Oct. 14, 2020
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Lowered water level gives inspectors an up-close look at Stone Arch Bridge foundations

By Joseph Palmersheim

Photo: people walking around on the exposed mud left by lower water levels in the Mississippi River by the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently lowered water levels on the Mississippi River near the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis to do inspections on its lock and dam facilities. Members of the public took advantage of the opportunity to explore areas of the riverbed that are not usually accessible. Photo by Rich Kemp

Low water levels around the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis recently drew a high level of interest from engineers, inspectors and the merely curious.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reduced the Mississippi River water level Oct. 3-12 to do inspections on its lock and dam facilities for the first time since 2008. MnDOT took advantage of the opportunity to look at the pier foundations of the Stone Arch Bridge. Underwater inspections can be difficult due to the swift flow of water and low visibility, said Amber Blanchard, major projects manager, Metro District. She is working in program delivery at Metro to help develop preservation work that will be happening on the Stone Arch Bridge in 2022. MnDOT’s inspectors were looking for additional deterioration in the stone and mortar.

Photo of the Stone Arch Bridge

Another view of the Stone Arch Bridge, clearly showing the lower river water levels. Photo by Amber Blanchard

The event was a few months in the making. The USACE notified MnDOT in early summer that the lock and dam inspection was being planned for either this fall or next spring. Metro Program Delivery staff started taking part in meetings for advance planning in early September, and was involved in weekly meetings until the drawdown took place. Factors considered included weather forecast (short- and long-term) for the Mississippi River headwaters, current water levels in Minneapolis, and agencies’ and stakeholders’ ability to participate in the drawdown.

According to the USACE St. Paul District website, engineers at the USACE opened the dam gates at the lower lock to allow the river level to lower from a current elevation of 750 feet to about 738 feet. The draw down started Oct. 3 and was conducted over a few days, at a rate of 4 feet per day, with the river at its lowest elevation on the morning of Oct. 6. Refilling started Oct. 8, and the river was back to normal elevations by the weekend. During the draw down, the water continued to flow downstream but in a narrower path.

“The lowering of the water elevation helps people understand what the Mississippi River would look like if the lock and dams wouldn’t have been built,” Blanchard said. “These were added to capture the hydroelectricity potential that was there with river flow. The locks and dams increased the elevation of the normal water level so that the USACE could control the flow of the river.”

If crowds were any indication, members of the public were interested in seeing the river in a closer-to-natural state.

“There were a lot of people exploring the east bank area the morning I was there and I have seen several other photos since. This event doesn’t happen very often and people seem to take advantage of the opportunity,” she said.



Hwy 111/22 project results in ‘smooth sailing’ for years to come

By Rebecca Arndt, District 7 Public Affairs

Photo: two paving machines move side-by-side down a freshly paved road

Echelon paving, pictured above, involves two pavers paving side by side to eliminate a centerline joint that can cause early pavement failure. These crews are working north of the Hwy 22 intersection. Photo by Landon Richardson

Nearly 20 miles of highway in two counties were repaved during a recent, season-long project in District 7.
Crews tackled Hwy 111/22 from the city of Nicollet to the “Welcome to Gaylord” sign in both Nicollet and Sibley counties in two stages so travelers would find a more manageable detour situation.

Hwy 111/22 from Nicollet to Gaylord is a heavily traveled route. Swan Lake lies to the west and Middle Lake lies to the east. Both are large water bodies that cut off north-south travel, particularly truck traffic, and funnel it to Hwy 111/22. Recognizing the inconvenience to the traveling public during construction, work was divided into two stages to minimize the impact, said Matt Young, project manager.

Detour dilemma
The stage one detour included the now-infamous-for-flooding Hwy 93 from Henderson to Hwy 169. The project team had a back-up plan to alter the detour should that happen. And happen it did – five times! Hwy 93 flooded and the detour was switched once each month for five months during the first half of the project.

Let it snow - and blow
Working with Gene Munsterman, MnDOT snowplow driver and snow fence advocate, the project team identified 10 different sites that would benefit the public and snowplowing operations. They then contacted the property owners in those locations and worked with the willing owners of two sites to construct structural snow fences.

Smooth sailing at a higher speed
The project included echelon paving for the final lift, which involves two pavers paving side by side to eliminate a centerline joint that can cause early pavement failure. It also included replacing guardrails at various locations, adding lighting at six rural intersections, and coordinating with the city of Nicollet to extend the water main and storm sewer.

The end result for travelers on Hwy 111/22 is not only a smoother, long-lasting pavement, but enough safety improvements to raise the speed upon completion from 55 mph to 60 mph.

“The roadway was in rough shape and required an extensive pavement fix, but we should have plenty of smooth sailing before additional repairs are needed,” Young said.



Second Amtrak train to Chicago chugging along thanks to federal grant

By Mary McFarland Brooks

Photo: map of the proposed train route from St. Paul to Chicago

Map of the proposed second Amtrak train to Chicago route. Submitted photo

Recent federal funding developments for railroad improvements along the existing Amtrak Empire Builder route could see a second daily roundtrip between the Twin Cities, Milwaukee and Chicago become a reality within the next few years.

The Consolidated Railroad Infrastructure and Safety Improvement competitive grant, worth up to $31.8 million, was recently awarded to the Wisconsin and Minnesota Departments of Transportation for the Twin Cities-La Crosse-Milwaukee-Chicago Intercity Passenger Rail Project. The project aims to improve the existing passenger rail corridor from St. Paul’s Union Station to south along the Mississippi River on the Minnesota side, where the track eventually crosses the river at Lacrosse and winds through the heart of Wisconsin. 
Minnesota improvements to rail corridor that CISCI grant provides include:

  • Siding track, switches, signal, and station access improvements in Winona - $19 million
  • Track and switch improvements at River Junction in La Crescent - $15.8 million
  • Track and switch work on the Mississippi Swing Bridge near La Crescent - $5 million
  • Improvements to the Midway facility in St. Paul - $0.5 million

The addition of one daily roundtrip on the existing Amtrak Empire Builder route would result in two daily roundtrips between Minnesota, Wisconsin and Chicago. The new schedule, with trains running four hours apart, would enable overnight trips to the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, or Chicago from mid-size and rural communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin, which is not possible with the current one-round-trip schedule.

“The TCMC will provide better access to communities and educational facilities along with providing more jobs,” said Dan Krom, director of MnDOT’s passenger rail program. “These passenger rail improvements will also benefit freight rail, the environment and support tourism in the state and region.”
The project is anticipated to be operational in 2024.

More information



October brings awareness to cybersecurity

By Joseph Palmersheim

Graphic: cybersecurity awareness

Is MnDOT a tempting target for cybercrime? Maybe, if the thousands of attempts to get past the firewall or tens of thousands of spam emails are any indication.

October is National Cybersecurity Awareness Month. According to Bill Leifheit, chief architect and information security officer with Minnesota IT Services, MnDOT, like other state agencies, is attacked daily in many different ways.

Hackers try to infiltrate the agency’s network, probing its firewalls at a rate of almost 3,000 attempts per hour, Leifheit said. More than 200 security incidents were reported statewide in August, with a dozen of those here at MnDOT. Employees receive hundreds of phishing emails and vishing (callers pretending to be someone else in order to gain unauthorized access) calls each month. More than 23,000 spam emails were reported to the Security Operations Center in August, and over 11,000 of those were confirmed attempts to steal information. Finally, there are incidents of targeted impersonation of administrative or executive staff, trying to convince other staff to reveal private, confidential or other Not Public information. More than 20 state government accounts were potentially compromised in August.

“We like to say that the second computer was probably created to hack the first one invented,” Leifheit said. “As long as people have had private information or systems, others have tried to gain access for personal gain. The biggest changes over the last few years have been the expansion of automated hacking tools and professionally organized groups making this a big business. These efforts are not just a geek in a basement anymore. It’s more likely organized crime groups complete with salaries and staff meetings.”

To help protect MnDOT’s data and computer systems, MNIT installs hundreds of security patches on thousands of devices each month. The agency has also implemented multi-factor authentication for more than 30,000 state employees to help prevent unauthorized account access, and has started Anti-Phishing simulation programs to educate customers about the social engineering tricks that hackers use to try and steal identities or data.

Lessons can also be learned from incidents connected with other DOTs. The ransomware attack on the Colorado Department of Transportation showed the importance of having good backups and well-tested continuity of operations plans based on business priority, Leifheit said.

“You need strong business and technical partnerships, too,” he said. “It takes a village to save an agency.”

System users are part of that village. MNIT has prepared a list of security tips for users to consider when using agency technology.

“The most important reason to be aware of cyber threats to MnDOT is that these disruptions can prevent us from achieving our mission,” Leifheit said. “Computers can be replaced pretty easily, but if public trust in our agency is damaged by cyber security incidents, we risk serious disruption in our ability to deliver critical transportation services to the public.”



Managers’ Workshop a virtual success

By Judy Jacobs

More than 200 MnDOT leaders recently met using a new virtual format, Microsoft Teams, for the annual Managers’ Workshop Sept. 29-30.

“This year’s virtual Managers’ Workshop was vital to having important conversations around transportation equity, adapting to our COVID-19 reality and planning for the future,” said Sara Severs, chief of staff. “The workshop was also the perfect opportunity to roll out Microsoft Teams. Using new technology for the first time at an event of this scale is always a little nerve-wracking but thanks to the hard work of MNIT, Technology Investment Management, the Office of Organizational Planning and Management and all our managers, we were able to have a successful and productive event.”  

The agenda featured a welcome by Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher. Speakers included Jillian Linnell, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, who talked about equity in transportation, followed by mini-presentations from MnDOT staff Gloria Jeff, Metro District Livability; Philip Schaffner, Transportation System Management; Molly McCartney, Metro District Program Management; Tara Olds, Connected and Automated Vehicles; and Lee Zutz, Office of Civil Rights, to highlight current equity initiatives. Kim Collins, Office of Civil Rights director, facilitated the session.
A MnDOT leadership panel facilitated byCraig Gustafson, chief counsel, answered questions from the workshop participants. Panelists were Anderson Kelliher; Levi Brown, Office of Tribal Affairs director; Jay Hietpas, Operations assistant commissioner; and Severs.

Beth Cohen, a clinical and organizational psychologist with mass trauma expertise, spoke about “Leading through Crisis and Uncertainty: COVID-19,” addressing some of the unprecedented and professional challenges facing managers and supervisors during a pandemic, and during re-entry into a potentially changed workforce and workplace.

Kicking off the second day of the two half-day workshop, Joe Kelly, director of Statewide Emergency Operations for the Minnesota Department of Safety, addressed “COVID-19: Lesson Learned.” Kelly highlighted his experiences, what proved useful to him, and lessons learned with emergency response, disaster recovery and government operations during the pandemic.

“Kelly’s presentation was something I think we could all relate to,” said Todd Haglin, MnDOT’s Emergency Management manager, Office of Administration. “He reaffirmed the actions MnDOT has taken to operate within the environment we currently have. We should all feel good about getting to the place where we can adapt to the ever-changing situation.”

Telework has become a way of life for many employees during COVID-19. Duane Hill, District 1 transportation engineer, and Katie Walker, Office of Research and Innovation director, updated managers on the current telework planning efforts and explored what the future of telework could look like. 

Hally Turner, Transportation System Management, and Nicole Westadt, Organizational Planning and Management, led a planning exercise in preparation for an update to the Statewide Multimodal Transportation Plan and the Strategic Operating Plan. Managers were split in to small groups to discuss why MnDOT’s work is important, what has changed in the past five years and where MnDOT needs to be in the future.

Deputy Commissioners Nancy Daubenberger and Scott Peterson closed the workshop recognizing the agency’s newest managers.

Praveena Pidaparthi, Office of Freight and Commercial Vehicle Operations assistant director, was one of the new managers recognized.

“It was a pleasant surprise to see that this workshop was held virtually this year,” Pidaparthi said. “I value these workshops. Things are just so different for new managers this year. It’s such a great opportunity to meet new and experienced managers and hear from MnDOT leadership.”

“We all are learning more each day about how to lead our teams during a pandemic. This workshop gave us an opportunity to engage with each other and experts across the country about the challenges and opportunities we face,” said Commissioner Anderson Kelliher. “I appreciate the hard work, extra effort and innovative problem-solving MnDOT employees have demonstrated to meet the challenges of a global pandemic. Thanks to each of you for your resiliency and positive attitude.” 

Microsoft Teams training was provided to managers prior to the workshop to prepare them for the virtual session.

“It’s amazing what we successfully took on for this first event, with new technology, new features and just a different cultural element of social interaction by finding new ways to work together as an agency,” said Jim Close, MNIT chief business technology officer.



Staffing updates

By Joseph Palmersheim

MnDOT has a new Systems Program Management unit in the Business Continuity section of the Office of Financial Management. This unit will work on managing portfolios of financial applications, including managing upgrades and implementations of both the applications and business processes.

“By establishing this unit, we intend to advance projects related to OFM’s financial applications and business processes,” said Susan Walto, manager, Fiscal Business Continuity, Office of Financial Management. “The pandemic has only brought home the importance of how we use our applications and the critical nature of this work.”

Margaret Jones, who joined MnDOT 10 years ago as part of the SWIFT implementation project team, is the new head of the Systems Program Management unit. She has worked on a number of initiatives in OFM, including products and services, last year’s SWIFT upgrade and e-payments. Jones spent more than 20 years managing projects at Ameriprise prior to joining MnDOT.

Chad Balian joined the unit in June to manage the Resource Consumption portfolio for RCA. He’ll also work on knowledge management and shepherd other projects in different portfolios. Balian previously worked in the private sector as a project manager and business analyst. He has a bachelor’s degree in accounting/business management from Bethel College and is pursuing his Project Management Professional certification.

Sean Klett joined MnDOT in September to manage the Capital Programs portfolio, which includes CHIMES, PUMA and State Aid Accounting. Klett also came from the private sector, where he served as a project manager and financial planning and analysis manger. He has a master’s degree in finance and Chinese from the University of St. Thomas and a bachelor’s degree in economics and international relations from University of Wisconsin-Madison.



On the Job: District 7’s Angelica Tejada helps internal, external stakeholders with GIS needs

By Joseph Palmersheim

Photo: Angelica Tejada

Angelica Tejada. Submitted photo

District 7 GIS coordinator Angelica Tejada started as a MnDOT SEEDs program worker in May 2012. After four years in that program, she was hired as a temporary research analyst, and started with GIS when she was permanently hired in August 2017.

What do you do in your role at MnDOT?
I work closely with the other GIS coordinators in the different districts on GIS-related topics. This involves collecting and maintaining data, providing analytic research support, and GIS and CAD/MicroStation products and support to all functional groups in District 7. I’m involved with preparing construction maps and Area Transportation Partnership maps of potential and planned construction projects. These help decision-making in regards to which projects to plan and program, and as a communication tool in public engagement efforts. I also work with some of MnDOT’s external partners, like the Minnesota State Patrol, to support their needs for GIS products. Finally, I serve as staff liaison to District 7 GIS Steering Committee and GIS User Group to help implement the district’s GIS vision and direction.

What do you find interesting about it?
The most interesting thing I find about my role is that it never gets boring or old to me. From day one, I learned so much more while on the job than I had while I was in school.

What’s your favorite part about what you do?
My favorite part of what I do is seeing the results and reactions of the products I produce. The comments I receive from my colleagues and external partners often include how grateful they are to have the ability to physically see the data that has been collected and interpreted.

Anything else you’d like to add?
I would like to say that to my knowledge, I am the only one in my family who has worked for MnDOT. Some of my family did not even know what MnDOT was, so it was a learning experience for everyone, including myself. I can honestly say these past few years have been a blessing for me, and I am so thankful to have been given the chance and opportunity to work at this welcoming and amazing workplace.

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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