Category Archives: Policy and Planning

Developing a Uniform Process for Quantifying Research Benefits

Researchers worked with MnDOT technical experts to develop a method for identifying the financial and other benefits of MnDOT research projects. They developed a seven-step process for quantifying benefits and applied the process to 11 recent MnDOT research projects. Results showed that these projects were yielding significant financial benefits.

“We have very high expectations for the research dollars we spend,” said Hafiz Munir, Research Management Engineer. “MnDOT Research Services & Library. Following this project, we now ask investigators to tell us upfront what benefits their research could achieve, and we have improved our internal process for tracking and assessing the quantifiable benefits.”

“A lack of before-research data on the transportation activities being studied may be the biggest challenge to quantifying the benefits of research on Minnesota transportation needs. Other states are also trying to do this, but they use informal or ad hoc processes,” said Howard Preston, Senior Transportation Engineer, CH2M Hill.

What Was the Need?

MnDOT Research Services & Library manages more than $10 million in research each year, with 230 active projects covering everything transportation-related — from subgrade soils to driver psychology. Communicating the value of these research investments is an important component of transparency in government, a core interest in Minnesota.

Quantifying the benefits of research projects that lead to innovations such as new and improved materials, methods and specifications is important to MnDOT and its customers. However, because MnDOT conducts such a wide variety of research projects, it is challenging to assess the benefits that will, when applied in practice, result in quantifiable savings of time, materials or labor, or that will lead to safer roads and fewer traffic crashes.

What Was Our Goal?

MnDOT undertook this project to develop a more systematic method for identifying and measuring the financial and other benefits of its research in relation to the costs. The goal was to develop an accessible, easily applicable process that could be pilot-tested on a selection of MnDOT research projects from recent years.

What Did We Do?

MnDOT provided researchers with documents about benefits quantification practices to review and with the results of a survey of state departments of transportation on their approaches to quantifying research benefits. This review identified few states that had developed formal guidelines for assessing research benefits, and none were easily applicable to MnDOT procedures.

After reviewing the findings and consulting with MnDOT technical experts, investigators recognized that any procedure for quantifying benefits should be rooted in current MnDOT research processes. Researchers worked with a number of MnDOT offices to identify research projects that were suitable for assessing financial and other benefits from research results.

In addition to identifying projects for benefits analysis, investigators and MnDOT identified categories of benefits and developed a seven-step process for gathering and organizing cost data for various project types, applying a benefits assessment process and comparing benefits to research cost.

What Did We Learn?

The research team performed benefit-cost assessments for 11 projects. Six of the assessments had high confidence levels. One challenge in developing a uniform process included refining the complex range of cost input categories, input data options and research objectives associated with the research projects. Assembling and organizing before-research data, even for fairly simple maintenance activities, proved particularly challenging and impeded the development of benefits assessment processes.

Investigators developed a user guide, a training presentation and a quantification tool — a complex set of spreadsheets for inputting data and calculating comparative benefits. The quantification tool should eventually develop into a user-friendly software package or Web interface.

SAFL baffle
The SAFL baffle was developed in a MnDOT research project for $257,000. Researchers determined that its use across Minnesota would save taxpayers $8.5 million over three years.

Based on the analysis of cost and savings data, the 11 research projects showed significant benefits. In one 2012 project, investigators developed an inexpensive baffle that is inserted into stormwater sumps and slows the flow of water in and out, allowing more contaminated sediment to settle rather than being carried into streams and lakes. Re-search to develop the baffle, at the University of Minnesota St. Anthony Falls Laboratory (SAFL), cost $257,000. The cost to purchase and install the baffle is about $4,000 in Minnesota compared to $25,000 for more traditional stormwater mitigation solutions. Use of SAFL baffles in Minnesota is projected to save the state about $8.5 million in equipment, installation and environmental costs over a three-year period.

In total, the research cost of $1.98 million for the 11 projects analyzed is expected to save an estimated $68.6 million for MnDOT and Minnesota cities and counties over a three-year period, for a benefit-to-cost ratio of about 34-to-1. The expected savings will be enough to pay for the research budget for six or seven years.

What’s Next?

MnDOT has added quantification-of-benefits elements to its research proposal evaluation process, and since late 2015 has asked potential principal investigators to supply information on the current costs of the activities they propose to study and improve.

Since 2016, research project awards have included a request that investigators develop quantifiable data resulting from their research activity. The awards offer additional funds for that work. Investigators now provide a brief memorandum within the first 90 days of the project describing how they will quantify benefits, and in some cases presenting preliminary data. At the end of the project, these investigators describe their quantification process and results. MnDOT has tracked this information in a database, finding that about three out of every four projects show potential to yield quantifiable benefits.


This post pertains to Report 2017-13, “Development of a Process for Quantifying the Benefits of Research,” published July 2017. 

New Project: Creating a Tool to Estimate Bridge Construction Time and Costs

MnDOT recently executed a contract with WSB & Associates Inc. to begin work on a research project titled “Bridge Construction Time and Costs.”

The research project will help the State of Minnesota’s Bridge Office develop a guidance document and a tool for bridge construction time estimation to be used by MnDOT District project managers and construction staff. The tool will provide a range of production rates based on specific design criteria, being more concise based on the level of information available and will aid in evaluating the potential benefit for accelerated bridge construction (ABC) techniques.

“This research will enable District project managers, who may not have bridge knowledge or background, to complete project planning and scoping more effectively,” said Paul Johns of MnDOT’s Office of Construction and Innovative Contracting.

Mike Rief of WSB & Associates will serve as the project’s principal investigator. Johns will serve as technical liaison.

According to the initial work plan, the project is scheduled to be completed by early March 2018, and WSB & Associates will complete the following tasks:

  1. Conduct an existing practices literature review of current departments of transportation processes around the United States for bridge time and cost estimation.
  2. Review and compile actual case study bridge construction production rates and cost data for major bridge components from state-provided diaries, schedules and bridge plans.
  3. Evaluate and select the best software format and style for a bridge construction time estimation tool. Load state case study production rate data into estimation tool and run validation using bridges currently under construction.
  4. Produce a research report summarizing the literature review on best practices. Produce a user guide for bridge time estimation tool and training presentation.
  5. An optional task, if the budget allows, will include the development of a cost estimating tool. Cost estimation data would be gathered from the literature review and case study analysis during the development of bridge construction time estimation tool for efficiency.

A Look at Local Bridge Removal Practices and Policies

Many local agencies in Minnesota lack funding to construct and maintain all the bridges in their roadway network. One way to lower costs is to reduce the number of bridges.

In Minnesota, some township bridges are on roads with low usage that have alternative accesses for nearby residents, but local officials are reluctant to remove the bridges.

To identify possible changes to how redundant and low-use bridges are identified and removed in Minnesota, the Local Road Research Board conducted a transportation research synthesis, “Local Bridge Removal Policies and Programs,” that explores how other states make bridge removal decisions.

Fifteen state DOTs responded to a survey about their processes, with varying levels of state oversight identified for bridge removal decisions. Researchers also examined funding and incentives offered by some DOTs to local agencies for bridge removal, as well as criteria for considering bridge removal.

A literature search of bridge design manuals, inspection manuals and bridge programs was also conducted to identify related policies and programs.

Read the TRS to learn more about the various bridge removal policies and procedures in place in Minnesota and other states.

Mobility, labor, and competitiveness drive discussion at annual freight symposium

How does the ability to move freight affect the economic health of a state, region, and even a city? How are the supply chains of businesses impacted by freight flow? And what challenges and opportunities does Minnesota face when it comes to leveraging and strengthening its freight modes?

The 2016 Freight and Logistics Symposium offered a thoughtful examination of those questions and explored other topics related to improved mobility in Minnesota, including congestion, regulation, labor shortages, and the value of all freight modes to the state’s economy.

The event, held December 2, 2016, in Minneapolis, included:

  • A presentation on the power of freight flow data in attracting industry to a location and ways to use data in making a compelling case for businesses to invest
  • A panel Q&A featuring four industry experts from diverse organizations that depend on reliable freight movement
  • A discussion of how the 2016 election results may affect freight transportation

For a full summary of the event, download the 2016 Freight and Logistics Symposium proceedings (PDF).


The symposium was sponsored by CTS in cooperation with MnDOT, the Minnesota Freight Advisory Committee, the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals, the Metropolitan Council, and the Transportation Club of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Transportation spending: How does Minnesota compare with other states?

Transportation funding continues to be a contentious issue in Minnesota: Are we spending enough, too little, too much? One way to help answer that question is to compare spending with other states.

“A simple comparison, however, may not accurately reflect the real level of transportation funding across the states,” says Jerry Zhao, an associate professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “States face different levels of demand and costs due to different geographic, demographic, or labor market conditions.”

To better understand the factors that influence the transportation funding level, Zhao and Professor Wen Wang at Rutgers University developed a cost-adjusted approach to systematically compare highway expenses among states. They found that while Minnesota spends more than average on highways, its spending level actually ranks low in cost-adjusted measures.

“We controlled for the effects of some major cost factors, such as demographics and natural weather conditions, which are outside of the control of state and local officials,” Zhao explains. “We found that natural weather conditions have a significant impact on highway spending—a lower winter temperature is associated with higher highway expenditures.”

The effect of population size isn’t as straightforward: “There is some impact of economy of scale, but only to a certain threshold,” he says. While urban areas have greater complexity, the higher population density is associated with less spending per capita, probably due to spreading the costs across a greater population.

The analysis also found that state and local governments tend to spend less on highways when they are under fiscal stress, and states with a higher gross domestic product (GDP) appeared to spend more on highways per capita. “Essentially, highway investment decisions may be greatly influenced by the economic fluctuations and fiscal stresses faced by a state,” he says.

According to unadjusted 2010 data, Minnesota ranks 8th on highway spending per capita and 18th on its share of statewide highway spending in GDP. “But after adjusting for those factors that are largely out of control by transportation policy, we found that Minnesota’s rankings drop to 37th on highway spending per capita and 41st on the share of highway spending in GDP,” Zhao says. “This suggests that the relatively high level of highway spending in Minnesota is largely driven by the cost factors of demographics and weather conditions.”

“This study confirms what MnDOT has experienced and that transportation financing is more complicated than one would expect,” says Tracy Hatch, MnDOT deputy commissioner. “Not only is Minnesota’s transportation system significantly undercapitalized—there are considerable financial impacts from factors outside of our control.”

The analysis was conducted as part of the U’s Transportation Policy and Economic Competitiveness Program (TPEC). In previous work, TPEC researchers created the Minnesota Transportation Finance Database, which compiles data about Minnesota’s transportation finance and shows the change of transportation spending in Minnesota over time.

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.