Oct. 28, 2020
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New tunnel washers clean up when put to the test

By Joseph Palmersheim

When Metro Maintenance’s old tunnel washer got damaged during a washing project two years ago, the road ahead was somewhat unclear.

Photo: a truck in a tunnel spraying water at a tunnel wall

District 1's tunnel washer at work in the tunnel through downtown Duluth. The unit consists of a spray washer arm mounted where a wing blade usually goes on a plow truck. Photo by Nathan Smith

The washer, built in 1996, wasn’t supported for parts or service anymore. Buying a new one was “an equipment budget buster,” said John Bieniek, Metro District Maintenance Operations engineer. The district resorted to outsourcing the tunnel-washing work to contractors. These cleanings, which cost around $85,000 per event, took place in fall 2019 and spring 2020. The contractors did not perform the traffic control or site cleanup, so Metro still needed to provide all of the supporting activities on those washes.

Facing a similar issue, District 1 took a different path, building its own tunnel washer last spring. The unit consists of a spray washer arm mounted where a wing blade usually goes on a plow truck. Water comes from an 1,800-gallon tank mounted in the truck’s bed. Nate Smith, Virginia shop supervisor, said the idea came from Dave Ivers, Metro District’s superintendent of Fleet Equipment, who found that the Colorado DOT had built something similar.

“We took what Colorado built and made a high-pressure, low-volume version,” Smith said. “We built one for about $6,000. I came up with the design and Nick Daronco, heavy equipment mechanic, developed the system and put it together for us.”

District 1’s machine was tailor-made for the tunnels in that area, Smith said, with spray going up about 12 feet. The nozzle assembly can rotate to spray on either side of the truck. When it was first used in May, tunnel cleaning was cut from three days to one, in part because the new machine only took up one lane of traffic.

“Our design was really simple, as simple as possible,” he said. “It’s like a car wash, but instead we made it mobile.”

Photo: a John Deere tractor with a large spraying device mounted on the front arm, washing a tunnel ceiling

Metro District's tunnel washer is mounted on a John Deere tractor. The washing equipment can be removed, freeing the tractor up for other duties. This photo was taken during a cleaning of the Lowry Hill Tunnel on Oct. 21. Photo by John Bieniek

Based on the success and the low development cost of the District 1 machine, Metro District launched its own project to build a tunnel washer. The project was assigned to the Maple Grove mechanic shop and included in-house project management, supervision, mechanics and welders, along with maintenance field staff and consultation with District 1 staff. Joe Johnson, Transportation Operations supervisor (Work-Out-Of-Class), served as the project manager. Work started in July and wrapped up in October.

Unlike District 1’s washer, Metro District’s washer had to be able to wash ceilings. As a result, it too is tailor made for the tunnels it needs to clean. The washer is mounted on a John Deere tractor, the same kind used for mowing and maintenance. A steel deck pump mount was added to the rear of the tractor, which tows a trailer with a 1,000 gallon water tank. The trailer, fabricated by MnDOT, has swivel tires on it so it can be backed up and turned within the width of the highway. The washer assembly is mounted on the front of the tractor. Its 10-foot-by-5-foot washer head has a series of jets that shoot water under pressure, with small wheels that ride the wall or ceiling surface, ensuring that the jets don’t touch what they are washing.

“The washer can swivel to the right, straight up or to the left,” Bieniek said. “It’s able to rotate to go on either wall. With the wheels, this thing is basically touchless.”

The project goal was to have Metro’s new tunnel washer ready to do the semi-annual Lowry tunnel cleaning this October and to not purchase any contracted services, Bieniek said. The new washer was tested Oct. 13 in the tunnel on Hwy 55 near the airport in Minneapolis, and tested again Oct. 19 after pulley adjustments. The results of that test were good and the adjustments to the machine held up well, Bieniek said. With that, the machine was deemed ready for Lowry Hill Tunnel, with its District 1 cousin there on standby in case the need arose.

The westbound portion of the Lowry Hill Tunnel was washed Oct. 21. Light illuminance readings from the tunnel walls were taken before and after those washings, and will be compared to the results obtained by the contractor’s machine last spring. A wash scheduled for Oct. 22 was cancelled due to weather. As MnDOT was doing the work instead of a contractor, this was “no big deal,” Bieniek said.

“From the preliminary measurements that we took, the new washer got the tunnel cleaner than the contractor did, while using less water,” Bieniek said. “Thanks to this, we have a cleaner tunnel, we use less water, we have more scheduling flexibility, and a lower cost.”

Bieniek noted that water used to clean the Lowry Hill Tunnel isn’t allowed to go down the drain. The drains are plugged in advance, and the dirty water is collected and driven to a water treatment facility.

Both of these tunnel washers are removable from the vehicles they have been paired with, meaning that they can be used for typical duties when tunnel washing isn’t needed, or when the vehicle needs to be updated.

Metro’s tunnel washer project cost around $40,000 – far less than a purpose-built tunnel washer.

“It wouldn’t make sense spending a couple hundred grand with a brush,” Smith said. “Some of those machines cost $800,000, and only one company in Europe makes them. You’d be using it for about two weeks a year. Both Metro’s tractor and my truck get put back in the fleet. The utilization on both of those piece of equipment went way up by adapting them to do a different job.”

Bieniek was pleased with how everything went.

“I am extremely impressed, proud and happy with the results of this metro project,” he said. “District 1 was super important in this. This is a great effort between the mechanic and maintenance area. The mechanics built it for the needs of maintenance, and both parties were involved in the development. It’s a real nice combination of internal staff and a low cost.”



Snowplow operator training makes changes to keep new drivers safe

By Anne Meyer

Early snow made for a sloppy skills course at SPOT training Oct. 21 at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. Photo by Rich Kemp

In many ways, this year’s annual snowplow operator training, better known as SPOT, looks the same as in previous years.

New drivers take the same skills tests through dozens of orange delineator cones. They learn how to inspect snowplows to make sure all of its components are working correctly before they get behind the wheel.
But this year, under COVID-19 safety protocols, drivers are wearing face coverings in addition to their high-visibility safety vests and hats. They’re also keeping a safe physical distance from their instructors and other colleagues. And instead of everyone going to Camp Ripley, each district hosted its own SPOT training. Some of these trainings happened in September, and others are finishing up next week.

All of it is intended to keep MnDOT’s drivers safe and healthy.

“Things are going really well. I haven’t heard of any issues out at the districts,” said Rick Shomion, SPOT training supervisor. “We don’t always get snow while we’re training at SPOT either, so that was new for us as well this year. Made for a sloppy skills course out at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds.”

Shomion says each two-week session provides classroom and behind-the-wheel experiences to teach operators a variety of safety measures, plowing techniques and best practices. Training will continue throughout the winter to help new drivers become more familiar with their individual routes and gain proficiency in loading and unloading material in their trucks. They will also learn more about the chemical materials being used in their districts and understand the best time, location and amount to use those chemicals most effectively.

About 200 people went through SPOT training this fall. Many new operators say this is a great way to prepare for the job before the snow starts to fall.

“I’m more comfortable than I thought I would be when I first drove them. They are really showing us how to get in the tight corners and stuff so you can really figure out the width of your truck and things,” said Justin Meck, a new snowplow driver at the Lakeville Truck Station. “I’m excited to get out there, just to get on the highways and clear them up.”

Since 2004, MnDOT has trained more than 2,200 snowplow operators across the state.



Hwy 14 expansion’s first year moves earth, builds bridges between Owatonna, Dodge Center

By Mike Dougherty

Photo: a bridge under construction

The Dodge County Road 16 bridge is one of two new bridges being built as part of work on the Hwy 14 expansion. Photo by Katie Gilmore

When Gov. Tim Walz and Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher gathered east of Owatonna with legislators and others nearly a year ago for the ceremonial ground breaking of the Hwy 14 expansion, project officials had to point toward unplanted farm fields to show the direction of the new route.

Return today, and a visitor would see six months of grading, digging and building that has etched out the new direction of 12.5 miles of Hwy 14 between Owatonna and Dodge Center. One bridge has been built to connect a county road over the new highway south of Claremont in Dodge County, and two more bridges are underway – one in Dodge County and one in Steele County – to ensure the key county road connections are maintained once the new highway is open.

Just over a year from now traffic is expected to be traveling on the new route, completing the final four-lane connection from Rochester to Mankato.

The project is funded through the Corridors of Commerce program. Shafer Construction is the contractor for the nearly $108 million construction project that will build a new four-lane route for the highway south of its current two-lane version.

“The work this year has been steady and productive, but because it’s being done off-line of the current road, people don’t easily see the progress that has occurred,” said Tory Thompson, District 6 project manager.

Much of the work has taken place south of Claremont and to the west into Steele County this year. Major tasks in the first year included preparing the route, which travels through former corn and soybean fields, grading a new road bed, paving it and building bridges. The design-build project is expected to be completed in 2022.

While construction will subside as the snow flies, work will take place over the winter to ensure that Shafer’s plans are ready and approved to surge ahead once spring arrives and another construction season is spawned.



District 4 team rescues, relocates lady’s slipper plants to scenic byway

By Mary McFarland Brooks

When news got out in 2018 that District 4 construction would be undertaking a ditch-widening project on Hwy 87 by Frazee, concerned citizens contacted MnDOT regarding the hundreds of showy lady’s slipper plants living in the project’s path.

The Legislature designated the pink and white lady's slipper as the state flower in 1902. State law makes it illegal to pick these flowers, move the plants or otherwise disturb their natural development.

Photo: MnDOT crew members, standing near grass next to a road

At left, Nate Johnson, MnDOT roadside vegetation specialist, and David “Butch” Murphy, MnDOT prescribed fire specialist, are on the north side of Hwy 87 near Frazee look for marks that Gabe Dretsch, District 4’s environmental coordinator, left this summer to show where the lady’s slipper plants to be rescued were and where they should be replanted. Photo by Beth Brown

In summer 2019, Gabe Dretsch, environmental coordinator, and Dave Hanson, Natural Resource Forestry Program coordinator in the Office of Environmental Services, visited the project site and marked the lady’s slipper blooms, which occur in late June and early July. In 2019 and 2020, Dretsch and Casey Vogt, District 4 surveyor, returned to the area and tagged the blooming plants on GPS for subsequent relocation. The plant markings need to occur during their bloom period, as the plants can be difficult to identify when dormant in the fall and winter.

Approximately 50 clumps of plants were marked between Dretsch, Vogt and Hanson’s visits to the site.

“When possible, we try to be good stewards and conserve and improve our resources,” Dretsch said.
On Sept. 24, Dretsch directed the relocation team of five MnDOT employees from Central Office (Hanson, Nate Johnson, David ‘Butch’ Murphy, Beth Brown and Ryan Foley) to the plantings. Plant relocation assistance was also provided by Rob Baden, the Department of Natural Resource’s employee in the area, and staff from Conservation Corps Minnesota. Baden identified the Wildlife Management Area site chosen for transplant. The chosen area already had several lady’s slipper plants within it, indicating a suitable habitat. According to Hanson, lady’s slippers are members of the orchid family, and flourish in sunlight and dry woods at low elevations.

The new site for the plants adjoins Hwy 34 east of Detroit Lakes and surrounds the entrance to the North Country Trail Access. The plants’ new home is on a designated state Scenic Byway.

“A project like this cannot be accomplished without a lot of local effort including coordinating many steps and locating a good home for the replanting,” said Hanson. “These rescues are difficult to successfully complete without knowledgeable and committed local assistance.”

More information is available at and



MnDOT hosts virtual CAV Summit with Mid America states

By Anne Meyer

Automated vehicle technology is constantly changing. Those changes present challenges for transportation agencies to prepare for that future through legislation and infrastructure improvements.

That’s why transportation leaders from 10 states joined the Mid America Association of Transportation Officers 2020 Connected and Automated Vehicle Summit in late October to discuss how DOTs can work together.

“The Midwest has proven to be a leader in innovation, and this summit was a great opportunity for states to collaborate and plan for the future,” said Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher. “Minnesota was proud to chair the MAASTO CAV Committee and help demonstrate how regions can effectively partner on research and corridor planning. This is especially important because the Midwest is the central hub of transportation for the entire country.”

The two-day event gave members an opportunity to review and react to the draft CAV work plan developed by the CAV Subcommittee and approved by the MAASTO board last month. Some of the issues discussed included the development of model legislation and regulations to ensure consistent regulation of CAV technology across state lines.

State leaders also talked about cooperating on research and development with academic and industry researchers, establishing safety standards to ensure that CAV vehicles are safe for oth

The summit also gave MnDOT’s CAV-X team an opportunity to highlight many of the projects the state is working on, like the CAV Challenge. The challenge is a procurement process allowing public and private entities to work with MnDOT to help develop CAV solutions for improving safety, efficiency and mobility.

“Our CAV-X team is actively working on over 150 active projects in planning, scoping, testing and deployment,” said Kristin White, CAV-X director. “Sharing this success with other states helps us all move this technology forward. The Midwest is the first region in the country where state DOTs have come together with a commitment to collaborate on this challenging topic. FHWA leadership commended MAASTO during the summit on our commitment to ongoing engagement and our drive to develop a 10-year vision for this work. We received lots of positive feedback from all 10 states and attendees.”

This was the second MAASTO CAV Summit. Members plan to meet each year to advance planning and continue coordination with federal, state and local governments and law enforcement.



Virtual “Water Cooler” conversation Oct. 29 offers employees chance to connect

The Office of Equity and Diversity will facilitate a virtual “Water Cooler” conversation and check-in Thursday, Oct. 29, beginning at 1 p.m. The event is open to all MnDOT employees.

“This year has brought a number of challenges to all of us, and this informal ‘Water Cooler’ discussion offers employees an opportunity to connect, share thoughts and concerns, and ask questions,” said Gina Kundan, OED deputy director. “There is no set agenda, only what’s on people’s minds.”

The event will be held using MS Teams. Employees do not need to install Teams to participate in the meeting. Instructions are available here. Those with difficulties joining the Teams meeting can use the conference call-in option instead: +1 651-395-7448; Conference ID: 492 131 673#.

There is no need to uninstall if MS Teams is already installed or downloaded. Just click on Join Microsoft Teams Meeting.



New program recognizes individuals, teams for workplace safety excellence

By J.P. Gillach

MnDOT now has a new Safety Recognition Program to recognize employees and work groups who demonstrate excellence in improving workplace safety, whether that work occurs in the field or in the office.

“The feedback we received through the last Safety Perception Survey made it clear that people find it important to be recognized for performing their work safely, and for making our workplace safer for everyone,” said Rod Starkey, Safety Culture coordinator. “I know I am appreciative when I am recognized for doing a good job, and others at MnDOT are no different. This new program sets out to do just that.”

Any MnDOT employee can nominate another employee or work team at any time for their contributions to making a safer workplace. Employees can recognize individuals or groups in three categories:

Excellence in Safety Performance (Individual or Team)

  • Consistently incorporates safety into all work activities, ensuring employee safety is the primary concern.
  • Consistently seeks out and addresses unsafe conditions and hazards to avoid future incidents.
  • Demonstrates extraordinary leadership in promoting workplace safety and strict adherence to MnDOT safety standards.

Proactive Safety – Creates a Positive Safety Culture

  • Reports near-miss incidents, along with suggested corrective actions, to prevent future near misses.
  • Ensures employees are trained and kept up to date on the latest safety policies and procedures.
  • Promotes safe work behavior among peers, creating a safe work culture.
  • Ensures that employees are provided with the tools and resources to work safely.

Safety Innovation

  • Develops a District/Office or Statewide safety innovation.
  • Continuously looks for ways to improve workplace safety by developing innovative ideas or methods that improve workplace safety.

District engineers or office directors review the nominations. Nominees selected for recognition will receive a letter from the commissioner congratulating them on their achievement, and will be able to choose a safety recognition item with MnDOT’s “Safety First, Safety Always” logo on it.

“Thanks to everyone from across the agency who helped make this a reality. I’m excited we were able to put together a formal program for MnDOT employees,” said Nancy Daubenberger, deputy commissioner and chief engineer. “People who actively make our workplace safer certainly deserve to be recognized for their efforts.”

To nominate a MnDOT colleague or work group, or to learn more about the new program, visit the Employee Recognition Program on iHUB under Recognition.



Well-being program ends, Open Enrollment begins

From Minnesota Management & Budget – SEGIP

Open Enrollment runs Oct. 29 through Nov. 18, 2020. The well-being program ends Oct. 31; earn and report points by then to receive rewards for next year. These benefits are an important part of employee compensation, and emplyoees are encouraged to take time to review options in order to make the best decision.

New this year

This year there are a few key changes to employees’ benefits. Check out the videos below to learn more and get ready for Open Enrollment.

Well-being program ends Oct. 31

Earlier this year, MMB announced a new well-being program and reward. Previously, completing the health assessment during Open Enrollment earned you $5 off office copays. Now, you can complete a variety of activities to earn points. Earn 200 points by Oct. 31, and the state will pay $70 of your deductible next year for eligible employees only. Learn more in this video.

New vision plan

This year, the state is introducing a new vision plan that helps cover the costs of eye glasses, contacts, and more. It’s available to all eligible employees, whether you’re enrolled in the Minnesota Advantage Health Plan or elsewhere. Learn more in this video.

What's open

  • Medical
  • Vision
  • Pre-tax spending accounts (includes long-term disability
  • Manager’s income protection plan
  • Life insurance: employee, spouse, and child

Open Enrollment tips

Waive your coverage

If you get medical coverage elsewhere, you must submit a waiver. If you’ve previously waived coverage before 2020, you must confirm you want to continue to do so. Find out more.

Check on clinic changes

Many clinics have announced upcoming closures and others are changing cost levels for next year. Use the Find a Clinic Tool to check on your clinic. Your clinic may also be available with another carrier at a lower cost level. Lower cost levels mean lower out-of-pocket costs for you.

Making your elections

Your coverage and elections continue into 2021 unless you make changes, except for pre-tax accounts. You must make a new election to continue pre-tax spending accounts in 2020.

Adding a dependent

While enrolling, you’ll have the option to add eligible dependents. MMB will mail a letter to your home outlining the documents you need to submit to complete the process. Learn more about dependent eligibility.



On the Job: John Kimlinger’s purchases help keep MnDOT rolling

By Joseph Palmersheim

Photo: John Kimlinger

John Kimlinger. Submitted photo

John Kimlinger’s official title is “transportation acquisition specialist,” but he uses “buyer” when he talks to people. He’s one of several people at MnDOT who purchase mobile equipment. Kimlinger buys trucks. He also designs specifications for them, and finds new ways to keep them rolling.

The 32-year MnDOT employee is based at Fort Snelling, and has been in his buying role for the past nine years. Before joining MnDOT, he worked for 10 years in an independent mechanic shop working on semi trucks.

What do you do in your role?
I get to do a lot of things. I purchase big trucks, including the plow trucks, all the trailers, paving equipment, and write specifications for the contracts I use when purchasing equipment. I also do CAD drawings of parts and equipment for doing bids and when building one-of-a-kind trucks.  

Usually, when you buy a pickup truck, the manufacturer gives you the payload you can haul and tow with their truck. You see that in commercials all the time. With the trucks I build, I make the truck so we can haul what we want. It’s not only purchasing the chassis and body, but making sure it is safe to drive. It’s making sure the tires and suspension are big enough to handle the emergency turns while braking, or having three points of contact while going up or down on a truck, those type of things.

What do you find interesting about it?
It’s the different stuff I have purchased: a drone, the trucks that paint the stripes on the roads, the bridge inspectors and the different paving equipment. I almost got to get a new state plane once. It’s interesting how each district around the state wants things set up differently even though they all do the same job. Finally, most people think you can just go down to the truck store and buy a truck like you do a car. Every truck is a custom truck. When we build a truck, there are 28 or so pages, in size 10 font, covering all the possible options to design a truck.

What’s your favorite part about what you do?
Designing a truck that the crew needs to do their job and while doing so point out things that could help them do their job better or easier. Like putting the heavy things they use a lot down lower on the sides of the truck instead of up in the middle of the truck bed. The thing that is my hands-down favorite is dong the CAD drawings - doing a concept of a truck and then when it is built seeing the truck looking just like the picture I drew.

One of the latest projects is working with 3-D printing of obsolete small truck parts. This is something our office and Metro District are looking into. We have already made some heater door linkages and the clips that hold the far end of a sun visor up like the one in your car.

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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