Winter weather events have a regional and often national impact. “Storms never stop at the state line,” said Tom Peters, research and training engineer, MnDOT Maintenance Operations. “That’s why it’s so important for us to know about winter maintenance efforts around the country, and particularly at neighboring states with similar climates.”
MnDOT leads the Clear Roads Transportation Pooled Fund Project (clearroads.org), a national winter maintenance research consortium. In 2015, Clear Roads launched a national survey to collect and report the annual winter maintenance operations of state DOTs. The effort included nearly 50 data points related to equipment, materials and costs.
The results, which are available at clearroads.org/winter-maintenance-survey as a Microsoft Excel-based spreadsheet, are available at no cost for users to examine, analyze and parse as needed. Beyond the raw data, the spreadsheet includes calculated statistics and an interactive map for plotting key metrics.
The results quantified much of what was known only anecdotally and provided useful, actionable data. “Data trends by geographic region and over time let us make more informed operations decisions,” Peters said. “We can also draw on this information to communicate with management, elected officials and the public about how MnDOT’s winter operations fit in a national context.”
As the lead state, MnDOT commits significant administrative time and attention across the agency to Clear Roads. “It’s rewarding and satisfying to see such a useful product as one of the payoffs for all this effort,” Peters said.
Additional data collection for the 2015-2016 winter season is already complete. Look for an update to the online database later this year.
Research in Progress
Clear Roads has nearly a dozen research projects in progress, including:
Standards and Guidance for Using Sensor Technology to Assess Winter Road Conditions
Emergency Operations Methodology for Extreme Winter Storm Events
Weather Event Reconstruction and Analysis Tool
Training Video for the Implementation of Liquid-Only Plow Routes
What is Clear Roads?
Clear Roads is a 33-member pooled fund program dedicated to winter road maintenance research. Led by MnDOT, Clear Roads projects evaluate winter maintenance materials, equipment and methods; develop specifications and recommendations; study and promote innovative techniques and technologies; and develop field guides and training curricula. Learn more at clearroads.org.
Minnesota’s next round of transportation research projects will attempt to solve these and other questions facing the state’s transportation community. The Transportation Research and Investment Group, which governs MnDOT’s research program, and the Minnesota Local Road Research Board, which represents cities and counties, recently met and selected 21 transportation research projects for funding in fiscal year 2018.
“The selected research studies, which typically take one to three years to complete, will address some of the most major policy, environmental and maintenance dilemmas facing transportation practitioners,” said Linda Taylor, director of MnDOT Research Services & Library.
Below is a list of the selected projects, with links to associated need statements. Final project scopes will become available once contracts are approved. For further information, go here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
MnDOT’s latest crop of transportation research projects have been identified. This year, researchers were asked to pay special attention to how their work could benefit the public and be put into real-world practice.
MnDOT’s Transportation Research Innovation Group (TRIG) and the Minnesota Local Road Research Board recently announced their Fiscal Year 2017 funding awards after hearing proposals from researchers at multiple universities. The two bodies chose 20 research proposals totaling about $2.9 million that will study new and innovative approaches to improving the environment, making transportation systems safer, improving construction methods and operating in more cost-effective ways.
According to MnDOT Research Management Engineer Hafiz Munir, MnDOT Research Services made some key changes to its annual requests for proposal that will help ensure research makes a difference to the agency’s bottom line. This year, researchers were asked early on in the proposal process how they would quantify their results, what benefits the research could achieve and how their research could be implemented in the future.
“Now we’ll be able to track those metrics and that will help MnDOT not only quantify the potential benefits of the projects, but also implement the results,” Munir said. “The bottom line is that we will be able to not only save money, but also improve the way MnDOT does business.”
Several of the 20 newly funded projects deal with improving transportation safety, Munir said, and many others are focused on implementing cost-saving practices, innovations and new technologies.
The projects approved in December 2015 will do the following:
Create an inexpensive GPS-based system that alerts the driver when a motor vehicle deviates from a lane or approaches a curve. (Project summary)
Find out whether a smartphone app can effectively warn drivers about upcoming roadway curves. (Project summary)
Determine whether different types of roadway turfgrass are better suited for specific regions of the state. (Project summary)
Create a comprehensive design guide for fish-friendly culverts. (Project summary)
Determine how social media can be used to engage diverse community groups within the state. (Project summary)
Investigate the performance of the state’s first glass fiber reinforced polymer (GFRP) reinforced bridge deck, slated for construction in 2016. (Project summary)
Develop signage recommendations to slow high-speed traffic as it approaches roundabouts. (Project summary)
Gather truck reliability data, identifying truck bottlenecks and providing potential mitigation solutions for regular congestion areas. (Project summary)
Determine why anchor bolts are becoming loose on overhead signs, light towers and other support structures — and how to prevent it. (Project summary)
Establish a system and smartphone app for accurately capturing and reporting data about intrusions into work zones. (Project summary)
Develop an advanced sensor system to estimate long-term and dynamic vertical displacements on the I-35W bridge. (Project summary)
Investigate the necessity of pavement markings on low-volume roads and develop an approach to prioritize pavement marking projects. (Project summary)
Compare the performance of different structural fibers in thin concrete overlays. (Project summary)
Evaluate four performance test methods that predict the cracking behavior of asphalt mixes. (Project summary)
Investigate the link between transportation investment and job creation, and analyze transportation investments, business patterns and socioeconomic data in Minnesota counties. (Project summary)
Refine a taconite-based pothole repair compound, and develop a low-cost mechanized system to mix and place it in large quantities.(Project summary)
Investigate how much road salting can be safely decreased with the use of permeable pavements. (Project summary)
Evaluate the use of iron-enhanced check dams for capturing phosphate and toxic materials from roadway runoff. (Project summary)
Improve accessibility calculation capabilities and understanding of travel behavior by integrating data about highway bus operations, park-and-ride facilities, and urban parking costs. (Project summary)
Investigate the concept of estimating traffic volumes from mobile device samples to collect traffic data inexpensively. (Project summary)
Munir said the next steps for these projects this spring include creating technical advisory panels, finalizing project work plans and preparing contracts. Some projects could begin early, depending on available funding and project-readiness. By the time Fiscal Year 2017 begins on July 1, funding will be available to begin all 20 projects.