Students win contests for Chesapeake crossing challenge

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It’s such a part of the experience of spending time on Maryland’s Eastern Shore that those in the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore metropolitan areas know it simply as “the bridge.” And woe to those who don’t plan summer travel just right, because they may spend hours queueing up, waiting to cross it.

The William Prestion Lane Jr. Memorial (Bay) Bridge, with two spans, one built in 1952 and one in 1973, carries around 30 million vehicles annually. The age of the structures, combined with ever-increasing demands on the route over the Chesapeake Bay, has several entities looking for new solutions for crossing the bay.

One of those solutions may come from a team of engineering students from the George Mason University’s Department of Systems Engineering and Operations Research (SEOR). The team won best paper in the climate and sustainability track at the Andrew P. Sage Memorial Capstone Design Competition and best presentation in the decision analysis track at the General Donald R. Keith Memorial Capstone Conference at West Point.

The six-page conference paper, authored by team members Carolyn Vaseghi, Jose Zorrilla, Richard Collie, Fatima Alarcon, and Naif Al-Harbi, was also published in the West Point conference’s proceedings along with the other competitors' papers.

“We were tasked with designing a crossing that is part of a regional transportation system between metro D.C. and the beach communities on the Eastern Shore, not just a bridge,” said team lead Vaseghi.

“We started the design by conducting ‘customer interviews’ with over 30 different stakeholders for the stakeholder analysis and analyzing historic traffic flow data,” said Collie.

Five people stand in front of a conference room, with two in the middle holding a prize for first place
Team members Carolyn Vaseghi, Fatima Alacorn, Naif Alharbi, Richard Collie, and Jose Zorilla. Photo provided.

The team identified seven solutions that included bridges with different lane configurations and a tunnel, noting that new boring technologies have reduced tunneling costs. The tunnel option is safer, with no bridge collision opportunities as with the recent disaster at Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge. The team’s proposed tunnel can accommodate rail mass transit, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and providing access to the 30% of D.C. residents without access to cars.

“In addition to obvious measures like congestion and costs, we also identified a category of measures for social justice and climate change,” said Alarcon.

The students outlined the pros and cons of design options in a report for the Anne Arundel County Transportation Commission (AACTC) and the Maryland Transportation Authority.  The report will next be sent to Maryland Governor Wes Moore’s office.

Vaseghi said it was a tremendous learning opportunity and a good exploration of the systems engineering process. She said they focused on the “left-hand side of the systems engineering ‘V,” noting that in that process they started with context analysis, moved on to stakeholder analysis and concept-of-operations requirements, finishing with a simulation, where “we camped out for a long time,” spending four weeks on that part of the process.

Professor Emeritus George Donohue, a member of the AACTC, said, “This team’s out-of-the-box thinking about the tunnel option and their detailed analysis provides decision-makers a strong basis to make a sound investment that will affect the region for the next 75 years.”