Culvert research aims to protect endangered small fish

The Topeka shiner
The Topeka shiner, a small minnow that inhabits slow-moving prairie streams, was once widespread and abundant in portions of Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota. It now inhabits less than 10 percent of its original geographic range.
(Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources)

In a new study funded by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, engineers are trying to ensure that new culverts do not degrade the habitat of an endangered fish in southern Minnesota.

The state has already researched how to better accommodate fish passage at river and stream crossings. Now it is looking at design guidelines for culverts that specifically impact the Topeka shiner, a small endangered fish found in five Midwestern states.

In Minnesota, the Topeka shiner is known to live in at least 57 streams, totaling 605 miles, within the Big Sioux and Rock River watersheds.

“The Topeka shiner is reported to have been erased from about 50 percent of its historic range in Iowa and much of its range in Minnesota, which is why Minnesota is so intent on doing what it can to help this fish thrive here,” said Alan Rindels, MnDOT’s project coordinator for the research.

The Topeka shiner is endangered due to the degradation of stream habitat, stream channelization, non-native predatory fishes and construction within waterways.

Culverts might impede the passage of this small minnow for a number of reasons, including that they might be too long, lack sufficient depth or carry water too fast.

Culverts allow water to pass under roads.
Culverts (also called small bridges) allow water to pass under roads. Occasionally, they can harm a stream’s fish habitat by inadvertently acting as a barrier to fish passage or migration. On the West Coast, large-scale efforts are under way to protect migratory salmon, and in Minnesota, culvert designers are concerned about fresh water species.

In addition, long culverts block sunlight, which possibly discourages fish from swimming through. Typically, older culverts are replaced with longer culverts to improve road safety and minimize maintenance costs. To eliminate or minimize impacts to the Topeka shiner, the state is trying to determine if light mitigation strategies are necessary.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota’s St. Anthony Falls Research Laboratory will monitor a newly installed culvert (110 feet in length) and a few other culverts in critical Topeka shiner habitat streams during spawning and fall movement.

Additionally, a laboratory-based light manipulation experiment will examine the behavior of the warm-water fish when presented with a dark culvert.

Guidelines for culvert design in Topeka shiner habitat will be developed based on these results, as well as examples from neighboring states. The state is also collaborating with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and affected Minnesota counties.

Reducing confusion at two-lane roundabouts

Minnesotans have grown accustomed to roundabouts as they’ve proliferated throughout the state, but many motorists are still confused by the less common two-lane roundabout.

While roundabouts have been shown to reduce vehicle delay and severe crashes, the few Minnesota cities with this type of multi-lane roundabout have had a prevalence of driver mistakes.

In Woodbury, two such roundabouts were converted into smaller, one-circulating-lane designs due to driver confusion.

The City of Richfield had no such option at the high-volume Portland Avenue and 66th Street, a formerly signalized intersection that carries about 30,000 vehicles per day. (See video)

Crash-prone and congested prior to its reconstruction in 2008, a two-lane roundabout seemed to be the practical solution for this intersection. But although the roundabout reduced overall crashes, the intersection still had more fender benders than designers were comfortable with, according to City Engineer Kristin Asher.

“The crashes were primarily related to improper left-turns from the outside lane and failure to yield at the entry,” she said.

Not only were drivers unsure which lanes they should use to enter or exit the roundabout, they didn’t know how to respond to other cars inside the roundabout. (See news story)

“People don’t understand they have to yield to both lanes inside the roundabout,” explained University of Minnesota researcher John Hourdos.

In a recently completed study funded by the Minnesota Local Road Research Board, researchers from the Minnesota Traffic Observatory examined whether sign and pavement marking changes would improve performance.

The city of Richfield extended the solid lines leading up to the intersection from 50 to 250 feet to encourage drivers to choose the correct lane before entering the roundabout. It also replaced fish-hook-style roundabout signs with traditional lane designation signs and did away with complex striping patterns.

These before and after photos show the original fish-hook style pavement markings, left, which were replaced with a more traditional design. (Photos courtesy of the city of Richfield)
Before and after photos show the original fish-hook style pavement markings, left, that were replaced with a more traditional design.
(Courtesy City of Richfield)

Hourdos examined two years of traffic data to see how motorists responded to the improvements that were made in 2011.

He found 50 percent more drivers entered the correct lane from the get-go, which led to a reduction in improper turns within the roundabout. Lane violations were also reduced by 20 percent.

“One of the main problems was drivers didn’t know they have to choose one of the two lanes,” Hourdos explained. “Then once they were inside the roundabout, they were forced to either deviate from their course or commit a violation.”

The city also increased sign visibility to address yielding problems; however, these changes didn’t seem to make a difference.

With state and federal guidelines lacking much guidance for how to sign two-lane roundabouts, the LRRB is funding a new study for three other multi-lane roundabouts: in St. Cloud, at Highway 169/494 and one planned for the future realignment of County Roads 101 and 61 between Chanhassen and Shakopee.

Report: Effect of Signing and Lane Markings on the Safety of a Two-Lane Roundabout (PDF, 4 MB, 72 pages)

Update (1/30/2014): Watch the LRRB’s new video on how to navigate a multi-lane roundabout.

New guidelines developed for counting bike, pedestrian traffic

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Manual field counts require more labor than automatic technologies, but they can collect deeper data about demographics and helmet use. Both forms of monitoring are necessary to give a complete picture of bicycle and pedestrian traffic in the state.

To prepare for a multimodal future, state agencies must be able to plan and engineer a transportation system for all modes of transportation, including bicycle and pedestrian traffic.

The Minnesota Bicycle and Pedestrian Counting Initiative was launched to develop consistent methods for monitoring non-motorized traffic across the state. Researchers developed guidelines for manual counts using state and national examples, and they also created methods for extrapolating annual traffic volumes from short-duration automated counts, for integration into MnDOT’s vehicular count database program.

The guidance developed for manual counts includes forms, training materials, public information for passers-by, links to smartphone applications that provide counting locations and spreadsheets for reporting results.

MnDOT hosted six workshops and a webinar to introduce local officials to the initiative and recruit participants for pilot field counts. Researchers then analyzed how these field counts could be used with existing automated counts to extrapolate daily or annual data.

MnDOT has installed some of the very first automated counting equipment on a state road — Central Avenue NE in Minneapolis (on the bike lane) and Highway 13 in Eagan (on a shoulder). As of 2012, six agencies in Minnesota counted non-motorized traffic (annual reports are available from the city of Minneapolis and Transit for Livable Communities), and even though comprehensive data is not yet available, Minnesota is a leader in this type of monitoring with more than 1,000 manual count locations and 32 automatic count sites.

Because of Minnesota’s experience, researchers collaborated with the National Cooperative Highway Research Program’s national Methodologies and Technologies for Collecting Pedestrian and Bicycle Volume Data research project, due for release in 2014, and contributed to the Federal Highway Administration’s effort to update its Traffic Monitoring Guide to include a chapter on non-motorized traffic.

Learn more:

Uncovering manufacturers’ perspectives on the transportation system

It’s no secret that manufacturing plays a key role in driving economic growth, or that transportation is essential for the success of any manufacturing operation.

While the relationships among manufacturing, transportation, and economic growth have been studied on a large scale, there is often little dialogue between transportation organizations and the manufacturers themselves. A recently completed pilot study conducted jointly by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and University of Minnesota Extension aims to address this communication gap.

The pilot project focused on 12 counties in southwest Minnesota, where more than 172 regional businesses were contacted for participation and 75 in-person interviews were completed with manufacturers, shippers, and carriers. During the interviews, participants were encouraged to focus their comments on high-value, low-cost improvements that MnDOT can address in the short term without over-promising projects that currently cannot be funded.

Participants identified the need for smooth pavements and wide shoulders, the value of advance warning lights at intersections with traffic signals, the importance of highway safety, and the challenges of maneuvering oversized vehicles through roundabouts, among others.

The research team is compiling the pilot study’s findings into a final report. In the meantime, MnDOT is working to address a number of the challenges and suggestions uncovered through the pilot program.

Read the full article in the December issue of Catalyst.

New technology aimed at making rural intersections safer

This video above showcases a new kind of intersection conflict warning system being developed for use primarily by local agencies at rural, two-way stop intersections. Called the ALERT System, it uses a simple but ingenious combination of radar, wireless communication and flashing LEDs to alert drivers to the presence of approaching vehicles, thereby helping them identify safe gaps in the cross traffic and avoid potentially deadly collisions.

These types of systems are nothing new; MnDOT and other state DOTs have been developing them for more than a decade under the ENTERPRISE pooled fund program. MnDOT also recently kicked off a three-year project to deploy 20–50 of its Rural Intersection Conflict Warning Systems at selected at-risk intersections across the state. The main difference with the ALERT System is that it’s designed to be cheaper and easier to deploy than existing ICWS technologies. While that might sound like an incremental improvement, the difference for cash-strapped local agencies could be huge.

Since the ALERT System uses solar power, it doesn’t have to be hooked up to the power grid — which means that, in theory, county public works crews could install it themselves. The system also uses a simplified controller that doesn’t require a traffic signal technician to install and maintain, and detects vehicles using radar rather than in-pavement sensors. These factors might encourage greater adoption of ICWS technologies, which studies have shown to reduce both the frequency and severity of crashes.

The project is now in its second phase. It still faces a number of hurdles before could be ready to deploy, but Vic Lund, the traffic engineer for St. Louis County and the project’s main champion, says the results so far have been encouraging. In the video below, Lund shares his thoughts on the project, its challenges and the future of Intelligent Transportation Systems in Minnesota.

Learn more:

New study to shed light on environmental impacts of deicers

Even naturally derived products like corn syrup and beet juice can impact the environment when applied to salt mixtures for winter roadways.

A wide range of products, including the ones mentioned above, are added to deicing mixes to limit the amount of salt needed for Minnesota roads each winter. However, although information is available about the corrosive properties of various deicing chemicals, less is known about the toxicity of these compounds, especially to the aquatic environment.

Thanks to a recently completed project sponsored by the Clear Roads Pooled Fund, MnDOT winter maintenance personnel will better understand the relative toxicity of eight common deicing agents, which also include non-organics like Magnesium Chloride, Calcium Chloride and Potassium Acetate.

“Because the state has been trying a lot of different alternative chemicals, we wanted to get a better handle on the environmental impacts,” said MnDOT engineer Tom Peters, the technical liaison for the 26-member, Minnesota-led pooled fund for winter maintenance research.

In January, researchers plan to release a concise summary of the toxicity rankings to help winter highway maintenance managers consider both expected levels of service and potential harm to the environment when selecting a deicer.

A Dec. 3 webinar available on the Clear Roads website discusses their findings.

About Clear Roads

Minnesota is the lead state for the Clear Roads Pooled Fund, which conducts rigorous testing of winter maintenance materials, equipment and techniques. Other recent and upcoming research (see our Technical Summary on the program) includes a winter maintenance cost-benefit analysis toolkit, snow removal techniques at extreme temperatures and environmental factors that can cause fatigue in snowplow operators.

You can learn more about Clear Roads via the project’s e-newsletter.

MnDOT, LRRB announce new research projects

Minnesota’s next round of transportation research projects will explore using traffic signal data to predict crashes, evaluate various impacts of bicycling on the state and address a range of other transportation issues.

The state’s two transportation research governing boards have authorized funding for a total of 24 new research projects. MnDOT’s Transportation Research Innovation Group (TRIG) and the Local Road Research Board announced their Fiscal Year 2015 funding awards this week after hearing proposals from researchers in several states. MnDOT Research Management Engineer Hafiz Munir said the projects, which are listed below, reflect the needs of state and local practitioners.

“Many of the projects fall under the ‘traffic and safety’ or ‘materials and construction’ categories, which I think reflects MnDOT and local agency priorities,” Munir said. “Ultimately, all of these research projects address business needs of the people who build and maintain our roads.”

Links are provided to brief descriptions of each project (as provided by the researchers who submitted the proposals).

Environment

Maintenance

Materials and Construction

Multimodal

Policy and Planning

Traffic and Safety

Robotic message painter could help keep road crews safe

Using rollers and stencils to draw turn arrows and crosswalk stripes on roads seems a bit archaic to MnDOT District 3 Maintenance Superintendent Randy Reznicek, who asked researchers if they could develop an automated road message painter.

University of Minnesota-Duluth Associate Professor Ryan Rosandich has taken that vision and created an robotic arm that can spray-paint pavement signs, with the goal of saving crews time and keeping them safer.

Designed to be mounted to the front of a maintenance vehicle, the robot is operated remotely by a laptop, programmed with numerous types of messages.

In an earlier prototype, researchers developed a trailer painter that could be pulled behind a truck.

Crews currently use heavy, eight-foot by four-foot stencils and rollers to paint designs, with an estimated 75 percent of such work involving the repainting of existing markings.

“It takes two people to lift the stencils,” explained MnDOT maintenance worker Joe Gilk, whom Reznicek presented with the idea about five years ago. “This would eliminate one position. One person could just run the truck and you could use that other person in another area of our job.”

Rosandich, who heads the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, led the initial development of a software system and trailer painter.

MnDOT has funded further research to develop the more technically difficult robotic arm, which it anticipates could be used in other aspects of maintenance work as well.

MnDOT District 3 maintenance worker Joe Gilk, left, and maintenance superintendent Randy Reznicek watch the demonstration of the robotic message painter, an idea that came from their office.
MnDOT District 3 maintenance worker Joe Gilk, left, and District 1 traffic engineer Rob Ege watch a demonstration of the robotic message painter, an idea that came from Gilk’s office.

Rosandich recently demonstrated the mechanical arm to a MnDOT road crew (no paint was used during the demonstration), but additional software and mechanical tweaks remain before researchers take the machine out for final testing on the pavement this spring.

A companion vision system is being developed to identify existing markings to guide the robot in the repainting of existing messages.

The robot’s three-segmented aluminum shell arm is capable of painting up to a 12-foot wide lane and has enough battery power for a whole day’s worth of work, Rosandich said.

Once the prototype is complete, researchers hope to find a manufacturer to develop and produce a machine that could be used by maintenance crews across the state. MnDOT has already had great success in deploying automated pavement patching systems in some districts.

Not only would a robotic message painter free up maintenance crews and speed up sign-painting, but Rosandich sees worker safety as its “biggest selling point.”

The start-up cost for manufacturing such a device is estimated to be $150,000.

Transitways spurring economic growth and development, improving mobility, and supporting equity

Landmark regional investments such as the transit expansion underway in the greater Minneapolis-Saint Paul metropolitan area have the potential to significantly change long-term land-use patterns and travel behavior. They also raise important questions for policymakers and elected officials regarding the potential return on investment.

ImageA new synthesis report from the Transitway Impacts Research Program (TIRP) pulls together seven years of research conducted by University of Minnesota researchers to help answer these questions. The report summarizes the actual and projected impacts of transitways on the Twin Cities region, offering lessons learned to help guide the build-out of the rest of the network most effectively. It concludes with a set of implications for policymakers.

The Twin Cities metro region is in the midst of a transit build-out. The Metro Blue Line (formerly known as Hiawatha), Red Line (Cedar Avenue Bus Rapid Transit), and Northstar Commuter Rail are in operation, and the Green Line (Central Corridor) opens next year. All are part of an expanding regional transit network.

Under the TIRP program, which was launched in 2006, University of Minnesota researchers provide an objective analysis of data, public perceptions, and complex impacts resulting from transitway investments. Their research is unique in its breadth, scope, and ability to provide real-time analysis of the changes experienced when a region introduces high-quality transit service.

“This body of research and objective analysis confirm the many positive ways that expanding our transit network supports economic competitiveness, greater accessibility to jobs, opportunities for populations with low incomes, and enhanced livability for our whole region,” says Kate Wolford, president of The McKnight Foundation, the synthesis sponsor. “This report undergirds why the accelerated build-out of our transit system is so important for the future prosperity of our region and its residents.”

More information about the synthesis and key findings

New videos show how frost heave ravages roads

Regardless of whether you’re familiar with the term “frost heave,” if you live in Minnesota and drive on the roads, you’re already familiar with its destructive capacity. Many of the dips, bumps, potholes and cracks that appear on our roads every spring are a direct result of frost heave, which occurs when water accumulates in the soil beneath the pavement and begins freezing and then thawing along with the changing seasons. The resulting expansion and contraction weakens the road base and leaves it susceptible to damage from traffic loading.

These new videos produced by the Local Road Research Board explain how frost heave works, and describe some of the strategies public works departments use to combat it. The top video is is the shortened, executive-summary version, while the bottom video is the full, 13-minute version meant for transportation professionals.

Minnesota transportation research blog