Category Archives: Maintenance Operations

Reducing speeds to improve safety for work-zone flaggers

When drivers approach a roadway work zone at high speeds, they put the lives of work-zone flaggers at risk. To keep flaggers safe on the job, U of M researchers are looking for better ways to capture drivers’ attention—and compel them to slow down—as they approach flagger-controlled work zones.

Kathleen Harder, director of the Center for Design in Health, and John Hourdos, director of the Minnesota Traffic Observatory, identified and tested new work-zone warning elements to more effectively capture and sustain driver attention. The project was funded by MnDOT and the Minnesota Local Road Research Board.

The project began with a simulator study in which participants completed three drives, each featuring a work zone with different warning treatments. One condition was a traditional four-sign configuration currently used to warn drivers approaching work zones. The other two conditions featured a variety of new elements, including signage with new messaging such as  a “one-lane road ahead” sign with flashing LED lights, a dynamic speed warning sign equipped with a loud warning horn that sounded if drivers exceeded the speed limit, and portable rumble strips.

“Overall, we found that the new set of elements is more effective than the elements currently used to reduce driving speeds on the approach to a flagger-controlled work zone,” Harder says.

Although adding LED lights to the one-lane road sign had no significant effect on drivers’ speeds, findings indicated that the dynamic speed sign coupled with the horn was more effective than the dynamic sign alone.

To test these new elements under real-world conditions, the researchers conducted field tests evaluating two configurations in Minnesota work zones. The first configuration followed the minimum standards outlined in the Minnesota Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. The second deployed signs employing new messaging and attention-getting devices, including a dynamic speed warning sign, horn, and rumble strips.

Findings showed that the combination of the dynamic speed warning sign and the horn successfully reduced the overall speed of vehicles approaching the work zone. The portable rumble strips did not cause any significant speed reduction, but this may have been related to their location downstream from the dynamic speed sign and horn.

“Our findings reveal that the new set of elements designed to capture driver attention—including new messaging, a dynamic speed trailer, and horn—had a significant influence on reducing driver speed,” Harder says. “The experimental layout practically eliminated high-speed outliers and successfully reduced the approach speed to the flag operator.”

Winter Decision-Making Crosses State Lines

Winter weather events have a regional and often national impact. “Storms never stop at the state line,” said Tom Peters, research and training engineer, MnDOT Maintenance Operations. “That’s why it’s so important for us to know about winter maintenance efforts around the country, and particularly at neighboring states with similar climates.”

MnDOT leads the Clear Roads Transportation Pooled Fund Project (clearroads.org), a national winter maintenance research consortium. In 2015, Clear Roads launched a national survey to collect and report the annual winter maintenance operations of state DOTs. The effort included nearly 50 data points related to equipment, materials and costs.

The results, which are available at clearroads.org/winter-maintenance-survey as a Microsoft Excel-based spreadsheet, are available at no cost for users to examine, analyze and parse as needed. Beyond the raw data, the spreadsheet includes calculated statistics and an interactive map for plotting key metrics.

The results quantified much of what was known only anecdotally and provided useful, actionable data. “Data trends by geographic region and over time let us make more informed operations decisions,” Peters said. “We can also draw on this information to communicate with management, elected officials and the public about how MnDOT’s winter operations fit in a national context.”

As the lead state, MnDOT commits significant administrative time and attention across the agency to Clear Roads. “It’s rewarding and satisfying to see such a useful product as one of the payoffs for all this effort,” Peters said.

Additional data collection for the 2015-2016 winter season is already complete. Look for an update to the online database later this year.


Research in Progress

Clear Roads has nearly a dozen research projects in progress, including:

See all of Clear Roads’ current research projects at clearroads.org/research-in-progress.


What’s Next?

At its September meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, the Clear Roads Technical Advisory Committee funded five new projects:

  • Utilization of GPS/AVL Technology: Case Studies
  • Standards and Guidance for Using Sensor Technology to Assess Winter Road Conditions
  • Emergency Operations Methodology for Extreme Winter Storm Events
  • Weather Event Reconstruction and Analysis Tool
  • Training Video for the Implementation of Liquid-Only Plow Routes

What is Clear Roads? 

Clear Roads is a 33-member pooled fund program dedicated to winter road maintenance research. Led by MnDOT, Clear Roads projects evaluate winter maintenance materials, equipment and methods; develop specifications and recommendations; study and promote innovative techniques and technologies; and develop field guides and training curricula. Learn more at clearroads.org.

10 Ways Transportation Research Keeps Minnesotans Moving in the Winter

As the first big snow and ice storms sweep through parts of Minnesota today, we’d like to remind you of some of our great winter weather research studies. Here’s a list of some of this winter-related research from MnDOT and the Local Road Research Board:

Living snow fences

Living snow fences are trees, shrubs, native grasses, wildflowers, or rows of corn crops located along roads or around communities and farmsteads. These living barriers trap snow as it blows across fields, piling it up before it reaches a road, waterway, farmstead or community. Through multiple research efforts, MnDOT continues to advance its practices for living snow fences. Willow plants, which are which are inexpensive and fast-growing, are a new form of snow fence. MnDOT has also developed a tool that allows the agency to better offer a competitive payment to farmers.

Related studies:

Permeable pavement

According to recent studies, researchers believe Minnesota could eliminate salt usage on low-volume local roads by switching to permeable pavements. Permeable pavements — pavements that allow water to seep through them — have been studied in some Minnesota cities, and a research project is currently underway to further investigate how much salt reduction can be expected.

Related studies:

Traffic recovery during winter storms

MnDOT’s Metro District developed a way to automatically determine when to stop plowing a highway after a snow storm. The method involves measuring traffic flow to determine when road conditions have recovered. Current practice calls for maintenance workers to visually inspect traffic lanes. The automated technique could potentially be more accurate and save time and costs.

Related study:

Salt and other deicing chemicals

Minnesota winters are no joke, and Minnesotans still need to get wherever they’re going despite harsh snow and ice conditions. That’s why MnDOT is constantly researching new and improved versions of salt and other deicing chemicals to keep roads safe at the least amount of damage to lakes, rivers and groundwater.

Related studies:

Snowplow blades

A couple years ago, MnDOT snowplow operators in southwestern Minnesota invented an experimental plow that uses the wind to cast snow from the road without impeding traffic or the operator’s view. This winter, MnDOT intends to test multiple types of snowplow blades as part of a larger research project comparing types of deicers.

Related study:

Snowplow technology

While a lot of research has been done on the plow itself, MnDOT hasn’t forgotten to invest in research to improve in-cabin snowplow technology as well. Some of the great technology recently developed to assist snowplow drivers, includes a driver assist application that a MnDOT plow driver used last winter to navigate a storm and rescue stranded motorists. The agency is also studying equipment factors that can cause fatigue in snowplow operators.

Related studies:

Salt-resistant grasses

When the snow melts every spring, the damage salt does to roadside grass is obvious. That’s why researchers have spent years looking into developing and implementing salt-tolerant grasses on roadside settings. The result of this effort has been the introduction and use of salt-tolerant sod and seed mixtures that are made up primarily of fine fescue species. MnDOT is also studying how chlorides are transported within watersheds in order to better focus efforts to reduce deicer usage in  areas where it will have the biggest environmental impact.

Related studies:

Cold-weather cracking prediction test

MnDOT has developed a test that can tell whether a contractor’s proposed asphalt mix will cause the road to crack in the winter. Building roads using better asphalt mixes leads to less cracking and fewer potholes. The test is expected to save the state about $2 million per year.

Related studies:

Pedestrian snow removal

It’s not all about cars and trucks. Minnesotans still ride bikes and walk in the winter. That why MnDOT assembled a comprehensive review of existing practices and policies from other states, as well as a summary of valuable publications that could be referenced while developing a new policy.

Related study:

Maintenance Decision Making

MnDOT research led to the development of a Maintenance Decision Support System and related components provide real-time, route-specific information to snow plow drivers, as well as recommended salt application levels. These recommendations have reduced chemical usage while still achieving performance targets for snow and ice clearance.

Related studies:

Knowing While Mowing: GPS Keeps Maintenance Workers Out Of the Weeds

As temperatures fall and days get shorter, MnDOT Metro District maintenance workers are wrapping up a season of mowing grass along roadsides and in medians that they hope will prove a little more efficient than in the past.

Thanks to a research project that installed GPS devices in tractor cabs, operators have a better sense of exactly which areas they need to mow and which areas should be left alone. Five Metro District tractors were tested in 2015. This year, more than 40 tractors were fitted with the automated vehicle location (AVL) technology, which includes a GPS antenna, an on-board central processing unit (CPU) and an in-cab screen with a user interface.

Trisha Stefanski, Metro District asset management engineer, expects one of the biggest benefits of the project to be a reduction in herbicide use. Maintenance crews use herbicide to control the spread of noxious weeds that sometimes get spread during mowing operations. Mapping exactly where noxious weeds are, and providing that information to operators on a real-time, in-cab screen and user interface helps them mow around those areas.

“We’re really hoping it will reduce the amount of herbicide that we’re putting on our roadways by 50 percent,” Stefanski said. “We’re not certain that will be the number, but that’s what we’re hoping for. We think just not mowing those areas will not spread as many noxious weeds and so we don’t have to apply as much herbicide.”

Metro District operators, such as Jesse Lopez, give the AVL technology rave reviews.

“Basically you can see what you shouldn’t mow and what you should mow. So, it makes it easy for me. It’s just like playing a game,” Lopez said. “This actually helps me to optimize what my job is. I know exactly where I’m at and where I’m going. I think everyone should use it – absolutely everybody who is in a mowing situation or a plowing situation.”

In addition, the AVL technology helps maintenance supervisors keep tabs on exactly where their operators are in real time. It also helps supervisors complete reports by automatically providing the geographic areas where mowing has been completed.

Stefanski says the project has gone really well, and she hopes collecting more data over another mowing season will show real savings on herbicide use. In the meantime, she is thinking of other ways AVL technology could be applied to maintenance operations.

“What I really like about the project is that we are taking something used in a lot snow plows and a lot of other technologies – cars, other things, maybe UPS uses them – and we’re putting it into maintenance operations,” Stefanski said. “Having it for mowing, we can also use it for smooth pavements. We can also use it for other things in mowing operations.”

Driver-assist system helps keep plows on the road

Darryl Oeltjenbruns, snowplow driver in District 7, operates the only driver assist system, or DAS, equipped snowplow in the state. The system helps snowplow operators see road alignments and features such as turn lanes, guardrails and road markings. (Photo by Chase Fester)
Darryl Oeltjenbruns, snowplow driver in District 7, operates the only driver assist system, or DAS, equipped snowplow in the state. The system helps snowplow operators see road alignments and features such as turn lanes, guardrails and road markings. (Photo by Chase Fester)

By Sue Roe, MnDOT Communications

Southwest Minnesota has the highest average wind speeds in the state—bad news for MnDOT snowplow operators who often drive in low visibility to clear roads.

“We have more days when the wind blows than when it doesn’t,” said Chase Fester, MnDOT District 7 transportation operations supervisor. “We struggle with the wind.”

That’s why District 7 is piloting a snowplow driver-assist system (DAS) developed by University of Minnesota researchers to combat the blowing snow and fog that often cause zero visibility. The DAS helps snowplow operators see the road alignment and features, such as turn lanes, guardrails, and road markings. Even in less extreme winter weather, snowplow operators gain assurance of their lane location using the system.

The driver assist system displays a white box on the screen when an obstacle, or in this case a mailbox, is located. If the object appears in the lane, such as a car stuck in a snow drift, the box turns red and gets bigger as the snowplow gets closer to the object. (Photo courtesy of MnDOT District 7)
The driver assist system displays a white box on the screen when an obstacle, or in this case a mailbox, is located. If the object appears in the lane, such as a car stuck in a snow drift, the box turns red and gets bigger as the snowplow gets closer to the object. (Photo courtesy of MnDOT District 7)

The DAS was developed and refined over the past 20 years under multiple research projects funded by MnDOT and the USDOT’s University Transportation Center program. Professor Max Donath, director of the University of Minnesota’s Roadway Safety Institute, led the work. In addition to plows, the DAS technology has also been applied in other specialty vehicles such as patrol cars and ambulances. Numerous vehicles using the system have been deployed in both Minnesota and Alaska.

The DAS uses GPS technology and a front-mounted radar to provide an image of the road and any obstacles in front of the operator. The image is displayed on a monitor inside the cab of the plow. The system also vibrates the operator’s seat as a warning if the plow veers too close to the roadway’s centerline or fog line.

“If the driver gets within one foot of the fog line on the right side, the right side of the seat vibrates. If the driver gets too close to the centerline on the left side, the left side vibrates,” said Fester.

The vibrations continue until the driver moves back into the center of the lane. The driver can also turn off the warning feature to clear snow from the shoulder.

The DAS is currently installed in one truck in District 7. The $75,000 cost makes it difficult to install in every truck in the district or the state, although having at least one system in every district may be possible, Fester said.

Fester said the system proved its worth one day in February when blizzard conditions caused zero visibility and forced many road closures in southwest Minnesota. He was called out at 2 a.m. Feb. 8 to assist a stranded state trooper and several motorists on a 12-mile stretch of Hwy 60 between Windom and Heron Lake. Fester drove a pickup behind the DAS-equipped snowplow, driven by Darryl Oeltjenbruns, to reach them.

As the DAS identified stranded vehicles on the way to Heron Lake, Fester and Oeltjenbruns checked to make sure they weren’t occupied with people. Once they made it to Heron Lake, they stopped at the community center, where the state trooper and the stranded motorists he brought in were located.

On the way back to Windom, Fester and the state patrolman continued to check on stranded vehicles as the DAS-equipped snowplow led the way. If the vehicles weren’t in the ditch, motorists drove behind the two MnDOT vehicles. If their vehicles were in the ditch, motorists rode in a Suburban that was also being escorted to Windom. After returning to Windom, the motorists were dropped off at motels or truck stops.

“When we first went out, there were about six stranded vehicles. Coming back from Heron Lake, there were about 15,” Fester said. “At one time, we had 12 vehicles in line as we drove back to Windom, driving about 10 to 15 miles per hour.”

Later that morning the DAS system was used again to locate other motorists.

“We continued to use it until about 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. that day,” Fester said. “The system worked great and kept everyone safe. It was an interesting morning.”

(Reprinted and adapted with permission from an article by Sue Roe in MnDOT’s Feb. 17, 2016 Newsline.)

Willow shrubs could be next great Minnesota snow fence

The benefits of living snow fences and other snow control tools to keep roadways clear of blowing and drifting snow have been known for decades, and MnDOT has been using a variety of these techniques for years to catch  snow before it gets to a road.

Living snow fences often consist of trees, grasses and even corn stalks left standing in a farmer’s field.  Now willow shrubs are being added to the list as a fast-growing, inexpensive snow control measure.

What’s new

WillowSeptember
Fish Creek willow shrubs (left) grow alongside corn in September 2015.

Researchers recently completed a study that investigated whether willow shrubs could make good living snow fences. While typical snow-fence plants, such as dogwood or cranberry shrubs, can take five to 20 years to establish themselves, shrub willows were effective at trapping snow after just two growing seasons, according to the study.

In spring 2013, researchers installed three varieties of shrub willow side-by-side in two-row and four-row configurations along about a quarter of a mile of Highway 14 in Waseca, where snow drifts are an issue. In April 2014, they cut the shrubs down to the ground  to encourage branching and bush density. Though the trimmed willows had little impact on drifting snow the first winter, each willow-shrub plot was collecting two to three metric tons of snow by the second winter, according to the research report. Researchers believe that after three or four growing seasons the willow shrubs could catch the entire mean annual snowfall on the site.

In the four-row configuration recommended by researchers, costs of raising, furnishing, planting and mulching came to about $3.60 per plant, which is dramatically less than the contract bid cost for traditional living snow fence species that cost more than $50 per plant. In addition, the willow shrubs could be harvested and sold as biomass every few years to provide an income source.

Past research

Willow trees is just the latest advancement in the state’s snow control program. A 2012 research project evaluated the costs and benefits of living snow fences and provided MnDOT with a payment calculator to determine how much to compensate landowners for installation and maintenance costs.

A recent research implementation project created a mobile-friendly Web version of the payment calculator tool.  The website also contains a tool for designing a own snow fence.

MnDOT has used these tools and other promotional efforts to nearly double the number of farmers with contracts for corn rows enrolled in the Living Snow Fences program.

What’s next

The willow species recommended by researchers will be evaluated further in 2017 when they install it as a living snow fence on a new construction site on Highway 60 between Windom and Mountain Lake. Researchers also recommend a future study to compare volume of road salt use before and after installation. They also want to look into identifying appropriate buffer distances to keep willow roots from interfering with cropland root systems.

Resources

Taking the guesswork out of measuring winter operations

Being able to accurately and reliably estimate traffic conditions during snow events is critical to transportation agencies. Typically, state DOTs use measurements such as “time to bare pavement”—based on the visual inspection of plow drivers—to gauge the progress of snow operations. These estimates are limited, however, by the subjectivity and inconsistency of human-based measurements.

Now, new research sponsored by the MnDOT and led by University of Minnesota Duluth civil engineering professor Eil Kwon aims to take the guesswork out of assessing traffic conditions during winter weather events.

“Dr. Kwon’s research on a new approach to snow and ice performance reporting is exciting,” says Steve Lund, state maintenance engineer and director of the Office of Maintenance at MnDOT. “For quite a few years, MnDOT snowfighters have been reporting their performance through a visual review of the roadway conditions. Our snowfighters have a tough job—automating the performance reporting will remove that task from their duties. Also, looking at traffic returning to a ‘normal’ condition is truly the ultimate goal or outcome measure, and where we want to go.”

In the first phase of this project, researchers developed a prototype process that uses data on traffic speed, flow, and density collected by loop detectors in the Twin Cities metro area to estimate the point at which traffic patterns return to normal—an indicator that the roadway surface has “recovered.” In the newly published second phase, researchers further analyzed the traffic flow patterns during snow events under normal and snow conditions and refined the earlier prototype into a traffic-data-based measurement process for snow operations.

“We found that by comparing the variation patterns in traffic flow during a snow event with those during normal weather conditions, we could successfully identify the recovery status of the traffic flow at a given location,” Kwon says.

Based on their findings, the researchers developed a new process to identify the Normal Condition Regain Time (NCRT)—as an alternative to the traditional “time to bare pavement” measurement used to gauge the progress of maintenance operations during a winter weather event.

One advantage of the new process is that it can reflect how road surface conditions affect traffic flow differently during day and night periods. “Nighttime traffic flow patterns are substantially different from those during daytime periods,” Kwon says. “We identified normal traffic patterns separately for daytime and nighttime conditions to account for these differences in estimating the recovery status.”

Future research plans include the development of an operational version of the NCRT estimation system that can be used on a daily basis to analyze and improve snow operations, and the creation of an online version that can be used for coordinating snow operations in real time.

“There is a lot of potential to use these findings to make snow operations even more effective and efficient,” Kwon says. “For example, the analysis of the relationship between the NCRT measures and operational strategies such as plowing start time and methods could help further refine MnDOT’s winter maintenance strategies.”

For more information, download the technical summary (PDF) or the project’s final report.

Video Demonstration: Robotic Message Painter Prototype

In the above video, University of Minnesota-Duluth Associate Professor Ryan Rosandich tests a prototype of a robotic arm he developed to paint messages and markings on roadways. He calls the machine “The MnDOT Robot.”

During a test run in October 2015, the MnDOT robot painted a right-turn arrow and the word “ahead” on pavement at MnDOT’s Pike Lake station in Duluth.

Rosandich hopes commercial companies will show an interest in further developing his proof-of-concept technology into something that road authorities can use regularly to make work easier, faster and safer for their employees.

Companies interested in commercializing this technology can contact Andrew Morrow at amorrow@umn.edu.

Editor’s Note: The paint used in the above demonstration was diluted due to the cold weather at the time of the demonstration and does not reflect the condition of the paint expected in a typical application.

Road Surface Monitors Could Help Reduce Salt Usage

MnDOT is testing a mobile road condition monitor that uses infrared technology to detect hazardous ice, snow or wet conditions without even touching the pavement.

Maintenance crews hope the device, called the High Sierra Surface Sentinel, could help them better determine when it’s time to apply salt when they’re plowing. The mobile sensor reports air temperature, surface temperature and road friction data.

“The biggest reason we’re looking at this is for the friction reading,” said MnDOT Salt Solutions Coordinator Joe Huneke. “Typically, when operators are patrolling their route and the road looks like it’s getting icy, they’ll err on the side of caution and apply salt — and it may not need it.”

The device being tested by snow and ice crews in northern Minnesota would also provide real-time surface weather conditions. Currently, plow operators and supervisors must enter road conditions into a computer or relay them by phone, a time-consuming process that operators are not always able to perform in a timely manner.

The biggest potential benefit, however, is lower salt consumption.

“Sometimes you get a light cold snow event where it might look like there’s a little ice on the road, but, in fact, you have good friction numbers and you don’t need salt. Once you put chemical down, you’re committed to it,” Huneke said.

District 1 snow and ice crews are evaluating the unit pictured below for its accuracy and effectiveness in determining slippery conditions. It will be compared with another device tested in District 3 that also uses infrared technology to determine how slippery the road is, and technology being tested in District 6 that uses gravitational force to determine the road surface friction.

MnDOT it testing a mobile surface condition sensor that provides real-time surface weather condition of roadways.
MnDOT it testing this mobile road condition sensor, which provides real-time surface weather condition of roadways.

Related Research

MnDOT’s Office of Maintenance has its own research program designed to let maintenance personnel test innovative ideas to keep our roads smooth, snow-free and safe. They even put out a monthly bulletin featuring new ideas and technologies. (You can find the back issues here.)

Other winter maintenance research projects are featured in MnDOT’s 2011-2013 Maintenance Operations Research Report  (PDF, 9 MB, 98 pages)

MnDOT Plow Drivers Invent New, Hybrid Plow Design

If the plow pictured above looks like two different plows welded together, it’s because they are.

Minnesota Department of Transportation snow plow operators in southwestern Minnesota have invented an experimental plow that uses the wind to cast snow from the road without impeding traffic or the operator’s view.

Manufactured for MnDOT by Fall Plows, the plow incorporates half of a traditional bull-dozer style plow with half of a Batwing-style plow.  It eliminates the large “ear” on the driver’s side of a Batwing style plow that can stick out into oncoming traffic during center-line snow removal.

Half of the reversible batwing-style plow, pictured at left, was combined with half of the reversible bulldozer-style plow, pictured at right.
Half of the reversible batwing-style plow, pictured at left, was combined with half of the reversible bulldozer-style plow, at right.

District 8 Willmar Maintenance Supervisor Dennis Marty said he was looking for a reversible-style plow that could be used in the heavy winds and reduced visibility from blowing snow that are prevalent in western Minnesota.

When drivers are plowing against a northwest wind in rural Minnesota, the snow coming out of the chute will sweep across the truck and blind drivers, so operators needed a plow with a reversible system so they could throw the snow with the wind.

While an express plow with chutes on both ends (batwing-style), pictured above at left, was great for throwing snow to the right, when snow plow drivers took it down narrow two-lane roads, the plow stuck 2.5 feet into the oncoming lane and its big barrel partially blocked the headlights and the operator’s view.

So operators tried a regular one-way plow (pictured below), which resembles a funnel laid on it side, and put it on a reversible system that would allow operators to turn the plow both directions, so it could throw snow to the right or the left. However, this plow couldn’t blow snow high enough to the left, so snow piled in the left traffic lane.

One-way reversible plow.
One-way reversible plow.

Marty said he spent four to five years looking for a plow that combined the batwing and bull-dozer designs, but he couldn’t find anything sturdy and maintenance-free enough. Finally, he and Maintenance Research Program Administrator Ryan Otte sat down with Falls Plows in Little Falls, Minnesota and asked the company to build one.

The plow will be useful on low-volume roads that have little traffic during the middle of the night, which allows plow operators to cast the snow with the wind.

The Willmar office began using the experimental plow last winter and will be replacing all of its plows with it. Snow plow drivers from other areas of the state have been so impressed that at least two other maintenance districts have also ordered them.

Related Research

MnDOT’s Office of Maintenance has its own research program designed to let maintenance personnel test innovative ideas to keep our roads smooth, snow-free and safe. They even put out a monthly bulletin featuring new ideas and technologies. (You can find the back issues here.)

Other winter maintenance research projects are featured in MnDOT’s 2011-2013 Maintenance Operations Research Report  (PDF, 9 MB, 98 pages)