The longest winter in recent memory might have ended, but MnDOT’s traffic and maintenance staff are already planning how to make future winters easier on Minnesota drivers.
Recently, the Regional Transportation Management Center was awarded funding to deliver real-time winter weather warnings via its roadside and overhead highway message signs. The RTMC displayed blizzard warnings for the first time during six storms last winter, but the alerts had to be manually entered.
“This is similar information that you receive on your cell phone or the evening news,” said Brian Kary, RTMC Traffic Operations director. “But for somebody who’s traveling down I-90 and just passing through, they might not realize that they’re entering an area with a blizzard.”
Another initiative aims to expand the road condition data that’s available during winter storms by piloting the use of mobile sensors on maintenance supervisor trucks and above-ground sensors at select Road and Weather Information System sites.
Minnesota has nearly 300 Dynamic Message Signs, which currently issue real-time warnings about traffic incidents, road work and congestion. Around 200 are in the Twin Cities metro; the rest are in Greater Minnesota.
Kary’s two-year project will develop a system that can automatically relay critical weather alerts, which change frequently, are labor-intensive and error-prone when physically entered. Only blizzard warnings from the National Weather Service are initially planned, but the system will be capable of broadcasting all types of weather alerts.
A number of other states already issue weather alerts via their Dynamic Message Signs, so MnDOT has case studies to look at.
Over the next two years, the Maintenance Office will test the use of mobile and above-ground sensors to expand the geographic coverage of RWIS sites, which feed valuable weather and road surface information to highway operations managers and advanced traveler information systems. This might lead to the elimination of in-road sensors, which require lane closures to maintain and must be replaced during road construction projects.
The mobile sensors will collect road condition information, such as temperature, humidity, due point, and friction, from five maintenance supervisor trucks. The other non-invasive sensors will be attached to an RWIS tower or a pole near the roadway and use laser technology to read road surface temperature and condition (water ice, slush and snow).
MnDOT employees are sharing knowledge and displaying leadership in Washington this week by delivering presentations and conducting meetings at the nation’s preeminent transportation conference.
The Transportation Research Board (TRB) 96th Annual Meeting held Jan. 8-12 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., is expected to draw more than 12,000 transportation professionals from around the world. According to its website, the 2017 event scheduled more than 5,000 presentations in more than 800 sessions and workshops addressing topics of interest to policy makers, administrators, practitioners, researchers, and representatives of government, industry, and academic institutions. TRB’s 2017 annual meeting theme is “Transportation Innovation: Leading the Way in an Era of Rapid Change.”
“Every year when TRB holds its annual meeting, MnDOT’s strong presence at the event is a reminder of our state’s commitment to top-notch transportation research,” said Linda Taylor, director of MnDOT Research Services and Library.
The following is a roundup of MnDOT employees who were invited to deliver presentations and participate in key committee meetings along with their presentation topics and committees (not all staff may have attended the conference; however, due to limited funding or availability):
As temperatures fall and days get shorter, MnDOT Metro District maintenance workers are wrapping up a season of mowing grass along roadsides and in medians that they hope will prove a little more efficient than in the past.
Thanks to a research project that installed GPS devices in tractor cabs, operators have a better sense of exactly which areas they need to mow and which areas should be left alone. Five Metro District tractors were tested in 2015. This year, more than 40 tractors were fitted with the automated vehicle location (AVL) technology, which includes a GPS antenna, an on-board central processing unit (CPU) and an in-cab screen with a user interface.
Trisha Stefanski, Metro District asset management engineer, expects one of the biggest benefits of the project to be a reduction in herbicide use. Maintenance crews use herbicide to control the spread of noxious weeds that sometimes get spread during mowing operations. Mapping exactly where noxious weeds are, and providing that information to operators on a real-time, in-cab screen and user interface helps them mow around those areas.
“We’re really hoping it will reduce the amount of herbicide that we’re putting on our roadways by 50 percent,” Stefanski said. “We’re not certain that will be the number, but that’s what we’re hoping for. We think just not mowing those areas will not spread as many noxious weeds and so we don’t have to apply as much herbicide.”
Metro District operators, such as Jesse Lopez, give the AVL technology rave reviews.
“Basically you can see what you shouldn’t mow and what you should mow. So, it makes it easy for me. It’s just like playing a game,” Lopez said. “This actually helps me to optimize what my job is. I know exactly where I’m at and where I’m going. I think everyone should use it – absolutely everybody who is in a mowing situation or a plowing situation.”
In addition, the AVL technology helps maintenance supervisors keep tabs on exactly where their operators are in real time. It also helps supervisors complete reports by automatically providing the geographic areas where mowing has been completed.
Stefanski says the project has gone really well, and she hopes collecting more data over another mowing season will show real savings on herbicide use. In the meantime, she is thinking of other ways AVL technology could be applied to maintenance operations.
“What I really like about the project is that we are taking something used in a lot snow plows and a lot of other technologies – cars, other things, maybe UPS uses them – and we’re putting it into maintenance operations,” Stefanski said. “Having it for mowing, we can also use it for smooth pavements. We can also use it for other things in mowing operations.”
In the video, Jennifer Zink, MnDOT state bridge inspection engineer, explains the project, along with Tara Kalar, MnDOT associate legal counsel; Cassandra Isackson, director of MnDOT Aeronautics; and Bruce Holdhusen, MnDOT Research program engineer.
The initial drone project drew significant media coverage and a lot of attention from other state departments of transportation from all over the country.
Project champions take previously proven concepts and help MnDOT turn them into useful practices and procedures to make the state’s transportation system better. Funds can be used for equipment, consultant services or researcher assistance.
“The research implementation program fills the gap between research and deployment of new methods, materials and equipment,” Bruce Holdhusen, MnDOT Research Services senior engineer, said.
Here are the 12 newly funded research implementation projects by category:
Bridge and Structures
Improving Quality of Bridge Inspections Using Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)
Prestressed Concrete Beam Shear Rating
OmniScan Phased Array Ultrasonic Corrosion Imaging System
MnDOT Slope Vulnerability Assessments
Ultra-thin Bonded Wearing Course (UTBWC) Snow and Ice and Wind Effects
Materials and Construction
Cold In-Place Recycling (CIR) for Bituminous Over Concrete (BOC)
Geogrid Specification for Aggregate Base Reinforcement
Balanced Design of Asphalt Mixtures
Cone Penetration Testing (CPT) Design Manual for State Geotechnical Engineers
Policy and Planning
One-year Pilot Test and Evaluation of ASTM DOT Package Compass Portal
Traffic and Safety
Improve Traffic Volume Estimates from Regional Transportation Management Center (RTMC)
Understanding Pedestrian Travel Behavior and Safety in Rural Settings
The report details how the transportation system can accommodate such imminent innovations as autonomous vehicles, mobile web services, mobility as a service, information and communication advances, infrastructure sensors and energy and fuel alternatives.
For example, researchers predict that driving faces near-extinction by 2040, when non-autonomous vehicles will no longer be allowed on public roads at most times. As a result, total transportation-related fatalities may drop 90 percent, road geometry, sightlines and other design priorities may shift, and capacity and speed limits will likely increase on most major roadways.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Drones)
When it comes to drones, MnDOT is already conducting important research that the rest of the nation is closely following. Tara Kalar and Jennifer Zink from MnDOT, and Barritt Lovelace of Collins Engineers, spoke about their efforts at last month’s conference.
Last year, MnDOT Research Services published a report titled “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Bridge Inspection Demonstration Project” that detailed how MnDOT could use drones to perform bridge inspection functions. The initial research project tested one drone’s capability in a variety of bridge inspection scenarios last summer at four Minnesota bridges.
In November, researchers conducted a second research phase to test a more specialized drone at the Blatnik Bridge in Duluth that coincided with that bridge’s regularly scheduled inspection.
A few weeks ago, researchers secured funding to conduct a research implementation project that aims “to implement a statewide UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) bridge inspection contract, which will identify overall cost effectiveness, improvements in quality and safety, and future funding sources for both state and local bridges,” according to the project proposal.
Benham’s talk also addressed 3-D printing, which Chad Hanson, a District 6 project manager, has already used successfully.
Hanson spoke at the conference about his experience using 3-D printing to create a model of the Red Wing Bridge project that brought the project idea to life. According to Hanson, the model enhanced public engagement and informed preliminary design efforts for the bridge.
Partners, stakeholders and members of the public could see, touch and hold the 3-D printed models, which accentuated the project’s engagement process.
To mark Earth Day 2016, MnDOT Research Services is taking a glance at five stellar examples of current research projects at MnDOT that involve pollution control, wetland mitigation, road salt reduction and new ways of recycling pavement.
Soil carried away in stormwater runoff from road construction sites can pollute lakes and rivers.
Stormwater settling ponds provide a place for this sediment to settle before the water is discharged into local bodies of water. However, since stormwater ponds have limited space, a mechanism is needed to remove clean water from the pond to prevent the overflow of sediment-laden water.
MnDOT-funded researchers designed temporary stormwater ponds with floating head skimmers that can remove clean water from the surface of the settling pond, using gravity to discharge water into a ditch or receiving body.
The study, which was completed in spring 2014, identified five methods for “skimming” stormwater ponds that can improve a pond’s effectiveness by 10 percent. MnDOT researchers also created designs for temporary stormwater ponds on construction sites with the capacity to remove approximately 80 percent of suspended solids.
These designs will help contractors meet federal requirements for stormwater pond dewatering. Researchers also determined how often a pond’s deadpool must be cleaned, based on watershed size and pool dimensions.
Stormwater can pick up chemicals and sediments that pollute rivers and streams. Roadside drainage ditches, also known as swales, lessen this effect by absorbing water. But until recently, MnDOT didn’t know how to quantify this effect and incorporate it into pollution control mitigation measures.
In a study completed in fall 2014, researchers evaluated five Minnesota swales, measuring how well water flows through soil at up to 20 locations within each swale.
A key finding: grassed swales are significantly better at absorbing water than expected, which may reduce the need for other, more expensive stormwater management practices, such as ponds or infiltration basins.
This could save MnDOT and counties significant right-of-way and construction costs currently expended on more expensive stormwater management techniques.
Road salt is used for de-icing roadways during winter months, but can have a negative impact on the environment.
This research, which was just approved for funding through the Minnesota Local Road Research Board in December 2015, will investigate the reduction in road salt application during winter months that can be attained with permeable pavements, while still providing for acceptable road safety.
Some initial investigations (see previous study) suggest that road salt application can be substantially reduced, even eliminated, with permeable pavement systems. The proposed research will investigate this hypothesis more thoroughly, and further document the reduction in road salt application that can be expected with permeable pavement.
Road construction in northeast Minnesota often causes wetland impacts that require expensive mitigation. However, borrow areas excavated for road construction material can be developed into wetland mitigation sites if hydric vegetation, hydric soils and adequate hydrology are provided. Fourteen wetland mitigation sites were constructed north of Virginia, Minnesota along the U.S. Trunk Highway 53 reconstruction project corridor and evaluated for wetland. The sites were established with the goal of mitigating for project impacts to seasonally flooded basin, fresh meadow, shallow marsh, shrub swamp, wooded swamp, and bog wetlands. All but one of the sites consistently meet wetland hydrology criteria.
The sites contain a variety of plant communities dominated by wet meadow, sedge meadow, and shallow marsh. Floristic Quality Assessment (FQA) condition categories for the sites range from “Poor” to “Exceptional.”
According to the research report published in March 2016, these sites have shown the potential for creating mitigation wetlands in abandoned borrow pits in conjunction with highway construction. Adaptive management, particularly water level regulation, early invasive species control, tree planting, and continued long-term annual monitoring can make mitigation sites like these successful options for wetland mitigation credit.
MnDOT already extends the lives of some old concrete highways by paving over them with asphalt instead of tearing them up. Now MnDOT hopes to add a third life for these old concrete roads by using a process called cold in-place recycling to re-use that existing asphalt pavement when it reaches the end of its life.
Cold in-place recycling (CIR) uses existing pavements, without heat, to create a new layer of pavement. It involves the same process of cold- central plant mix recycling (which is being employed by MnDOT for the first time on two shoulder repair projects this year), but it is done on the road itself by a train of equipment. It literally recycles an old road while making a new road.
CIR has been in use in Minnesota for 20 years, but only with hot-mix asphalt (HMA) over gravel roads. The purpose of a new study, which was approved for funding in April 2016, is to validate Iowa’s promising new practice using CIR on bituminous over concrete.
In this research project (see proposal), MnDOT will use cold-in-place recycling to replace the asphalt pavement on a concrete road and then evaluate it for several years, comparing it also with control sections.
Along with the potential of a better service life, the cost of CIR is much lower than new hot mix asphalt (HMA). Therefore, a 20-percent to 30-percent price reduction per project may be realized.
Southwest Minnesota has the highest average wind speeds in the state—bad news for MnDOT snowplow operators who often drive in low visibility to clear roads.
“We have more days when the wind blows than when it doesn’t,” said Chase Fester, MnDOT District 7 transportation operations supervisor. “We struggle with the wind.”
That’s why District 7 is piloting a snowplow driver-assist system (DAS) developed by University of Minnesota researchers to combat the blowing snow and fog that often cause zero visibility. The DAS helps snowplow operators see the road alignment and features, such as turn lanes, guardrails, and road markings. Even in less extreme winter weather, snowplow operators gain assurance of their lane location using the system.
The DAS was developed and refined over the past 20 years under multiple research projects funded by MnDOT and the USDOT’s University Transportation Center program. Professor Max Donath, director of the University of Minnesota’s Roadway Safety Institute, led the work. In addition to plows, the DAS technology has also been applied in other specialty vehicles such as patrol cars and ambulances. Numerous vehicles using the system have been deployed in both Minnesota and Alaska.
The DAS uses GPS technology and a front-mounted radar to provide an image of the road and any obstacles in front of the operator. The image is displayed on a monitor inside the cab of the plow. The system also vibrates the operator’s seat as a warning if the plow veers too close to the roadway’s centerline or fog line.
“If the driver gets within one foot of the fog line on the right side, the right side of the seat vibrates. If the driver gets too close to the centerline on the left side, the left side vibrates,” said Fester.
The vibrations continue until the driver moves back into the center of the lane. The driver can also turn off the warning feature to clear snow from the shoulder.
The DAS is currently installed in one truck in District 7. The $75,000 cost makes it difficult to install in every truck in the district or the state, although having at least one system in every district may be possible, Fester said.
Fester said the system proved its worth one day in February when blizzard conditions caused zero visibility and forced many road closures in southwest Minnesota. He was called out at 2 a.m. Feb. 8 to assist a stranded state trooper and several motorists on a 12-mile stretch of Hwy 60 between Windom and Heron Lake. Fester drove a pickup behind the DAS-equipped snowplow, driven by Darryl Oeltjenbruns, to reach them.
As the DAS identified stranded vehicles on the way to Heron Lake, Fester and Oeltjenbruns checked to make sure they weren’t occupied with people. Once they made it to Heron Lake, they stopped at the community center, where the state trooper and the stranded motorists he brought in were located.
On the way back to Windom, Fester and the state patrolman continued to check on stranded vehicles as the DAS-equipped snowplow led the way. If the vehicles weren’t in the ditch, motorists drove behind the two MnDOT vehicles. If their vehicles were in the ditch, motorists rode in a Suburban that was also being escorted to Windom. After returning to Windom, the motorists were dropped off at motels or truck stops.
“When we first went out, there were about six stranded vehicles. Coming back from Heron Lake, there were about 15,” Fester said. “At one time, we had 12 vehicles in line as we drove back to Windom, driving about 10 to 15 miles per hour.”
Later that morning the DAS system was used again to locate other motorists.
“We continued to use it until about 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. that day,” Fester said. “The system worked great and kept everyone safe. It was an interesting morning.”
(Reprinted and adapted with permission from an article by Sue Roe in MnDOT’s Feb. 17, 2016 Newsline.)
The benefits of living snow fences and other snow control tools to keep roadways clear of blowing and drifting snow have been known for decades, and MnDOT has been using a variety of these techniques for years to catch snow before it gets to a road.
Living snow fences often consist of trees, grasses and even corn stalks left standing in a farmer’s field. Now willow shrubs are being added to the list as a fast-growing, inexpensive snow control measure.
Researchers recently completed a study that investigated whether willow shrubs could make good living snow fences. While typical snow-fence plants, such as dogwood or cranberry shrubs, can take five to 20 years to establish themselves, shrub willows were effective at trapping snow after just two growing seasons, according to the study.
In spring 2013, researchers installed three varieties of shrub willow side-by-side in two-row and four-row configurations along about a quarter of a mile of Highway 14 in Waseca, where snow drifts are an issue. In April 2014, they cut the shrubs down to the ground to encourage branching and bush density. Though the trimmed willows had little impact on drifting snow the first winter, each willow-shrub plot was collecting two to three metric tons of snow by the second winter, according to the research report. Researchers believe that after three or four growing seasons the willow shrubs could catch the entire mean annual snowfall on the site.
In the four-row configuration recommended by researchers, costs of raising, furnishing, planting and mulching came to about $3.60 per plant, which is dramatically less than the contract bid cost for traditional living snow fence species that cost more than $50 per plant. In addition, the willow shrubs could be harvested and sold as biomass every few years to provide an income source.
Willow trees is just the latest advancement in the state’s snow control program. A 2012 research project evaluated the costs and benefits of living snow fences and provided MnDOT with a payment calculator to determine how much to compensate landowners for installation and maintenance costs.
MnDOT has used these tools and other promotional efforts to nearly double the number of farmers with contracts for corn rows enrolled in the Living Snow Fences program.
The willow species recommended by researchers will be evaluated further in 2017 when they install it as a living snow fence on a new construction site on Highway 60 between Windom and Mountain Lake. Researchers also recommend a future study to compare volume of road salt use before and after installation. They also want to look into identifying appropriate buffer distances to keep willow roots from interfering with cropland root systems.
Motorists are experiencing less delay on metro-area highways, thanks to major changes to the Twin Cities’ ramp metering system.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation has reconfigured ramp meters to be more in sync with real conditions. With changes to the turn-on and turn-off criteria, the meters are actually running for a shorter period of time and are only activated when needed.
Ramp meters are traffic lights placed on freeway entrance ramps that control the frequency that vehicles can enter the highway. Sensors embedded in the pavement collect the vehicle traffic data used to time approximately 440 ramp meters.
University of Minnesota-Duluth professor Eil Kwon developed the system’s new software algorithms. In a case study of Highway 100, he found that the delay on the mainline dropped by nearly half.
On northbound Highway 100, the amount of “delayed vehicle hours” — defined as the vehicle hours of traffic flow with speeds less than 45 mph — that motorists experienced dropped 48 percent during the months of October and November in 2012 when compared to the same period in 2011. During the same time period, total volume on that section of northbound Highway 100 increased by 2.7 percent, Kwon said. In spring 2013, the amount of delayed vehicle hours had been reduced by 17 percent.
These results are preliminary, as additional analysis is needed to determine if these results are typical throughout the system on other freeway corridors. However, based on a personal savings of $16.50 per hour, the scenario described above represents a cost savings to motorists of $1,353 to $3,447 per day (depending on the season). That’s as much as $339,150 to $861,640 per year for just a six-mile stretch of highway.
Under the old system, each ramp meter would turn on based on current traffic conditions, but the criteria to turn on were easily met, causing the meters to turn on too soon. The old system did not have turn-off criteria, allowing meters to run until a pre-set time of day.
With the new system, improvements were made to make the meters respond more appropriately to current traffic conditions. The turn-on criteria were improved so that meters come on only when needed, and turn-off criteria were added, allowing meters to turn off when traffic conditions improved.
The new metering system is particularly effective at reducing the number of meters operating on light traffic days.
“On days like the ones leading up to Thanksgiving, where traffic may be 10-to-15 percent less than normal, instead of, say, 150 ramp meters being on at a particular time, now maybe only 50 ramp meters will be operating,” explained MnDOT Freeway System Operations Engineer Jesse Larson.
Upgrades to the ramp metering system also allow for a better picture of what traffic is like at a given moment, because it’s now based on corridor density rather than traffic flow.
Traffic flow is the measurement of the number of vehicles passing a given point. Using traffic flow was flawed, in that similar traffic flows can occur at different speeds. The old system couldn’t differentiate between 1,000 cars passing by at 20 miles per hour versus 1,000 cars passing at 60 miles per hour, for example.
Corridor density, on the other hand, is the number of vehicles per lane per mile. By measuring density instead of traffic flow, the system has a more accurate picture of what current conditions are like on the freeway.
Another bonus: ramp meters will no longer release a bunch of cars simultaneously once an entrance ramp fills up. That’s because the system can now detect the ramp filling up and release the extra cars gradually instead.