Allen Smith, PE, SE specializes in roadway and rail bridge structures. His experience includes senior bridge engineer for the Historic Eads Bridge Rehabilitation over the Mississippi River in St. Louis, as well as program manager for the design of Merchants Bridge main span replacement. He spent the first 10 years of his career working for the Illinois Department of Transportation, where his bridge engineer career began. Allen has inspected over 1,000 railroad bridges and another 1,000 highway bridges over his career. He joined the CMT team in 2020 and works from our office in downtown St. Louis.
What kind of work is most fulfilling for you?
I enjoy the bigger and more challenging projects – the bigger bridges. That’s the most fulfilling for me, and I’ve had the opportunity to work on a number of those. Two of these – the Eads Bridge and the Merchants Bridge – I’ve been involved with from the planning stage through design, and then I was heavily involved during the construction and saw them all the way through to completion or near completion. To me, I don’t think it gets better than that.
It goes without saying, but seeing all the effort we put into these projects being rewarded with a successful construction without significant delays or challenges is incredibly gratifying. Take, for instance, the Eads Bridge project. This historic bridge carries the light rail serving Greater St. Louis and its daily commuter traffic. When the bridge’s rehabilitation construction was underway, most transit users didn’t even realize it. This was due to the careful coordination by all involved with the project. We opted to leave one of the bridge’s two tracks open at all times; both east- and west-bound trains ran on same track while we worked on the other. It was through this approach that transit users experienced no interruption in service during construction.
What is one project you consider to be a highlight of your career thus far, and why?
The Eads Bridge rehabilitation project, which started in 2009 and was completed in 2016. This project was its first major rehabilitation. In the bridge world, the structure is, in my opinion, one of the most historic in the country and the pride of St Louis. The Eads Bridge was completed in 1874 – about a decade before the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Several innovations came from the Eads Bridge, including the first major use of steel, cable stay construction, and pneumatic caissons. All of these innovations were later used on the construction of structures such as the Brooklyn Bridge.
I still remember going to the Washington University Library in St. Louis and seeing the original hand-drawn plans. The drafting is beautiful artwork, and as a bridge engineer, I could compare the significance of that experience to the time I got to see the original Declaration of Independence document firsthand.
It’s also gratifying that work on the Eads Bridge – and professional relationships that were formed and strengthened throughout the project – set in motion the opportunity to ultimately serve as both project manager and designer on the three oldest railroad bridges in St. Louis.
Chromolithograph, Eads Bridge, St. Louis, 1874. Library of Congress, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
What is your approach to building strong, sustained relationships with clients?
A long time ago, I got the advice that the most important element of a client relationship is trust. I’ve remembered that and always work to build trust. I want clients to know they can rely on me to look out for their interests, to be honest, and to be accountable.
A lot of people can do the engineering, but when a client has faith that you will look out for them – that’s how a bond is built.
It’s also important to always be looking ahead to what’s next and anticipating what the client’s next concern or obstacle might be.
In what ways have you used your engineering skills to the benefit of others and society, and why is it important to you to do so?
I have served as an adjunct faculty member at Southern Illinois University and have also shared project presentations with groups like student engineering clubs. By staying active with students, I have developed relationships and mentored young engineers. I remember being out in the field once, and I met an engineer who said one of my presentations helped introduce him to the professional path he ended up taking. It made me feel great.
In addition, I do have an adventurous side. I was in the Army. I was involved with the response to Hurricane Katrina as a bridge engineer. And since 2014, I’ve had the opportunity to use my structural-engineering experience to support a catastrophe-response team. Working alongside rescue firefighters, dog handlers, and hazardous materials experts, I serve as a Structure Specialist on the St. Louis Area Regional Response team, as well as the Illinois Task Force 1 urban search and rescue team. My role is to ensure a structure is safe for firefighters to enter – and if it’s not safe, show the team what to do to make it secure. I’ve trained annually since 2014, traveling to different training sites across the country and doing online courses.
Recently, I was part of a successful rescue after tornadoes struck several states across the Midwest and South. I went through specific training through the Army Corps of Engineers to become a Structural Specialist. It would have been difficult for me to handle an emergency situation initially. Several years of training with firemen, working on debris piles, gave me the confidence to handle the emergency situation. Through that experience, I have developed an even deeper respect and appreciation for first responders who do this kind of work on a regular basis.
How has your field evolved over the years, and where do you see it going in the future?
My career started as the industry was in transition from drafting tables to computer-aided drafting. The structural analysis could be performed by computers but did not have any graphics. We had a shared computer instead of a computer per workstation. There have been a lot of positive advances, and there have also been mistakes that have emerged from new technology. With that in mind, I see the continued value of exercises such as doing calculations by hand, which promotes the critical thinking that can help engineers continue to understand the results.
In addition, I do have concerns about over-engineering across my industry. There is an inherent conservatism in some of the simpler design methods. There is a time and a place for advanced methods. There’s a reason why a lot of older railroad bridges are still in use: The initial designs were simple and conservative.