The Future of Mobility series collects the perspectives of top U researchers and other national experts. In 17 articles, the authors scan the horizon and reflect on critical transportation topics. Each article recommends action steps for public officials and policymakers.
The only way to test pavements is to destroy them — slowly and painstakingly, one moving vehicle at a time. At MnROAD, the state’s world-renowned pavement research facility, the bulk of this monotonous-but-necessary work is performed by live traffic passing through Albertville on I-94. But on the facility’s 2.5-mile low volume road test track, which simulates rural road conditions, more controlled methods are preferred.
Doug Lindenfelser is one of several MnROAD employees who take turns driving an 80,000-pound semi tractor trailer in laps around the closed-loop low-volume track. The truck is loaded to the maximum allowable weight limit on Minnesota roadways. As it passes over the facility’s 23 distinct low-volume test cells, an array of sensors capture data on the pavement’s performance, which researchers then use to design stronger, longer-lasting roads. The truck only drives on the inside lane; that way, the outside lane can be used as an “environmental lane” to compare damage caused by loading vs. damage caused by environmental factors.
He has other duties as well, but on a given day, Doug might drive the truck 60 or 70 times around the low-volume road test track. It might not sound very exciting, but as Doug explains, some days his job can be quite interesting. We interviewed him on camera during a recent visit to MnROAD. The resulting video is available above and on our YouTube channel.
For those who might be wondering, all this diligent destruction of pavement has paid off. It is estimated that MnROAD’s first phase of research (from 1994-2006) has resulted in cost savings of $33 million each year in Minnesota and $749 million nationally. Cost savings from its second phase (2007-2015) are being calculated, and the facility is scheduled to enter its third phase in 2016.
Aging roads and bridges, increased traffic and persistently constrained revenues put local road systems in peril, but the public is largely unaware of the pressures facing their communities, a Minnesota Local Road Research Board study has found.
The LRRB undertook the study to identify critical gaps in public knowledge about local road system challenges and to develop communication methods and tools to address these shortfalls.
Researchers found that even elected officials are unaware of the gap in funding needed to keep the road system going — in part because county engineers have been creative in a period of dwindling resources, and the cost of deferred maintenance has not been immediately visible.
In fact, only one Minnesota news outlet specifically covered the issue of local road system sustainability in a five-year period analyzed by researchers, with media coverage focused mainly on big events, like the collapse of the 35W bridge and the federal transportation funding bill.
There are multiple challenges to road system sustainability, including rising construction costs, declining tax revenues, heavier agricultural and industrial equipment and rising public expectations.
To help county engineers better educate the public, researchers looked at outreach strategies (such as open houses and focus groups) currently used in three Minnesota counties: Beltrami, Dakota and Jackson. The research team talked with county road managers to identify key issues and concerns and surveyed 91 residents who had participated in public engagement efforts.
The project revealed widespread confusion about local road system issues. For example, many participants erroneously believed that the gas tax covers (or was enacted to cover) the cost of maintaining local roads.
Researchers have produced a set of recommendations and tools for county engineers to use in designing effective public engagement processes that overcome confusion and a lack of information. A newly approved follow-up project will test the tools in three or four other Minnesota counties and cities.
We recently blogged about a research project to evaluate a new type of rumble strip that produces significantly less external noise than traditional designs. The above video, shot near Thief River Falls, Minnesota, shows a comparison between traditional rumble strip designs and the newer, “sinusoidal” rumble strips (a.k.a. “mumble strips”).
The life-saving benefits of rumble strips are well-established, but traditional designs produce external noise that residents consider to be a nuisance. The issue has pit safety concerns against quality-of-life concerns in some parts of the state. Researchers are investigating whether sinusoidal rumble strip designs, which are much quieter, are effective enough to combat drowsy or inattentive driving.
The video is not exactly a scientific comparison, but it does give the viewer a good sense of the difference in noise levels produced by the two styles of rumble strips. The results of the actual research project are expected to be available later this year.
Geotextiles are synthetic polymer materials used to improve the performance of roadways. As discussed in this 2011 technical summary, geotextiles facilitate filtration and water drainage, improve the integrity and functioning of base materials, and provide a stable construction platform over soft or wet soils. These improvements can benefit both the cost-efficiency and longevity of pavements.
Geosynthetic materials have been used throughout Minnesota, and can be found in both reconstructed and new roadway projects. The use of geotextiles as a separator layer under concrete overlays, however, has had limited documentation in Minnesota and other cold weather climates. MnROAD‘s recent dedication of several test cells to this purpose will determine the performance of this application of geotextiles, with the goal of improving its applications on other Minnesota roadways.
The new test sections, designated as Cells 140 and 240, consist of a very thin, 3-inch concrete overlay over an existing 7-inch concrete pavement constructed 20 years ago. Some unique features of the design include the use of a fiber-reinforced concrete mix, two different thicknesses of the nonwoven geotextile, and the use of a special type of glue, rather than nails, to fasten it to the existing concrete before paving.
The fabric and fiber used in the concrete mix were supplied through a public-private partnership with Propex Geotextile Systems. The results of this study, along with other unbonded overlays constructed at MnROAD and around the country, will be incorporated into a new national pooled fund project — TPF 5-(269) — led by MnDOT. This project will develop an improved mechanistic design procedure for unbonded overlays.
A second application being demonstrated at MnROAD is the use of a geosynthetic drainage system under several dowel bar baskets in new concrete pavement test section. Minnesota has historically used a dense-graded base layer under concrete pavements to provide a stable foundation and construction platform. However, this material drains very slowly, and traps moisture within the joints, leading eventually to significant distress (See Effect of Drainage on the Performance of Concrete Pavement Joints in Minnesota.) This application will compare the use of the geotextile drainage material placed under both sealed and unsealed joints, as well as a control joint without the drainage material.