Designing fish-friendly culverts

Roadways for humans can sometimes create roadblocks for fish, but researchers hope to establish a set of culvert design practices to help aquatic creatures get where they’re going.

Many fish depend on mobility along a river for feeding and spawning. Where roads meet rivers, however, culverts can block fish and other aquatic organisms that can’t navigate changes in current, lighting and other factors.

Waterway barriers threaten an already endangered species of minnow known as the Topeka shiner (pictured above). It can also be a big problem for economically important fish such as trout or northern pike. That’s why the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources prefers building bridges to culverts.

However, bridges are not always economically feasible, and so MnDOT is working closely with the DNR to develop culverts that protect both public safety and the environment.

Photo of boxed culvert
Culverts allow water to pass under roads. Occasionally, they can harm a stream’s fish habitat by inadvertently acting as a barrier to fish passage or migration. There are nearly 11,000 culverts in Minnesota.
Sediment Content 

Recent research suggests that installing boxed culverts differently could greatly improve fish passage.

Culverts are typically placed a little below the streambed with the expectation that the stream flow will naturally fill them with sediment. Researchers tested that assumption and found it to not always be accurate.

“We found that pre-filling the culvert with sediment that replicates the streambed as part of the installation process helped prevent upstream erosion and the development of vertical drops that can become barriers to aquatic movement,” said Jessica Kozarek, a University of Minnesota research associate. “In addition, pre-filling the culvert helped ensure the sediment remained inside the culvert flows were high and water moved quickly during rainstorms.”

MnDOT has been working with the DNR to identify the conditions that determine whether a newly installed culvert will naturally fill with sediment, replicating surrounding streambed conditions, or whether a stream’s water flow will transport sediment out of a culvert.

Using an experimental flume at the University of Minnesota’s St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, researchers tested MnDOT’s standard box culvert design under a variety of stream conditions.

Laboratory simulations suggest that filling a culvert with sediment at installation, rather than allowing it to fill over time is, with some exceptions, generally the best ap­proach for low- and moderate-grade streams. Additionally, steep, fast-moving waters require a filled culvert with structures such as larger rocks to keep sediment in place. These structures also create steps, pools and riffles that enable fish to rest as they move upstream.

MnDOT will use this latest research, along with conclusions from other recent studies, to create a guide for fish-friendly culvert designs.

“Of all the things we’ve studied, there are maybe three or four research projects. This manual will pull it all together,” said Petra DeWall, state waterway engineer at the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Further research is underway to determine whether aquatic organisms are deterred by low light conditions in long, dark culverts. Researchers are also looking into whether mussel spat rope could be used to create a rough bottom to reduce water speed in culverts with no sediment.

Related Resources

Census report looks at U.S. commuting patterns; U of M report analyzes Twin Cities’ patterns

A recent report issued by the U.S. Census Bureau looks at commuting patterns by U.S. workers in 2013 using data from the American Community Survey. It highlights differences in rates of automobile commuting by key population characteristics such as age, race, ethnicity, and the types of communities in which workers live.

One finding of note: young people in big cities were much less likely to drive to work in 2013 than they were several years earlier. For instance, urban workers aged 25 to 29 showed about a 4-percentage-point decline in automobile commuting between 2006 and 2013.

You can also find an extensive analysis of commuting behavior that was produced locally. In a recent multifaceted study sponsored by the Metropolitan Council and MnDOT, U of M researchers analyzed travel behavior over time in the Twin Cities.

The extensive five-part study report is based on the rich set of data produced by the Met Council’s Travel Behavior Inventory household travel survey. David Levinson, RP Braun/CTS Chair in the U’s Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering, was the study’s principal investigator.

The five components of the report examine:

  • Changes in travel duration, time use, and accessibility
  • Changes in walking and biking
  • The effect of transit quality of service on people’s activity choices and time allocation
  • Changes in travel behavior by age cohort
  • Telecommuting and its relationship with travel and residential choices

For more information:

Roadway Safety Institute seminar series begins September 10

The Roadway Safety Institute will kick off its safety-focused seminar series on September 10 in Minneapolis with a presentation on the Minnesota Strategic Highway Safety Plan by Brad Estochen, MnDOT state traffic safety engineer.

Seminars will be held Thursdays from 3–4 p.m. throughout the fall semester on the U of M’s east bank campus. The free seminars, which will also be streamed live on the web, will feature the latest work of Institute researchers and other industry experts.

Detailed information about seminar topics and speakers will be available soon on the Institute website, or you can subscribe to receive e-mail updates from the Institute.

Hope to see you there!

Seminar Schedule

September 10 — Minnesota Strategic Highway Safety Plan
Brad Estochen, State Traffic Safety Engineer, Minnesota Department of Transportation

September 17 — Characterizing Uncertainty in Left-Turn Crash Reconstructions Using Event Data Recorder Data
Gary Davis, Professor, Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering, University of Minnesota

September 24 — Transportation Incidents, Events, and Disasters
Dan Work, Assistant Professor, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

October 1 — Low-Cost Centimeter-Accurate Mobile Positioning
Todd Humphreys, Assistant Professor, Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, University of Texas at Austin

October 8 — Title TBD
Linda Boyle, Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Washington

October 15 — Speaker TBD

October 22 — Automated Identification and Extraction of Horizontal Curve Information from GIS Roadway Maps: Improving Safety on All Roadways
David Noyce, Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Wisconsin–Madison

November 5 — Novel Collision Avoidance System for Bicycles
Rajesh Rajamani, Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Minnesota

November 12 — Assessing Roadway Safety Risks in American Indian Reservations
Kathy Quick, Assistant Professor, and Guillermo Narvaez, Research Associate, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota

November 19 — Pedestrian Safety, Pedestrian Behavior, and Intersection Design and Control
Per Garder, Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Maine

December 3 — Title TBD
Don Fisher, Professor, Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, University of Massachusetts Amherst

December 10 — A Positioning and Mapping Methodology Using Bluetooth and Smartphone Technologies to Support Situation Awareness and Wayfinding for the Visually Impaired
Chen-Fu Liao, Educational Systems Manager, Minnesota Traffic Observatory, University of Minnesota

Engaging the next generation of the transportation workforce

In July, CTS introduced the next generation of the workforce to transportation topics and careers during a two-week summer program. Thirty students entering seventh through ninth grade attended the CTS-hosted National Summer Transportation Institute, where they got hands-on experience with topics ranging from distracted driving to aeronautics to traffic management.

As part of the program, attendees toured campus, visited the U of M’s transportation-related labs, and learned tips on researching, studying, public speaking, and writing. In addition, participants learned about many aspects of transportation, including human factors, roadway safety, bridge design, surveying, and traffic simulation.

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The camp also included outings to several MnDOT facilities, UPS, Metro Transit, the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport, the Minnesota Transportation Museum, and boat tours of the St. Croix River Crossing construction site and St. Paul Port Authority.

Highlights for attendees included riding the light rail and going behind the scenes in a Metro Transit control room, watching airplanes take off and exploring maintenance equipment at the airport, getting up close to bridge construction on the St. Croix River Crossing boat tour, and using a driving simulator to learn about distracted driving at UPS.

“I really enjoyed using the driving simulators,” said one of the ninth-grade program participants. “It was a hands-on experience that truly taught me the dangers of texting while driving and how much harder it really is.”

In post-program evaluations, parents reported that their children had learned valuable information about transportation topics, careers, and related education opportunities.

“This was one of the best camps we have ever experienced,” one parent said. “There was always a plan for college, and this program increased enthusiasm, preparedness, and maturity.”

“[The program] opened up my daughter’s horizon for future career choices and major focus areas after high school,” another parent said.

The program was sponsored by CTS with funding from the Federal Highway Administration administered by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).

To learn more, read the full article in the August issue of Catalyst.

Applying LiDAR to county transportation systems

A handful of county highway department employees in the Rochester area gathered recently at the Olmsted County Public Works Service Center for a presentation and live demonstration by University of Minnesota Research Fellow Brian Davis about his team’s work involving light detection and ranging – or LiDAR.

“LiDAR is like radar, but with light,” Davis said. “It gives you information about what’s around the sensor.”

Event attendees gather around a sedan outfitted with a spinning LiDAR sensor. (Photo by Micheal Foley, MnDOT)
Event attendees gather around a sedan outfitted with a spinning LiDAR sensor. (Photo by Micheal Foley, MnDOT)

Davis and his fellow researchers have outfitted a sedan with special LiDAR equipment and other technology that is capable of capturing a 360-degree, 3-D view of a scene in real time.

“We use the car as a test bed,” Davis said. “We have a lot of different types of sensors on the car that we use for the different projects that we’re working on. Right now we have a LiDAR sensor on top. Sometimes we have a high-accuracy GPS receiver in there. We have a cellular modem. We have a handful of inertial sensors. So it’s a lot of different stuff that we use to cater to the application.”

For his presentation, Davis showed the attendees some of the data his team had already collected.

Davis presents data that shows the LiDAR-equipped sedan moving along a roadway. (Photo by Micheal Foley, MnDOT)
Davis presents data that shows the LiDAR-equipped sedan moving along a roadway. (Photo by Micheal Foley, MnDOT)

“We showed a handful of pre-collected data at a handful of intersections around Rochester and Minneapolis,” Davis said. “What it shows is the point cloud collected by the sensor – just the raw point cloud with no post-processing done. In that information you can see people moving through it, cars moving through it, buses and light rail trains.”

Event attendees move around the sedan to see how the LiDAR sensor views them. (Photo by Micheal Foley, MnDOT)
Event attendees move around the sedan to see how the LiDAR sensor views them. (Photo by Micheal Foley, MnDOT)

After the presentation, Davis led the group to the parking lot for a close-up look at the technology and how it collects data and displays that data in real time. Le Sueur County GIS manager Justin Lutterman was among those who could envision possible applications for LiDAR.

“It’ll be interesting to see where this can go,” Lutterman said. “I’m sure the private industry will take off with this and emergency management, or the sheriffs and ambulances, would appreciate this kind of technology on their vehicles for a situation they might have to recreate. Roads and traffic designers  would be able to monitor their resources, pavements, traffic counts and things like that.”

Over the coming months, researchers will gather more data to develop a workshop for county personnel interested in learning more about LiDAR and how it can be applied in their transportation systems.

“The next steps for this project are to collect some data with the car at intersections. Then we can use that information to fine tune our algorithms,” Davis said. “What the algorithms are going to do is take that raw data and give us useful information, like the number of cars, or the time a car passes through an intersection. That all feeds into the workshop we’re developing. The workshop is going to be for county GIS workers, traffic engineers and county engineers who are interested in learning about these technologies.”

Riprap grout protects bridge abutments

Bridges over Minnesota waterways need to be protected from currents by a field of interlocking angular rocks called riprap. Without these rocks along the abutment, moving water could wear away the soil that supports a bridge’s foundation. The faster the water, the larger the riprap must be to provide adequate protection.

While some parts of Minnesota have quarries rich with angular rock, other parts don’t – particularly the northwest and western regions. Bridge projects in those areas sometimes resort to the expensive practice of trucking in stones. Other times field stones are used, but they are less effective and must be replaced more often.

There soon could be a better option thanks to research coordinated by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and funded by the Minnesota Local Road Research Board.

At a few test sites around the state, researchers have used a grout mixture to cement smaller, rounded rocks together at a bridge abutment. Once applied to the rocks, the mixture forms what is called “matrix riprap.” The concept is in use in Europe for many bridge piers, but MnDOT was more interested in learning how it could be used on bridge abutments.

Matrix riprap is currently in use in Minnesota at the following bridges:

  • Highway 23 over the Rum River in Milaca
  • Highway 8 over Lake Lindstrom channel in Lindstrom
  • Prairie Road over Coon Creek in Andover
A MnDOT crew applies grout to rounded rocks at a bridge abutment in Milaca in May 2012. The grout cements the rocks together to form matrix riprap, which has shown to be significantly stronger than conventional riprap.
A MnDOT crew applies grout to rounded rocks at a bridge abutment in Milaca in May 2012. The grout cements the rocks together to form matrix riprap, which has shown to be significantly stronger than conventional riprap.

In May 2012, matrix riprap was placed at the Milaca bridge, which sits alongside a high school. Researchers hoped the use of matrix riprap would prevent vandals from removing the riprap rock and throwing it into the river. According to Nicki Bartelt, a MnDOT assistant waterway engineer, the matrix riprap has proven to be extremely strong and effective.

“Not only is matrix riprap significantly stronger than regular riprap, but it helps prevent vandalism as well,” Bartelt said. “The Milaca installation has been in place for three years now. It looks pretty good and it’s weathering well.”

In the lab, matrix riprap held up extremely well on mechanical pull tests and hydraulic flume tests. In fact, researchers were unable to determine the matrix riprap fail point on many tests, even after applying 10 times the shear stress that regular riprap can withstand. Matrix riprap was tested with both angular and round rock with no change in performance.

A new matrix riprap installation recently went in on the Highway 95 bridge over the Rum River in Cambridge. Later this summer, plans call for an installation on the Highway 60 bridge over the north fork of the Zumbro River in Mazeppa.

“The Highway 60 bridge is being replaced, and the river there has extremely high velocities, so we’re using the matrix riprap instead of regular riprap just because of the size of rocks that would be needed,” Bartelt said.

At least two more installations are planned for 2016. In the future, researchers plan to determine the fail point for matrix riprap. They also hope to study potential environmental effects the grout may have underwater.

MnDOT has also worked with local governments that have tried matrix riprap for themselves. One municipality is trying it as a heavy duty erosion control measure. The concept is catching on outside Minnesota as well.

“We have gotten a lot of inquiries from other states, and we have lent out the spec a lot,” Bartelt said. “Iowa, New Hampshire, Maine, Indiana, Wisconsin and Illinois are among the states to express interest. We have talked to a lot of people about it, so they tend to use our research.”

Read the research

Major Ramp Metering Upgrade Reduces Freeway Delays

Motorists are experiencing less delay on metro-area highways, thanks to major changes to the Twin Cities’ ramp metering system.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation has reconfigured ramp meters to be more in sync with real conditions. With changes to the turn-on and turn-off criteria, the meters are actually running for a shorter period of time and are only activated when needed.

Ramp meters are traffic lights placed on freeway entrance ramps that control the frequency that vehicles can enter the highway. Sensors embedded in the pavement collect the vehicle traffic data used to time approximately 440 ramp meters.

Staff at the Regional Transportation Management Center, which manages the ramp meters, say the whole system is operating better because of changes that were implemented approximately one year ago (based off a 2012 study).

University of Minnesota-Duluth professor Eil Kwon developed the system’s new software algorithms. In a case study of Highway 100, he found that the delay on the mainline dropped by nearly half.

On northbound Highway 100, the amount of “delayed vehicle hours” — defined as the vehicle hours of traffic flow with speeds less than 45 mph — that motorists experienced dropped 48 percent during the months of October and November in 2012 when compared to the same period in 2011. During the same time period, total volume on that section of northbound Highway 100 increased by 2.7 percent, Kwon said. In spring 2013, the amount of delayed vehicle hours had been reduced by 17 percent.

These results are preliminary, as additional analysis is needed to determine if these results are typical throughout the system on other freeway corridors. However, based on a personal savings of $16.50 per hour, the scenario described above represents a cost savings to motorists of $1,353 to $3,447 per day (depending on the season). That’s as much as $339,150 to $861,640 per year for just a six-mile stretch of highway.

More efficient

Under the old system, each ramp meter would turn on based on current traffic conditions, but the criteria to turn on were easily met, causing the meters to turn on too soon. The old system did not have turn-off criteria, allowing meters to run until a pre-set time of day.

With the new system, improvements were made to make the meters respond more appropriately to current traffic conditions. The turn-on criteria were improved so that meters come on only when needed, and turn-off criteria were added, allowing meters to turn off when traffic conditions improved.

The new metering system is particularly effective at reducing the number of meters operating on light traffic days.

“On days like the ones leading up to Thanksgiving, where traffic may be 10-to-15 percent less than normal, instead of, say, 150 ramp meters being on at a particular time, now maybe only 50 ramp meters will be operating,” explained MnDOT Freeway System Operations Engineer Jesse Larson.

Upgrades to the ramp metering system also allow for a better picture of what traffic is like at a given moment, because it’s now based on corridor density rather than traffic flow.

Traffic flow is the measurement of the number of vehicles passing a given point. Using traffic flow was flawed, in that similar traffic flows can occur at different speeds. The old system couldn’t differentiate between 1,000 cars passing by at 20 miles per hour versus 1,000 cars passing at 60 miles per hour, for example.

Corridor density, on the other hand, is the number of vehicles per lane per mile. By measuring density instead of traffic flow, the system has a more accurate picture of what current conditions are like on the freeway.

Another bonus: ramp meters will no longer release a bunch of cars simultaneously once an entrance ramp fills up. That’s because the system can now detect the ramp filling up and release the extra cars gradually instead.

The amount of hours vehicles wait at entrance ramps fell by nearly 50 percent during the fall months along a section of Highway 100.
Twin Cities ramp meters now turn on and off based on live traffic conditions.

Related Resources

Development of Freeway Operational Strategies with IRIS-in-Loop Simulation study

New video highlights how U of M transportation research makes a difference

CTS aired a new video—”How does University of Minnesota research make a difference?”—at its Annual Meeting and Awards Luncheon on April 6.

The video highlights a variety of U of M research initiatives from 2014-2015. Projects featured focus on hardier roadside grasses, tribal transportation safety, left-turn safety, maximizing system performance, clear roads in winter, well-rested truckers, increased transit ridership, more efficient buses, safer teen drivers, understanding travel behavior, better asphalt pavements, and healthy lakes and rivers.

Salt-tolerant sod and seed mixes bring greener roadsides to Minnesota

For Minnesota’s roadside grasses, life isn’t easy. To survive, grass must be able to withstand extreme stresses including drought, heat, disease, soil compaction, poor quality soils, and high levels of road salt. Ideally, it could survive all that while still looking lush and green.

“Many roadsides, especially in metropolitan areas, need to look good,” says Eric Watkins, associate professor in the Department of Horticultural Science. “In addition to aesthetics, quality roadside vegetation is needed to prevent erosion and maintain water quality from roadside runoff.”

In 2010, MnDOT noticed a number of its new sod and seed plantings were failing and asked U of M experts to take a look at its specification. “We saw the problem immediately,” Watkins says. “The specification was for a mix with a lot of Kentucky bluegrass, which needs a great deal of care and watering. There was clearly an opportunity for improvement.”

During the next several years, Watkins’ team, led by former graduate student Josh Friell, worked to identify the best seed and sod for use along Minnesota’s roadsides in research sponsored by the Minnesota Local Road Research Board and MnDOT. Findings are now available in a final report.

The study was completed in several stages. First, many different types of cool-season grasses were planted in the fall and assessed the following spring to determine their ability to establish and survive on roadsides in Minnesota. Next, researchers looked at the salt tolerance of those grasses.

Eric Watkins (third from left) leads a greenhouse tour of grass mixtures.
Eric Watkins (third from left) leads a greenhouse tour of grass mixtures.

“In cold-weather climates like Minnesota’s, salt tolerance is required because of the application of deicing salts in the winter,” Watkins explains. “To determine if a grass species could stand up to this stress, we applied different levels of salt solution to the different grass species in a greenhouse. We identified several types of fescue grass as the most salt tolerant.”

Based on the results of the first two stages, researchers developed and tested 50 different grass mixtures along Minnesota’s roadsides and evaluated the survival and performance of those plantings for two years. In addition, each mixture was planted under a movable rain-out shelter to determine drought tolerance. This phase of the study resulted in the identification of a mix of three types of fescue for planting on roadsides in Minnesota.

Finally, researchers needed to find out if the new grass mixture would work as sod (sod growers need to be able to harvest it properly from their sod fields). “Most sod currently grown in Minnesota is Kentucky bluegrass, which isn’t the best for winter survival when salt stress is a problem,” says Watkins. “We grew 51 different grass mixtures as sod for 22 months and found that contrary to popular belief, fine fescue mixtures produced sod of acceptable strength for harvest.”

MnDOT has applied the research to standard specifications for construction activities for salt-tolerant sod products, salt/shade/drought-tolerant turf seed mixtures, and a third-party certification program for ensuring performance standards are met based on past and current research results, says Dwayne Stenlund, MnDOT erosion control engineering specialist. Researchers are also working with the state’s sod growers to produce sod grown from the new seed blends.

Moving forward, the researchers plan to continue their work to improve Minnesota’s roadside grass plantings. “The reality is that the success of sod or seed plantings depends on a number of factors, including time of year, amount of water, soil preparation, temperature, and sod harvest depth,” Watkins says. “In our next project, beginning this spring, we will identify the most important factors for the success of roadside plantings and sod cultivation, and then help MnDOT update the specifications for managing new installations.”

Minnesota Bicycle and Pedestrian Counting Initiative highlighted in FHWA case study

Work on bike and pedestrian counting by University of Minnesota researchers and MnDOT has been highlighted as part of the FHWA’s Livable Communities Case Study Series.

The case study features the Minnesota Bicycle and Pedestrian Counting Initiative, led by the U of M’s Greg Lindsey and MnDOT’s Lisa Austin and Jasna Hadzic. Under the initiative, the team has developed general guidance and consistent methods for counting bikes and pedestrians. Team members have also worked with other state and local agencies to implement counting strategies across Minnesota.

The case study showcases the initiative as an example of how agencies can leverage partnerships to implement a successful counting program for nonmotorized traffic. These traffic counts can help agencies identify safety concerns, understand and communicate benefits of active transportation, prioritize investments, and analyze trends. According to the FHWA, the results can help inform decisions that make biking and walking viable transportation options in livable communities.

Read the case study on the FHWA Livability website.

Minnesota transportation research blog


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