Category Archives: Policy and Planning

New Project: Proactive mapping helps MnDOT identify and respond to risk of slope failure along Minnesota highways

Slope failures can block roads, damage pavement and cause safety hazards. They can also be costly to repair.

For example, in June 2012, Carlton County received up to 11 inches of rain—causing flood damage and slope failures along Minnesota Highway 210. Reconstruction cost $21.3 million dollars, using federal and state emergency funds.

A recently funded research implementation project aims to help MnDOT identify areas that are susceptible to geohazards — such as landslides and rock falls— and better equip highway construction project managers to identify and mitigate risk.

A washed out ditch on Highway 169 in Belle Plaine, Minnesota.
The new GIS model identifies and maps slopes of high risk, like this ditch that washed out on Highway 169 in Belle Plaine.

Raul Velasquez, a geomechanics research engineer with MnDOT’s Office of Materials & Road Maintenance, is overseeing the study conducted by WSB & Associates.

The research team is analyzing satellite images to identify areas with geohazards. Geohazards include areas with shallow rock, sinkholes, and soft or sensitive soil. This information will then be added to map layers in Georilla—MnDOT’s internal web map application. Project managers can then pull this information during the scoping and planning phases of a construction project.

“The earlier we know about a risk, the better,” said Velasquez. “That way we can proactively mitigate the risk, or choose a different project location, if needed.”

This project builds on existing MnDOT statewide georisk modeling research. Phase 1 and Phase 2 were completed in 2019 and Phase 3 is expected to be completed by the end of August 2020.

Over the next six months, researchers will map northwest Minnesota (MnDOT District 2). Researchers will also refine and recalibrate existing maps. As slope failures occur, they will evaluate whether the tool accurately predicted the event.

Map of MnDOT District 2
Researchers are currently mapping risk to slope failure in counties in MnDOT District 2.

While geohazard mapping is applied in other industries in Minnesota, this approach is novel among state DOTs. This exciting work can reduce risk of future road closures due to slides and sinkholes, safety hazards to the public, and puts MnDOT in a position of mitigating risk instead of reactively responding to geological emergencies.

“Avoiding high risk areas can help us reduce material loss, improve human safety, and save taxpayer dollars,” said Velasquez.

The research team presented this project at the 2020 Geo-Congress.

To request project updates or learn more, visit MnDOT’s Office of Research & Innovation.

Asset Management Guide Addresses needs of Local Agencies

The Minnesota Local Road Research Board has published a new guidebook to help local agencies get started on developing a consolidated asset management system. The guide addresses the particular needs of smaller groups to effectively and optimally manage their roadways, buildings, vehicles, equipment and other assets.

Continue reading Asset Management Guide Addresses needs of Local Agencies

Implementing CIM in Preliminary Design of Infrastructure

Using an existing county road project as context, researchers examined the digital technologies and processes associated with civil integrated management (CIM). A comparison of CIM with the traditional methods used in the proposed county project demonstrated the advantages of CIM.

Continue reading Implementing CIM in Preliminary Design of Infrastructure

Resources Help Local Agencies Plan for CAV Roadway Needs

In a recently completed project, funded by the Local Road Research Board, researchers developed a reference tool and compiled a literature review that local agencies could use to anticipate the infrastructure needs of connected and automated vehicles. Agencies can use these resources to plan for infrastructure upgrades and maintenance activities.

Continue reading Resources Help Local Agencies Plan for CAV Roadway Needs

Guidebook helps cities and counties choose tools for managing fleets

Managing a fleet of trucks, heavy equipment, and other vehicles challenges road agencies large and small. While large agencies like MnDOT use software and specialized administrators to manage fleet management systems electronically, city and county agencies often do not. For some small agencies, fleet management may fall to a shop mechanic or two.

Continue reading Guidebook helps cities and counties choose tools for managing fleets

New Office, Director to Foster ‘Culture of Innovation’

Katie Walker, Director of the Office of Research & Innovation

Katie Walker, formerly of Hennepin County, was recently named director of MnDOT’s new Office of Research & Innovation (formerly the Research Services & Library section), a role in which Walker will lean on her experience leading organizational change at Hennepin County.

Continue reading New Office, Director to Foster ‘Culture of Innovation’

Study recommends strategies for reducing transportation disparities

Transportation contributes to many broad societal outcomes, such as employment, wealth, and health. Some Minnesotans, however, are underserved by current systems and face disparities and barriers in reaching their destinations. According to new research from the U of M, efforts to improve transportation equity need to focus on societal inequities—such as racial segregation and auto dependency—as well as the transportation barriers that affect specific communities and population groups.

Continue reading Study recommends strategies for reducing transportation disparities

New Project: Extreme Flood Risks to Minnesota Bridges and Culverts

Extreme flooding is a threat to Minnesota’s transportation infrastructure and the safety and economic vitality of its communities. A spate of recent flooding events around the state has demonstrated this and heightened the level of concern. Furthermore, climate change — a factor not traditionally accounted for in the design of the state’s infrastructure — is projected to enhance precipitation and the threat of flooding in coming decades.

Given this, MnDOT is undertaking an effort to better predict the threat flooding poses to its bridges, large culverts and pipes, which may be increasingly called upon to convey higher, more frequent flood flows than they were designed for.

The state transportation research program recently launched a two-year extreme flood vulnerability analysis study, which will develop a methodology for characterizing the vulnerability of the state’s bridges, large culverts, and pipes to flooding.

The effort builds upon the previously completed Flash Flood Vulnerability and Adaptation Assessment Pilot Project (2014), which scored bridges, large culverts, and pipes in MnDOT Districts 1 and 6 for flood vulnerability, allowing detailed assessments of adaptation options for each of their facilities to be prioritized.

This new study, which will be conducted by WSP, aims to develop and test ways to enhance the vulnerability scoring techniques used in the previous study and ensure their applicability throughout the state. Researchers will not actually undertake the statewide assessment, but specify an approach that could be used for it. They will also explore how the outputs of the analysis can be incorporated into MnDOT’s asset management systems. The results of this work will be a clear path forward for MnDOT to use for prioritizing adaptation actions — a key step towards enhancing agency resilience and maintaining good fiscal stewardship.

Project scope

The primary intent of this study is to develop a methodology for characterizing the flood vulnerability of bridges, large culverts, and pipes statewide. As part of the development process, the methodology will be tested on a limited, but diverse, set of assets across the state. Following a successful proof of concept, recommendations will be made on how the outputs (i.e., the vulnerability scores) can be incorporated into the state’s asset management systems.

By determining which facilities are most vulnerable to flooding through the techniques developed on this project, MnDOT can prioritize where adaptation measures will make the biggest impact, ultimately decreasing asset life-cycle and road user costs. Without the development of assessment techniques, adaptation measures run the risk of being implemented in a more reactive and/or ad-hoc fashion, with less regard to where the biggest “bang for the buck” can be realized.

This project will produce several technical memorandums, and is expected to be completed in early 2021.

Roadmap created for rollout of unified OSOW permitting

The second phase is nearing completion for a project aimed at creating a Unified Permitting Process (UPP) for oversize/overweight (OSOW) vehicles in Minnesota. One outcome of this phase is a roadmap that will define steps for future phases, including statewide implementation.

Currently, haulers need to apply for OSOW permits with each individual roadway authority they will travel through. MnDOT, counties, townships, and cities all administer permits for their own roadways—so several different permit applications and processes can be required for a single haul.

“The streamlined permitting process is expected to increase efficiencies for the freight industry, which is good for our economy,” says Clark Moe, systems coordinator with MnDOT’s Operations Division, Office of Maintenance. “It will also enable more effective enforcement and help us preserve the quality of our road network.”

Through the UPP, agencies should have a better idea of what’s happening on their roads, says Rich Sanders, county engineer for Polk County. “Throughout the state, there are a lot of hauls we don’t even know about, let alone if they will use a restricted bridge or road.”

UPP Phases I and II

Phase I of the UPP project examined the feasibility of implementing a permitting platform. Completed in 2017, this phase included listening sessions across the state with the hauling industry, local agency engineers, law enforcement, state agencies, and MnDOT staff. Eighteen public and private entities collaborated to develop policies, processes, and plans for UPP technology. The final report concluded that a reference platform system for processing permit applications would be the best approach to explore.

Technical Schematic of a Reference Platform. The permitting platform will connect various software and data sources
The permitting platform will connect various software and data sources

Phase II was a proof-of-concept pilot project spanning St. Louis County, Polk County, the City of Duluth, and MnDOT Districts 1 and 2. The goal was to see if a permitting platform would work across jurisdictions connecting various permitting software and using multiple system processes. “The platform has to be usable in different ways and be able to channel payment back to MnDOT or a county or city,” Sanders says. “Phase II showed UPP could work.”

Phase II also underscored the complexity of the issues to come. “The vision is for haulers to enter their license data, and the required permit data would automatically populate the permit,” says Mitch Rasmussen, assistant commissioner with MnDOT State Aid. “But all kinds of software systems are now in use by local agencies, and MnDOT’s Office of Freight and Commercial Vehicle Operation is preparing to replace the two online systems it’s been using for decades. All the systems will need to talk to the unified platform. It will take time and money to build. The roadmap from Phase II can help us get there.”

Policy and fee differences are another challenge. To gather context and ideas, MnDOT recently completed a Transportation Research Synthesis to explore the practices of other state transportation agencies in setting, collecting, and distributing permit fees for heavy commercial OSOW vehicles (see related article). Another MnDOT study is under way to gather basic data about the permit fee policies of counties in Minnesota and throughout the country, including authority for the fees, cost range, and fee types.

When Polk County switched from a paper system to an electronic one, industry started applying for permits more consistently, Sanders says. With the paper system, five or six permit applications would be faxed in each year, and approval could take two days. But with its online system, the county received 201 applications between January 1 and October 26, 2018. “Approval might take us 30 seconds,” he notes.

UPP work to date has been funded by MnDOT and the Minnesota Local Road Research Board. Others involved include the Federal Highway Administration, state agencies (Minnesota Department of Public Safety, Driver and Vehicle Services, Minnesota State Patrol, Minnesota IT Services Geospatial Information Office), associations (Minnesota Association of Townships, Minnesota County Engineers Association, Associated General Contractors of America), private businesses (ProWest, SRF Consulting, Midstate Reclamation & Trucking, Tiller Corporation), and educational institutions (Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute, NDSU; Alexandria Technical & Community College). UPP Phases I & II were a unique collaborative public-private partnership to resolve a long-standing problem.

Next phases and final outcome

Moving forward, Phase III will begin development of the unified system using real data from multiple road authorities and databases in MnDOT Districts 1 and 2. Phase IV will take the platform beyond Districts 1 and 2 and roll out the system for testing statewide. Estimated completion is two to three years.

“Under current plans for the unified system, Minnesota road authorities will continue to set their own fees and may be able to connect their existing software, although some interoperable adaptations will be needed,” Moe says. “The new permitting process will focus on education for haulers, permitting agencies, and the public, as well as engineering decisions by agencies. This, in turn, will lead to increased enforcement effectiveness to help preserve road quality while boosting the economy.”

“Many decisions are still on tap,” Rasmussen adds. “There’s no decision yet of who’s going to own it and manage it, for example, or what fees might be recommended. There are a million moving parts, and many agencies and interests are involved. But we’re taking big strides toward our central goal: putting the right load on the right road, the right way, right away.”

This article by Pam Snopl originally appeared in the December issue of the Minnesota LTAP Technology Exchange newsletter.