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New chief engineer at Mackinac Bridge discusses its legacy and future

Cole Cavalieri was announced new Chief Engineer at the Mackinac Bridge Authority Nov. 14.
Michael Livingston
Cole Cavalieri was announced new chief engineer at the Mackinac Bridge Authority on Nov. 14. (Photo: Michael Livingston/IPR News)

After growing up in the Upper Peninsula but spending much of his adult life in Lansing, Cole Cavalieri has crossed the Mackinac Bridge too many times to count.

Now he oversees its maintenance as chief engineer at the Mackinac Bridge Authority - a position he was just named to this week.

He replaces Julie Neph who will retire after 30 years at the Authority.

“Julie’s shoes will be very hard to fill, and she will be greatly missed by everyone,” said MBA Bridge Director Kim Nowack. “I know Cole will continue his excellent performance here at the bridge and he will prove to be an exceptional leader of our engineering and maintenance areas.”

Cavalieri began his career with two consultant engineering companies: Coleman Engineering in the Upper Peninsula where he worked on design, construction inspection and materials testing; and Hardesty & Hanover where he designed and inspected moveable and long-span bridges.

He said his favorite part of working on the bridge is being outside and overlooking the Straits of Mackinac.

“(From atop the towers) you can see miles north and miles south and then you’re just surrounded by water except for this bridge,” he said.

Cavalieri grew up in Iron Mountain and went to college at Michigan State University. For him, the bridge always marked that he was halfway home.

But it wasn’t always that way.

“My grandpa lived in the U.P. and he would talk about going downstate and waiting for the ferry,” Cavalieri said. “It was really a journey to get downstate versus what it is now and the bridge has just made such a difference for Michigan.”

It also made a difference for the whole world.

Seventeen years before the Mackinac Bridge opened, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Washington state collapsed, only about four months after it was built.

Footage of the disaster is famous, and astonishing — the bridge deck see-saws back and forth violently before crumbling into the water below.

After that, Cavalieri said many civil engineers lost faith in long suspension bridges. But the success of the Mackinac Bridge that restored the faith.

“When they pulled it off it showed what was possible for Michigan but it really helped get that long-span complex bridge industry going again and give confidence to the world,” Cavalieri said.

Sixty-five years later, the Mackinac Bridge is old, even by modern standards. Cavalieri said many similar structures have been retired around 75-years-old.

Rest assured, Cavalieri said the bridge is in great shape.

“I don’t foresee it needing replacement by any other bridge in our lifetime,” he said.

Still, there will be some upcoming projects, including road repairs, replacing joints and eventually reconstructing the entire deck of the bridge.

Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.