdisciplinary transportation research and education at the school. He toured the Transportation Center, a leading interdisciplinary education and research institution, and visited the Infrastructure Technology Institute (ITI), which develops advanced methods for monitoring infrastructure condition and performance to assist with decisions concerning structural integrity, renewal, and rehabilitation.

Peter AppelAt ITI, Appel talked with several faculty members and students about their RITA-funded projects, including:
-    Use of remote, wireless sensors to monitor strain on the John F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge carrying I-65 across the Ohio River in Louisville, Kentucky. After a failed anchor bolt was found on the bridge in 2006, a retrofit anchor bolt was installed, and Northwestern University researchers applied strain gages to continuously monitor the new bolt. In 2008, researchers were able to remotely detect an abrupt failure in the new anchor bolt, and immediately notified transportation officials in Kentucky.
-    Design and operation of a monitoring system to track movement in sensitive underground freight and utility tunnels during the construction of a new rail transit station in the heart of downtown Chicago.  Managers of the project used the real-time data to continuously monitor the site.
-    Development and deployment of a structural health monitoring system to evaluate a Chicago Transit Authority “L’ bridge. Researchers use the sensors to monitor strain on the bridge as “L” trains travel overhead.

Appel spoke to more than 50 faculty and students about his years in the transportation industry: how when he worked in the airline industry he worked with airline buffs, and when he worked in the railroad industry he worked with rail buffs, but that ultimately he considers himself a “transportation buff.”

“I’m interested in getting people or things from A to B in the most effective way possible” while helping both people and society, he said. One of the U.S. DOT’s top goals is safety, he said, and one of the purposes of RITA is to partner with universities on cutting-edge research that will continue to improve safety and infrastructure in all modes of transportation. Though highway deaths have decreased significantly since the 1960s (down to about 33,000 last year), more can be done. While the last 50 years have been about improving the safety of automobiles and infrastructure, Appel predicted that the next 50 years will be about using wireless information from car to car to avoid crashes altogether.

“We want to work with the best researchers to come up with the best way to attack this problem,” he said.

When asked for advice for students interested in going into transportation field, Appel advised students to network with colleagues from different disciplines who look at transportation from different angles.

“The issues you face in transportation … are so relevant from one mode to the next,” he said. “Try different things out. It will make you more employable. Plus, you’ll just enjoy it more.”
Peter Appel