Sept. 15, 2021
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That’s a wrap: Four-year 35W@94 project improves safety, increases access, reduces congestion for busy area

Photo: Minneapolis skyline

A view of the 35W@94 project, looking north at the new Franklin Avenue bridge. The four-year, $239 million project officially opened Friday, Sept. 10. Photo by Rich Kemp

By Joseph Palmersheim

Like many commuters coming from the west side of the Twin Cities, Aaron Tag was able to get an up-close look at work on the 35W@94 project in Minneapolis every time he drove to work.

He knew more than most drivers about the local landmark – 35W@94 was the biggest project the Metro District West Area engineer had ever worked on at the agency.

And now, he gets to see completion.

After nearly four years of construction, MnDOT’s 35W@94 Downtown to Crosstown project opened Friday, Sept. 10, finishing on-time and on-budget. The five-stage, $239 million project was the first major update to the interchange area (built in 1967) since dynamic price lanes were added in 2009.

Photo: Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher standing near Gov. Tim Walz

Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey look on as Gov. Tim Walz speaks during a media event marking the opening on the 35W@94 project Friday, Sept. 10. Photo by Rich Kemp

“To the residents of Minneapolis, the local businesses, and all Minnesotans who travel on Interstate 35W and I-94, we want to say thank you for patience,” Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher said during a Sept. 10 news conference. “This work will benefit everyone who lives, walks, bikes, uses transit or drives in the area.”

Crews rebuilt 2.5 miles of freeway between 43rd Street and I-94; rebuilt and repaired bridges; added access from southbound I-35W to a rebuilt Lake Street, providing a connection to businesses; and added a ramp from northbound I-35W to 28th Street.

They also rebuilt the ramp from I-35W north to I-94 west, including a dedicated lane for motorists seeking to continue through the Lowry Tunnel.

Metro Transit built a transit station at 31st and Lake streets. The station is the centerpiece of the Orange Line bus service (launching later this year) to provide faster bus service into downtown Minneapolis.

A southbound E-ZPass lane was added for vehicles with at least two occupants, motorcyclists and single-occupancy vehicles willing to pay during peak hours.

Walkers and bikers have improved paths and bridges, including new 24th and 40th street bridges that are wider and more accessible. The Green Crescent provides walking and biking access from Midtown Greenway and Lake Street with green space.

Finally, crews replaced aging bridges at 26th Street, 38th Street and Franklin Avenue.

“It’s one of the biggest projects that we’ve had,” Tag said. “It’s a two-mile segment of I-35W in the heart of the urban core of Minneapolis. You don’t have any room to work on the sides. Completely reconstructing freeway in this area, along with 11 bridges, is a complex undertaking.”

And MnDOT didn’t do the work alone.

“Metro Transit is a big piece of this, with the big transit station on Lake Street,” Tag said. “Hennepin County had us rebuilding a number of blocks of Lake Street. The city of Minneapolis had work they added as well. Adding three partners to the project adds complexity, but that is one of the things that make it successful.”

A project this size is challenging on its own, but throw in the events of 2020 on top of it and you get something else entirely. The pandemic turned out to be a mixed blessing, because it reduced daily traffic volumes for a while and allowed the contractor to do things like lane closures during the day. Normally, that wouldn’t be possible in the area, Tag noted.

And another thing that doesn’t seem possible? That this project, decades in the making, could actually be finished.

“I started the job I am in now in March 2017, and this project started later that year, so it’s been most of my time in this job,” Tag said. “I’ll look back at this one as a project that really was quite successful.”



Intelligent work zone signs give travelers real-time messages

By Joseph Palmersheim

Photo: traffic on a freeway

An automated queue warning system provides information to motorists on westbound I-94 near Weaver Lake Road. The message changed over from a traffic time estimate to notify drivers that they should expect stopped traffic (the State Patrol vehicle and the camper) ahead. MnDOT traffic camera photo

Each sign in a MnDOT work zone used to be good at saying just one thing.

Not anymore.

Thanks in part to a variety of communications, sensor and display technologies, some of the agency’s work zone signage can reflect actual, real-time conditions on the road. For example, if sensors detect that traffic ahead has stopped, signs ahead of the area can display a “Stopped traffic ahead” message, which will clear when the traffic does.

For Nick Menzel, graduate engineer, it boils down to safety and customer satisfaction.

“It’s about getting information out to motorists so they are more aware, more alert,” he said. “It’s intended to help lessen the shockwave of whatever variable impacts traffic flow. Providing travel times in a long work zone, like what we have now up in Maple Grove on the Interstate 94 project, can help manage expectations. If drivers see a travel time showing that it’s going to take 20 minutes, they have a better understanding of what they are going to experience. While we expect congestion in downtown Minneapolis, for example, in rural areas, long lines and stopped traffic aren’t expected.”

In addition to the I-94 Maple Grove to Clearwater project, MnDOT is also using intelligent signs with the Twin Ports Interchange project in Duluth. While some messages display on permanent signs, others are displayed on mobile electronic sign boards, which give project managers more flexibility in terms of moving the units where they’ll be most effective. Temporary traffic cameras can also give both MnDOT staff and the public a better idea of traffic flow in the area.

So how does an intelligent sign work? The words on the screen are the end result of teamwork and multiple systems working together. Sensors in the area collect traffic volume, speeds, lane densities and other pieces of data. A communication link from a wireless cellular modem sends the data to the Regional Transportation Management Center, and from there, it goes to IRIS.

IRIS isn’t a person – the abbreviation stands for “Intelligent Roadway Information System.” This program controls updates on signs and other traffic management devices, like ramp meters. The IRIS data is updated every 30 seconds.

The program also does the math for how these signs display traffic time estimates, Menzel said.

“IRIS will look at where the sign is that we want the message to deploy, and using GPS, calculate the distance from where the sign is to the destination,” he said. “For example, we have a sign on southbound I-35W at 4th Street, and one of our destinations is Hwy 62. So IRIS will see that it’s 9 miles to get there, and we have sensors every half-mile between there and the sign. IRIS will record the speed and the volume passing by each detector, and will use those to calculate the time it takes to travel each half-mile between detectors, and add up those times between the sign and destination. We’ll usually round the times up to the nearest whole minute. People won’t complain that it takes them less time to get somewhere. And if it’s free flow conditions, we have it set so IRIS will make a travel time estimate based on the posted speed limit, versus if people are speeding.”

Photo: chart with various speed levels indicated on it

Data collected from intelligent sensors can be used to create a histogram like this one, which shows how many vehicles are driving at what speed from westbound I-94 near I-494. For reference, the area has a 65 mph speed limit. Submitted graphic

Data from intelligent signs can be used in a long-term way, too. Menzel said data from new sensors might help give insight into how a “chute lane” on the I-94 project is working.

“These sensors have the capability to collect individual vehicle speeds so we can more easily create speed histograms at the detector location,” he said. “We hope this will also shed light, based on motorist behavior, on if those ‘Your Speed’ trailers are effective at reducing speeds in work zones.”



Group strives for data consistency, integrity, accessibility

By Joseph Palmersheim

What is data?

In the words of MnDOT’s Data Stewardship Policy: “Data is needed to create information, which is used by knowledge workers to do their jobs. The right knowledge used by the right worker can turn into wisdom. Without quality data, information and knowledge are suspect and wisdom unattainable.”

But how do you make sure that everyone is using the right data from the right source?

MnDOT’s Data Optimization Users Group (known as “DOUG”) is working to figure that out. The 27-member group, made up of employees from across the agency, was established early in 2020. It grew out of the Highway Construction Information Management Process, a series of interviews conducted in 2019-20 with 15 different MnDOT offices and individuals who manage project construction data. These interviews identified key challenges and opportunities involving construction project data integration.

As chartered, DOUG was established to bring together employees whose day-to-day routines involve working on or with the department’s project construction data applications, such as P6, PUMA, CHIMES, CAATS, REALMS, and AASHTOWare. Other DOUG members include application technicians and managers, MNIT staff, finance and environmental office staff, project delivery and technical support staff and Data Domain Stewards. 

DOUG’s goals include:

  • Ensuring the integrity of highway project construction information displayed to the public
  • Ensuring accountability and transparency in the management of information assets
  • Allowing quick and easy access to key project information
  • Assuring consistency in data terminology
  • Designing systems and processes that advance and promotes data stewardship
  • Laying the foundation for expanded capacity in the future
  • Providing a single source of record for financial data to enable more transparent information about key project information, such as project costs 
  • Avoiding duplication in data entry, data creation and storage

Part of the group’s work relates to ensuring data quality, while other parts focus on making sure the data is easily accessible and accurate. Sometimes, it’s about ensuring that data terminology and definitions are consistent, regardless of the application in which it is stored. Many of the same data terms are used in multiple applications, so making sure they are correct wherever they are housed is critical. 

“This is about ensuring that the data in one application is consistent with that same data in all other applications across the project development timeline, from project planning through construction to project close-out” said Matt Shands, one of DOUG’s organizers. “One strategy we are pursuing to enhance data reliability is to identify opportunities to automate data entry as much as possible in order to minimize data discrepancies and gaps.”

The DOUG group hopes to implement data management strategies that take advantage of locating even more of MnDOT project construction data to the department’s central digital “warehouse,” where multiple applications can access it. This strategy enhances data reliability by promoting an authoritative “single source of record” for key project data.

“The ability to access the same data from multiple places can be problematic. The goal here is to be able for users to know exactly which applications contain the authoritative source of record for any particular data point,” Shands said. “That’s one of DOUG’s ultimate goals – to make clear where one needs to go to get the right information on a project.”

While the objective may be clear, reality dictates that the work itself never really ends.

“You’ve never completely solved the problem,” Shands said. “It’s a fluid system. People change, applications change and systems change, so this is something that will require a sustained effort. It’s like a garden that requires constant tending. The DOUG group is working to simplify our ability to tend to it.”

Contact Matt Shands to learn more about DOUG.



Passwords: Perils and pitfalls

When we create passwords for our accounts, we want something easy to remember and quick to enter. Unfortunately, those passwords are also the easiest and quickest for cyber criminals to crack – sometimes in only a matter of seconds.

For stronger passwords, a popular option is to use a passphrase. A passphrase is a string of random words, numbers and symbols. It is much easier to remember, but more difficult for criminals to figure out. The trick is to use words or phrases that mean something to you but aren’t commonly used by others.

Top tips for creating strong passwords

  • Follow the State of Minnesota password requirements for length, complexity and history.
  • Protect all your computers, tablets and mobile phones by setting up a password for each device.
  • Create a unique password for each account. Adding different numbers to the end of a password for all of your accounts doesn’t count as strong password management. Cyber criminals may be able to crack your password rules.
  • Use a password manager to keep track of all your passwords and passphrases in one place. MnDOT computers are equipped with KeePass. Find it using the Software Center function on your computer. For home use, review recommendations from industry experts at CNET, PC Magazine and IT Pro Portal.
  • Use distinctive words or phrases – part of a favorite quote, an inside joke, a random phrase, or set of words that aren’t commonly used.
  • Make sure you don’t use information that might be easily available on social media profiles, visible on your desk, or in your background during virtual meetings.
  • Don’t use locally common words, interests or number sequences. Common words for Minnesota employees include:
    • Activities: Don’t reference activities or hobbies like fishing, snowmobiling or canoeing.
    • Localities: Avoid using local areas such as St. Paul or Minneapolis, College of St. Thomas or the University of Minnesota.
    • Well-known people and teams: Don’t use names that are often in the news or the names of sports teams like the Vikings or Twins.
    • Popular places: Avoid using ValleyFair, Mississippi or specific state park names.
  • Avoid using the following types of words from some of the worst and weakest passwords.
    • Years: Your birth year, special years such as an anniversary or birth of a child, or the year 2000. Close to 10 million people use “2010” alone.
    • Favorite names or children/spouse names: Starting with Eva, Alex, Anna, and Max. Over 7 million people use the names Eva and Alex each.
    • Sports teams: The Phoenix Suns and Miami Heat account for the 2 million commonly used passwords. Although the Vikings and Twins didn’t make the top 10, local team names are still too common to use.
    • Curse words: Even if you don’t love creating a password, avoid curse words. The top curse word has over 26 million occurrences.
    • Cities: Many love their favorite city and use it in their password. Abu and Rome top the list. If you want to choose a city as your password, pick a random city that only means something to you.
    • Days/months/seasons: Summer, Friday and May top out these unoriginal choices.
    • Food: Favorite foods or drinks – ice, tea and pie are listed as the top three.
  • Change your password if you suspect it has been compromised. If you suspect your password or account is compromised, report it immediately to the MNIT Service Desk at 651-297-1111 or call your local help desk.



AAERG represents MnDOT at Selby Avenue Jazz Festival

Photo: MnDOT employees behind a table with a MnDOT logo on it

MnDOT's African-American Employee Resource Group sponsored a booth at the Selby Avenue Jazz Festival in St. Paul on Saturday, Sept. 11. Members of the group provided information on current job opportunities to booth visitors, and handed out keychains, bike maps, water bottles and drawstring backpacks. Pictured from left are Trumanue Lindsey, transportation generalist, Bridge Design Section; Stacy McKenzie, office specialist, Bridges; and Galen Sjostrom, transportation specialist, Engineering Services.

The AAERG is dedicated to the interests of employees who self-identify as Black, African-American, West Indian, of any African descent and allies/partners who have a shared interest. Learn more about the group on iHub. Photo by Jesse Johnson


On the Job: Justin Knopf manages project development in District 4

By Rich Kemp

Photo: Justin Knopf

Justin Knopf. Photo by Rich Kemp

Justin Knopf is a project manager in District 4 out of Detroit Lakes. He has been with MnDOT for nine years.

What has been your career path?
I started at MnDOT as an employee specialist in traffic and then entered the Graduate Engineer Program a year later. After a year in the Graduate Engineer Program, I filled the hydraulics engineer position for a little over one year. I then spent a short time as the preliminary design engineer, before becoming a project manager, which I have done for the last five and a half years. Prior to starting at MnDOT, I worked in the transportation and municipal engineering sector for a few consulting firms.

What do you do in your job?
I manage the development of projects from inception to completion of the construction plans. I also serve as the primary contact for other agencies, the public or anyone else who has an interest in our projects. I will continue to provide guidance and information on most projects as they are constructed.

What is your favorite part about your job?
Working with our functional areas and other stakeholders to develop a plan that will meet everyone’s needs for not only the present, but also into the future.

What are the biggest challenges?
Challenges change from project to project depending on what the scope of work is. I’d say generally they relate to the budget and identifying what will and will not be incorporated in the final plan. Another challenge is managing stakeholders’ needs, as they change during the project development.

What kind of changes have you seen in your job?
Since I have started in project management, I feel the public engagement effort made by our office has increased a great amount. This engagement has identified additional stakeholders, which requires the project planning to start sooner to identify what the needs are and how to best allocate our resources to address them. Having to say no to a project request and then needing to justify why can also be a challenge.

Do you or a co-worker have an interesting job to share with readers? Send us your ideas, and we’ll contact you for more information.

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