This article was originally published in Catalyst, August 2022.
Register to join us at the annual CTS Transportation Research Conference, scheduled for November 3, 2022, at the Graduate Minneapolis Hotel on the east bank of the U of M’s Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis.
“We’re excited to partner with EasyMile to help MnDOT test autonomous technology,” said Jay Hietpas, MnDOT state traffic engineer and project manager. “Their expertise will help us learn how these vehicles operate in a winter weather environment so we can advance this technology and position MnDOT and Minnesota as a leader.”
EasyMile, which has a location in Colorado, has conducted driverless technology cold weather tests in Finland and Norway. Minnesota will be their first cold weather test site in the U.S. EasyMile will use its EZ10 electric shuttle bus that has already transported 160,000 people more than 60,000 miles in 14 countries. The shuttle was tested in various environments and traffic conditions. During these tests, the shuttle operated crash-free.
The shuttle operates autonomously at low speeds on pre-mapped routes. It can transport between six and 12 people.
Initially, it will be tested at MnROAD, which is MnDOT’s pavement test facility. Testing will include how the shuttle operates in snow and ice conditions, at low temperatures and on roads where salt is used.
Testing is scheduled to start in November and go through February 2018. The shuttle will also be showcased during the week of the 2018 Super Bowl.
Hietpas said 3M will also be a partner in the project so the company can research various connected vehicle concepts including sensor enhancement and advanced roadway safety materials. When optimized, these materials would aid in safe human and machine road navigation.
Read more about the autonomous shuttle bus pilot project:
Researchers worked with MnDOT technical experts to develop a method for identifying the financial and other benefits of MnDOT research projects. They developed a seven-step process for quantifying benefits and applied the process to 11 recent MnDOT research projects. Results showed that these projects were yielding significant financial benefits.
“We have very high expectations for the research dollars we spend,” said Hafiz Munir, Research Management Engineer. “MnDOT Research Services & Library. Following this project, we now ask investigators to tell us upfront what benefits their research could achieve, and we have improved our internal process for tracking and assessing the quantifiable benefits.”
“A lack of before-research data on the transportation activities being studied may be the biggest challenge to quantifying the benefits of research on Minnesota transportation needs. Other states are also trying to do this, but they use informal or ad hoc processes,” said Howard Preston, Senior Transportation Engineer, CH2M Hill.
What Was the Need?
MnDOT Research Services & Library manages more than $10 million in research each year, with 230 active projects covering everything transportation-related — from subgrade soils to driver psychology. Communicating the value of these research investments is an important component of transparency in government, a core interest in Minnesota.
Quantifying the benefits of research projects that lead to innovations such as new and improved materials, methods and specifications is important to MnDOT and its customers. However, because MnDOT conducts such a wide variety of research projects, it is challenging to assess the benefits that will, when applied in practice, result in quantifiable savings of time, materials or labor, or that will lead to safer roads and fewer traffic crashes.
What Was Our Goal?
MnDOT undertook this project to develop a more systematic method for identifying and measuring the financial and other benefits of its research in relation to the costs. The goal was to develop an accessible, easily applicable process that could be pilot-tested on a selection of MnDOT research projects from recent years.
What Did We Do?
MnDOT provided researchers with documents about benefits quantification practices to review and with the results of a survey of state departments of transportation on their approaches to quantifying research benefits. This review identified few states that had developed formal guidelines for assessing research benefits, and none were easily applicable to MnDOT procedures.
After reviewing the findings and consulting with MnDOT technical experts, investigators recognized that any procedure for quantifying benefits should be rooted in current MnDOT research processes. Researchers worked with a number of MnDOT offices to identify research projects that were suitable for assessing financial and other benefits from research results.
In addition to identifying projects for benefits analysis, investigators and MnDOT identified categories of benefits and developed a seven-step process for gathering and organizing cost data for various project types, applying a benefits assessment process and comparing benefits to research cost.
What Did We Learn?
The research team performed benefit-cost assessments for 11 projects. Six of the assessments had high confidence levels. One challenge in developing a uniform process included refining the complex range of cost input categories, input data options and research objectives associated with the research projects. Assembling and organizing before-research data, even for fairly simple maintenance activities, proved particularly challenging and impeded the development of benefits assessment processes.
Investigators developed a user guide, a training presentation and a quantification tool — a complex set of spreadsheets for inputting data and calculating comparative benefits. The quantification tool should eventually develop into a user-friendly software package or Web interface.
Based on the analysis of cost and savings data, the 11 research projects showed significant benefits. In one 2012 project, investigators developed an inexpensive baffle that is inserted into stormwater sumps and slows the flow of water in and out, allowing more contaminated sediment to settle rather than being carried into streams and lakes. Re-search to develop the baffle, at the University of Minnesota St. Anthony Falls Laboratory (SAFL), cost $257,000. The cost to purchase and install the baffle is about $4,000 in Minnesota compared to $25,000 for more traditional stormwater mitigation solutions. Use of SAFL baffles in Minnesota is projected to save the state about $8.5 million in equipment, installation and environmental costs over a three-year period.
In total, the research cost of $1.98 million for the 11 projects analyzed is expected to save an estimated $68.6 million for MnDOT and Minnesota cities and counties over a three-year period, for a benefit-to-cost ratio of about 34-to-1. The expected savings will be enough to pay for the research budget for six or seven years.
MnDOT has added quantification-of-benefits elements to its research proposal evaluation process, and since late 2015 has asked potential principal investigators to supply information on the current costs of the activities they propose to study and improve.
Since 2016, research project awards have included a request that investigators develop quantifiable data resulting from their research activity. The awards offer additional funds for that work. Investigators now provide a brief memorandum within the first 90 days of the project describing how they will quantify benefits, and in some cases presenting preliminary data. At the end of the project, these investigators describe their quantification process and results. MnDOT has tracked this information in a database, finding that about three out of every four projects show potential to yield quantifiable benefits.
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 the first big snow and ice storms sweep through parts of Minnesota today, we’d like to remind you of some of our great winter weather research studies. Here’s a list of some of this winter-related research from MnDOT and the Local Road Research Board:
Living snow fences
Living snow fences are trees, shrubs, native grasses, wildflowers, or rows of corn crops located along roads or around communities and farmsteads. These living barriers trap snow as it blows across fields, piling it up before it reaches a road, waterway, farmstead or community. Through multiple research efforts, MnDOT continues to advance its practices for living snow fences. Willow plants, which are which are inexpensive and fast-growing, are a new form of snow fence. MnDOT has also developed a tool that allows the agency to better offer a competitive payment to farmers.
According to recent studies, researchers believe Minnesota could eliminate salt usage on low-volume local roads by switching to permeable pavements. Permeable pavements — pavements that allow water to seep through them — have been studied in some Minnesota cities, and a research project is currently underway to further investigate how much salt reduction can be expected.
MnDOT’s Metro District developed a way to automatically determine when to stop plowing a highway after a snow storm. The method involves measuring traffic flow to determine when road conditions have recovered. Current practice calls for maintenance workers to visually inspect traffic lanes. The automated technique could potentially be more accurate and save time and costs.
Minnesota winters are no joke, and Minnesotans still need to get wherever they’re going despite harsh snow and ice conditions. That’s why MnDOT is constantly researching new and improved versions of salt and other deicing chemicals to keep roads safe at the least amount of damage to lakes, rivers and groundwater.
A couple years ago, MnDOT snowplow operators in southwestern Minnesota invented an experimental plow that uses the wind to cast snow from the road without impeding traffic or the operator’s view. This winter, MnDOT intends to test multiple types of snowplow blades as part of a larger research project comparing types of deicers.
When the snow melts every spring, the damage salt does to roadside grass is obvious. That’s why researchers have spent years looking into developing and implementing salt-tolerant grasses on roadside settings. The result of this effort has been the introduction and use of salt-tolerant sod and seed mixtures that are made up primarily of fine fescue species. MnDOT is also studying how chlorides are transported within watersheds in order to better focus efforts to reduce deicer usage in areas where it will have the biggest environmental impact.
MnDOT has developed a test that can tell whether a contractor’s proposed asphalt mix will cause the road to crack in the winter. Building roads using better asphalt mixes leads to less cracking and fewer potholes. The test is expected to save the state about $2 million per year.
It’s not all about cars and trucks. Minnesotans still ride bikes and walk in the winter. That why MnDOT assembled a comprehensive review of existing practices and policies from other states, as well as a summary of valuable publications that could be referenced while developing a new policy.
MnDOT research led to the development of a Maintenance Decision Support System and related components provide real-time, route-specific information to snow plow drivers, as well as recommended salt application levels. These recommendations have reduced chemical usage while still achieving performance targets for snow and ice clearance.
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.
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.)
Thanks to a flexible new contracting method, the cost and time of delivering small highway projects in Minnesota should go down.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation is now able to put road construction contractors on standby for certain types of projects, rather than bid each project individually, due to the adoption of Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contracts.
“IDIQ contracts give MnDOT more flexibility and the ability to get to the field quicker for work that we need repeated routinely, such as culvert repairs, overlays and seal coats,” said Kevin Kosobud, project development engineer with MnDOT’s Office of Construction and Innovative Contracting.
IDIQs also provide flexibility when needs are uncertain. Contracts are often used for multiple small projects that are similar in scope, but difficult to quantify in cost and timing.
For instance, the state of Florida awards IDIQs for hurricane debris removal, activating and paying contractors only when a hurricane necessitates the service.
Although IDIQs showed great promise, MnDOT had to develop a framework to implement them.
The federal government has used IDIQ contracts since the 1980s, but only a small number of state DOTS have used them to procure construction services. No standard procedures existed for their use by state DOTs, and federal procedures are not always applicable at the state level.
MnDOT hired Iowa State University researchers to examine IDIQ usage across the country and develop implementation procedures for Minnesota. (Read a summary of their research here.)
Researchers examined contracting practices at 14 different transportation agencies to recommend guidelines for Minnesota to follow, which allowed MnDOT to begin awarding IDIQ contracts in April 2013.
Case study analyses show clear benefits where IDIQ has been used: acceleration of the project delivery period, reduced construction costs and flexible delivery scheduling.
“IDIQs can help DOTs get better prices for routine services via an economy of scale, for instance, by awarding a contract for a larger number of culvert repairs rather than awarding a single contract for each repair,” explained Doug Gransberg, professor of construction engineering at the Iowa State University Institute of Transportation.
Agencies can award IDIQ contracts individually or collectively.
With a single-award contract, a single contractor is awarded task orders based on the pricing furnished in the initial bid package; multiple-award contracts determine a pool of qualified contractors who may subsequently bid on task orders.