Category Archives: Policy and Planning

U of M provides freeway ‘lid’ expertise for Rethinking I-94 project

MnDOT is exploring the development of freeway “lids” at key locations on I-94 in the Twin Cities. To analyze the potential for private-sector investment and determine what steps might be needed to make lid projects a reality, MnDOT invited the Urban Land Institute (ULI) MN to conduct a Technical Assistance Panel with real estate experts and other specialists. The U’s Metropolitan Design Center (MDC) provided background and research for the panel.

A lid, also known as a cap or land bridge, is a structure built over a freeway trench to connect areas on either side. Lids may also support green space and development above the roadway and along adjacent embankments. Although lidding is not a new concept, it is gaining national attention as a way to restore communities damaged when freeways were first built in the 1960s.

According to MnDOT, roughly half of the 145 bridges on I-94 between the east side of Saint Paul and the north side of Minneapolis need work within the next 15 years. A shorter window applies in the area around the capitol to as far west as MN-280. In anticipation of the effort to rebuild so much infrastructure, the department wanted a deeper understanding of how attractive freeway lids and their surrounding areas would be to private developers and whether the investment they would attract would generate sufficient revenue to pay for them.

The three-day panel session was designed to consider the I-94 corridor and study three specific areas: the I-35W/Minneapolis Central Business District, historic Rondo Avenue in Saint Paul, and Fairview Park in North Minneapolis. It also included a “lightning round” for high-level observations of five other sites.

Mic Johnson, senior fellow with MDC, provided background about lidding and shared successful examples from around the country at the panel kick-off dinner. MDC has analyzed a wide range of freeway lid structures and identified seven basic lid typologies. “These typologies provide broad thematic guidance for thinking about what features best serve a location,” Johnson says.

The briefing book provided to panelists included detailed research by MDC about the economic opportunities of the area’s freeway lids. MDC also created four appendices (projects, case studies, prototypical lid diagrams, and health and economic value) for the panel final report.

MDC has been involved in lid-related activities for several years. Students participating in an Urban Design Studio course in fall 2013 taught by Johnson conducted an extensive analysis of the I-35W/Minneapolis area and created an architectural model of a lid connecting the U of M’s West Bank to Downtown East. Their model was displayed at the IDS Center.

MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle requested that ULI MN convene the panel as part of the larger “Rethinking I-94” project, which is developing a vision for the corridor through a comprehensive public involvement process. “Lid projects are one way being considered that could reconnect neighborhoods such as Rondo that were divided by freeways in the 1960s,” Zelle says. The Rondo neighborhood was also featured in the USDOT’s Every Place Counts Design Challenge in July.

As part of its report to MnDOT, the panel concluded that private-sector development would not pay for the lids directly, but lids would create development interest that could generate significant long-term revenue to pay for lid maintenance, programming, and other amenities.

To build momentum and create an identity for lid projects, the panel also recommended that the area’s lids be considered as a whole under a single banner, not as separate projects, as part of a rebranded vision called the Healthy Communities Initiative. The final report is available on the ULI MN website.

(Adapted from the ULI MN report: Healthy Communities Initiative, Nov. 2016.)

Minnesota Partners with Neighboring States to Improve Traveler Information

Interstates 90 and 94 between Wisconsin and the state of Washington are major corridors for commercial and recreational travel. Extreme winter weather conditions, prevalent in the northern states within this corridor, pose significant operational and travel-related challenges. Recognizing the value of coordinated, cross-border collaboration for ITS deployment, Minnesota spearheaded the development of a transportation pooled fund study, called North/West Passage, in 2003.

The eight states – Minnesota, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming – involved in the study are predominantly rural and face similar transportation issues related to traffic management, traveler information and commercial vehicle operations. They developed an ITS Integrated Work Plan and have completed nine work plans containing 50 projects.

North West Passage Traveler Information Website (roadstosafediscovery.com), the group’s hallmark project, offers travel information for I-90 and I-94 in a single interactive map. In addition to checking weather conditions, road closures and temporary truck restrictions, motorists can find the location of gas stops, rest areas and parks.

The states are currently evaluating a program that allows citizens to report driving conditions so that they can be included in traveler information reporting (a pilot is underway with MnDOT’s 511 system), and another project is comparing winter maintenance practices between corridor states.

“The biggest benefit of this pooled fund study is that it allows MnDOT to see what its neighbors are doing when developing solutions for operational issues. This awareness really helps us make better decisions about our projects at the state level,” said Cory Johnson, Traffic Research Director, MnDOT Office of Traffic, Safety and Technology.

Other major accomplishments:

  • North and South Dakota 511 callers can select to receive information on Minnesota’s highways.
  • An online portal for coordination of traffic management center operations, including guidelines, maps and contact information to manage major events across states.
  • Development of one proposal to hire a contractor to perform work in two states.
A map of possible routes from Milwaukee going west past North Dakota, with boxes the user can check to show Road Work, Weather Alerts, Road Conditions, and other features of the route.
Eight states maintain the North West Passage Traveler Information Website, which shows real-time travel information between Wisconsin and Washington along Interstates 90 and 94. A mobile app is under development.

For more than 30 years, the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA’s) Transportation Pooled Fund (TPF) Program has been providing state departments of transportation and other organizations the opportunity to collaborate in solving transportation-related problems. The TPF Program is focused on leveraging limited funds, avoiding duplication of effort, undertaking large-scale projects and achieving broader dissemination of results on issues of regional and national interest.

Protecting Bees & Butterflies With Right-of-Way

Bees, butterflies and other pollinators busily work on our behalf to help our crops and wild plant life reproduce. Most plants cannot produce fruits and seeds without the aid of these little bugs.

MnDOT is taking steps to ensure that the habitat these creatures depend on gets the protection it needs.

In addition to recently signing an agreement with five other state DOTs to improve pollinator habitat along Interstate 35, a key migratory corridor for Monarch butterflies, MnDOT has just completed a review of other state and local government practices to identify more opportunities to use existing right-of-way to protect pollinators.

“State roadways have acres and acres of habitat ideal for pollinators,” said MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle, during the announcement about the I-35 initiative. “With some careful planning, we can ensure that Monarch butterflies and other creatures that pollinate are able to thrive, which ultimately benefits our food sources and us.”

New Opportunities for Protecting Pollinators

A Transportation Research Synthesis (TRS) released this week underscores MnDOT’s commitment to maintaining roadside habitat for pollinators.

MnDOT set out to learn about the experiences of other state departments of transportation and local agencies in maintaining pollinator landscapes on highway rights of way through partnerships with individuals, groups or local agencies.

Results of the literature review are supplemented with findings from a survey of selected state DOTs and Minnesota counties. Nine state DOTs describe current practices or plans to develop new pollinator-specific partnerships; existing partnerships that have been expanded to address pollinators; and Adopt-a-Highway programs that support maintenance of vegetation in the right of way.

The Transportation Research Synthesis (TRS) may lead to enhancements to MnDOT’s existing practices or the development of a new pollinator-specific partnership program.

While MnDOT does not have a community partnership that focuses solely on promoting pollinator habitat, its Community Roadside Landscape Partnership Program allows Minnesota communities to partner with MnDOT to establish and maintain landscaping in the ROW along highways that traverse their communities, and these landscaping treatments may benefit pollinators.

MnDOT has also partnered with the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to establish more than 20 native seed mixes for use on Minnesota roadsides. MnDOT’s online PlantSelector tool includes a seed mix tab to help designers and novices select the right seed for the right place.

Learn more:

MnPASS extension on I-35E shaped by U of M study

Based in part on a planning study conducted by U of M researchers at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, MnDOT is extending MnPASS Express Lanes on Interstate 35E in the northeast Twin Cities. The extension will build on the project currently adding MnPASS lanes from Cayuga Street to Little Canada Road.

The study, funded by MnDOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), examined the feasibility of extending these MnPASS lanes from Little Canada Road north to County Road 96. During peak periods, MnPASS lanes provide a congestion-free option to transit vehicles, carpools, and motorcycles at no cost—and to single-occupant vehicles for a fee.

Led by Director Lee Munnich and Associate Director Frank Douma of the Humphrey School’s State and Local Policy Program, the U of M research team worked with Parsons Brinckerhoff to develop and evaluate several concepts for the MnPASS extension. The goal was to provide an option that reduced congestion for all users, including drivers in the general-purpose traffic lanes and transit users. The team also included Mary Vogel from the U’s Center for Changing Landscapes.

The primary challenge was how to handle MnPASS traffic through the recently reconstructed I-694/I-35E interchange. After going over several design options, the team recommended what it termed a “hybrid” option, which creates a continuous southbound MnPASS lane and a discontinuous northbound MnPASS lane through the interchange.

Researchers also engaged community stakeholders and corridor users to gather feedback about the proposed alternatives and worked to illustrate options that could facilitate greater transit, carpool, and vanpool use in communities along this section of I-35E.

Additional recommendations developed by the team—in partnership with representatives from MnDOT, the FHWA, and the Metropolitan Council—included continuing to educate community motorists about the MnPASS program as well as expanding transit options by creating more park-and-ride sites, encouraging mixed land uses, and building better walking and biking connections.

Based on these recommendations, MnDOT is moving forward with the hybrid option for the project, says Brad Larsen, director of the MnPASS Policy and Planning Program. MnPASS lanes will be added to southbound I-35E between County Road 96 and Little Canada Road; through the I-35E/I-694 commons area, the existing inside lane will be designated as a MnPASS lane during peak periods. There will be no MnPASS lane northbound through the commons area, but a lane will be added north of the interchange from County Road E to County Road J.

Construction on the extension project is expected to begin in March 2016, with the lanes slated to open in late 2016.

More information:

(Featured photo courtesy of David Gonzalez, MnDOT.)

Bike, pedestrian counting efforts engage local agencies statewide

Across Minnesota, local agencies need better information about where and how many people are biking and walking to make decisions about infrastructure investments, understand safety risks, and even plan active living initiatives.

To help provide agencies with bicycle and pedestrian traffic data, U of M researchers have been working with MnDOT on the Minnesota Bicycle and Pedestrian Counting Initiative since 2010. The initiative is a collaborative, statewide effort to support bike and pedestrian traffic monitoring by local, regional, and state organizations.

Recently, the project team completed an implementation study—the second of three MnDOT-funded projects related to the initiative—specifically designed to engage local agencies. The goal was to demonstrate the feasibility of using both permanent and portable sensors to collect bicycle and pedestrian traffic data in several Minnesota cities, suburbs, and small towns.

“If we want to institutionalize counting and monitoring across the state, local agencies need to know it’s not something that’s only important for large cities like Minneapolis,” says principal investigator Greg Lindsey, professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and current MnDOT scholar-in-residence. “We have to be on the ground in these places, illustrating that it’s relevant to the decisions they’re making.”

To that end, the team installed commercially available sensors—including inductive loops, passive infrared, pneumatic tubes, and radio beams—to collect traffic counts in several Minnesota cities. Overall findings indicate that all of the sensors produced reasonably accurate measurements—and that participating agencies found value in the collected data.

Findings and case studies from the study have already been incorporated into the draft Bicycle and Pedestrian Data Collection Manual, a new MnDOT guidance document being used in statewide training workshops. Also as a result of the study, MnDOT plans to include commitments to bike and pedestrian traffic monitoring in its forthcoming statewide bicycle and pedestrian plans. In addition, MnDOT is investing in a network of permanent traffic monitoring sites around the state as well as in portable equipment that will be available to local agencies.

Read the full article in the September issue of Catalyst.

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:

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.

Travel behavior study shows drivers are spending less time traveling

Something unprecedented has happened to Americans’ travel patterns. Even before the recent recession, total distance traveled per person had started to decline, and the rate of total vehicle travel had begun to steadily decrease as well.

In a new five-part series of research reports sponsored by MnDOT and the Metropolitan Council, University of Minnesota researchers are delving into a set of rich data encompassing more than four decades of travel behavior surveys to enable the region’s transportation planners to better understand how its residents make decisions about whether, when, where, and why to travel.

In the first study, researchers examined how changes in the accessibility of destinations—such as jobs, shopping, and leisure activities—have changed travel behavior in the past 20 years.

“We started with a detailed analysis of travel surveys conducted by the Metropolitan Council in 1990, 2000, and 2010,” says David Levinson, the study’s principal investigator and RP Braun/CTS Chair in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering. “We found that people are spending slightly less time in motion and more time at home. We also found that accessibility is a significant factor in determining not only travel behavior but overall time budgeting in general. In short, each person has to decide how they will use the time allotted to them each day, and many of those decisions are directly related to the transportation and land-use systems in place.”

A deeper look into the data sheds additional light on the relationship between accessibility and travel behavior. For example, trip durations for workers have gone up for all activities between 1990 and 2010. More noticeably, distances for trips have increased markedly: workers take jobs farther from their homes and shop farther from their homes. Travel speeds also increased for the average worker, due to more travel on faster suburban roadways that carry a larger share of all travel. In contrast, for non-workers, trip durations and overall travel time have gone down.

“Interestingly, although time, distance, and speed per trip has generally risen for workers, the number of those trips is declining,” Levinson says. “As a result, overall, fewer miles are being traveled and less time is being allocated to travel.”

Total time spent shopping also decreased for workers and for males, likely caused in part by an increase in online commerce. “The Internet has provided electronic accessibility, much as the transportation network has in the material world,” Levinson explains. “It helps to facilitate commerce, communication, education, and leisure. This may lead to a decreased need for people to travel, and account for more time spent at home.”

Jonathan Ehrlich, planning analyst with the Metropolitan Council, says the research “helps us get more value from our travel surveys and will aid in understanding how travel is changing, and what the risks are in the assumptions and models we use for planning and forecasting.”

The findings will prove useful not just for Twin Cities transportation planners but for planners and engineers worldwide. “Our models can be easily adapted to data from other cities or for other activities besides work,” Levinson says. “This creates an approach that can be used to gauge the impact of a transportation project from an accessibility standpoint and determine how that project will translate into time allocation.”

Other parts of the study will look at changes in telecommuting behavior over time, the effect of transit quality of service on people’s activity choices and time allocation, changes in travel behavior by age cohort, and analysis of bicycling and walking in light of land-use and transportation system changes.

Crossroads will feature coverage of these projects as they are completed.

Study reveals how Minnesota industries rely on transportation

Results of a newly released MnDOT research report shed new light on the role transportation plays in our state’s economic competitiveness, and highlight the unique challenges faced by some of the state’s major industry clusters.

The report, authored by Professor Lee Munnich of the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, underscores the importance of a reliable transportation system in facilitating economic growth. Munnich examined the impact of transportation on Minnesota’s competitive industry clusters — geographically concentrated, interconnected groups of companies and institutions that share knowledge networks, supply chains and specialized labor pools.

MnDOT Research Project Engineer Bruce Holdhusen said MnDOT’s goal with the study was to discover how its investment decisions could help support job creation and economic prosperity.

“The idea is to look at the companies and industries that are already bringing money into the state, figure out what their transportation challenges are, and then use that information to see what kind of investments we could make to support their continued growth,” Holdhusen said.

MnDOT is incorporating the results of the study into its statewide freight planning. The industry clusters-approach also is being used by MnDOT in a statewide effort to talk with manufacturers, other shippers, and carriers about their transportation priorities and challenges.  MnDOT will focus on its Metro District starting this summer.  Two similar projects have been undertaken in Greater Minnesota, with a third study starting later this year. (Results from one study, in southwest Minnesota/District 8, are available online.)

The full report is available online, and examines a wide range of industries, including forest products, medical devices, robotics and processed foods. We’ve pulled out a few interesting tidbits below.

Recreational Vehicles (Northwest Minnesota)

A semi truck driving on a snowy highway.
Minnesota winters are great for snowmobiling, but not always great for shipping snowmobiles. (Photo by Dave Gonzalez, MnDOT)

As noted in the report, Minnesota’s extreme winter weather poses unique challenges to its economic competitiveness. Ironically, nowhere is this more evident than in the state’s snowmobile-producing northwest corner.

Polaris and Arctic Cat (together with smaller, more specialized firms like Mattracks) employ thousands of Minnesotans, producing a wide variety of recreational vehicles and accessories that are sold and distributed all over the world. While the companies’ snowmobiles might fare well in a blizzard, the trucks that deliver them don’t. A bad snowstorm can cause delays in both supply and product shipments; it can also prevent employees from getting to work, or even shut down a plant altogether. On a larger scale, these issues make it difficult for the companies to expand at their ideal rates.

The report notes that MnDOT’s 511 system is an important source for many companies to identify and respond to potential shipping delays. It recommends continuous improvements to the system.

The Mayo Clinic (Rochester Area)

Metal FedEx containers at an airport.
Air carriers like FedEx have limited capacity for refrigerated shipments, which creates challenges for shipping medical lab samples. (Photo by Dave Gonzalez, MnDOT)

The Mayo Clinic has become synonymous with the Rochester metropolitan area, and for good reason: it employs 37,000 residents and brings in 500,000 unique patients each year from all 50 U.S. states and 150 countries. As you might imagine, generating that much activity in a community of only 110,000 people creates some unique and significant transportation challenges.

Unlike most competitor institutions (Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, for example), the Mayo clinic is located in a relatively small metropolitan area. The local airport has an older navigation system and offers less direct commercial air service. As a result, it depends on high-quality transit and freight service to help accommodate the constant flow of visitors and supplies. The shipping of highly perishable lab samples is also a challenge, as air carriers have limited capacity for refrigeration. Finally, adverse weather conditions can affect emergency services dispatchers’ ability to send fast modes of transportation such as helicopters.

Hospitality and Tourism (Brainerd Lakes Area)

Boats docked on a lake at dawn.
Lakeside resorts a great way to enjoy Minnesota’s scenic beauty — but getting there can be a challenge. (Photo by Dave Gonzalez, MnDOT)

The oil boom in North Dakota has generated a lot of wealth in a short amount of time, and resorts like the Grand View Lodge in Nisswa would love to capture some of it by enticing new vacationers from the west. The trouble is, the area is inconvenient to reach from that direction.

A four-lane highway makes it easy for visitors from St. Cloud or the Twin Cities to visit resorts in the Brainerd area, but travelers coming from the Dakotas face a more circuitous route. Air travel options help to an extent, as visitors from even farther distances can fly into Fargo and then drive in from there. St. Cloud also has daily air service from Chicago, which helps maintain a constant flow of visitors.

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PedalMN Bicycle Conference Seeks Presenters

The 2015 PedalMN Bicycle Conference will be held in Minneapolis May 4-5, 2015.  The conference theme is “Building a Bike Friendly State.”

The conference sponsors invite individuals, communities and partnerships to share stories of how they are building better places to bike through planning, policies, infrastructure, events and strategic funding.

For more details or to submit a presentation idea, visit  https://survey.vovici.com/se.ashx?s=56206EE369B6F330.

Proposals are due Monday, Dec. 1, 2014

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