April 14, 2021
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Snooping around: Bridge inspection season begins

Photo: a snooper truck on a bridge

An inspection crew using a snooper on the southbound side of the Cedar Avenue Bridge in Bloomington over the Minnesota River in summer 2020. MnDOT file photo

By Joseph Palmersheim

With the snow mostly gone now, MnDOT (along with county, city and consultant crews) is gearing up to inspect around 9,100 bridge this year. This includes bridges on the state system as well as those owned by counties and cities.

Bridge inspections are typically done between March and November. Inspectors sometimes need to use snooper trucks, or specially equipped vehicles with multi-joined arms featuring work baskets on the end of them, to access difficult locations. The equipment allows the inspection team to maneuver under the bridge while the truck is parked on the bridge deck. Lane closures are usually scheduled when these types of inspections occur.

Photo: a worked inside of a bridge. The area is very cramped.

Scott Theisen, an inspector with the Bridge Office, is inside a steel box pier cap on a flyover bridge near the Mall of America in 2020. These areas are inspected every two years. They are considered to be a confined space, so air monitoring equipment is required. MnDOT file photo

Inspectors are looking for several things during an inspection, according to Thomas Miles, bridge safety inspection engineer, District 6 Structures. One major priority is to identify anything that could jeopardize the stability of the structure or be a threat to the traveling public. This includes any damage to the main support members (deck, beams, abutments or piers) like corrosion or cracking in concrete.

Another priority is identifying any preventative maintenance issues in order to maximize the service life of the structure. This includes sealing deck cracks, deck overlays, painting and replacing joints, Miles said. Getting close enough to see these things can sometimes pose a challenge in itself.

“During the inspection, we like to get as close up and hands on as possible,” Miles said. “There is a lot of walking on bridge decks, crawling down slopes, traversing across the riprap and wading through the water to get a closer look. When we are unable to physically reach the area we need to see, then we resort to binoculars, snoopers, drones or boats.”

Drone use is still fairly new at MnDOT. While the Metro District has used the devices for several years now, Miles said, other districts are still exploring their capabilities.

“The biggest advantages the drones offer over the snooper are safety and quality of data,” Miles said. “With a drone, you are really limiting the number of people who are in a potentially harmful situation. “The drone is also a great option when you just want to take a quick look at something. All said, if something is noted during a drone inspection, you may still have to get the snooper out to get a close up look.”

Photo: a work crew on a bridge, looking out over a river

Tony Bale, left, and Aaron Forthun, both from District 6 Structures, inspect the old Red Wing Bridge (Hwy 63) in June 2017. They had to pause and lift the snooper up when a barge or tugboat moved through the Mississippi River channel. Photo by Mike Dougherty

Inspections are quantified with two rating systems as required by the Federal Highway Administration. The first is an overall National Bridge Inventory rating on a scale of 0 to 9. This is given to the primary aspects of the bridge (deck, superstructure, substructure, channel and culvert). The second rating is given for each specific element of the bridge on a scale from 1 (Good) to 4 (Severe), based on guidance in the MnDOT Bridge Inspection Field Manual. This second rating system of bridge elements provides a higher level of detail regarding condition, said Edward Lutgen, program manager for bridge and tunnel inspection, Bridge Office.

The FHWA requires all states to use both rating systems for National Highway System bridges. MnDOT has elected to use both rating systems for all bridges, even those not part of the NHS.

These reports are entered into SIMS, a statewide bridge inventory and condition data base. Each bridge owner has a designated program administrator who reviews and approves the inspection reports. Based on what issues were noted, the administrator develops an action plan for the bridge with various options, ranging from doing routine maintenance to planning for a replacement bridge.

Lutgen noted that the Bridge Office uses the data to develop deterioration models and predict future project needs, including local agency bridges. The data also helps explain future funding needs to legislative and transportation partners.

All bridges in Minnesota are put on a one-year, two-year or four-year (culverts only) inspection schedule. The inspection frequency is primarily based on previously noted conditions, load restrictions and age. The better the condition, the lower the risk and thus the longer the interval between inspections.

“We want to give the traveling public peace of mind by knowing that somebody is keeping an eye on these structures to make sure that they are safe,” Miles said.



Working together while being apart – new hires adapt to agency amid COVID

By Joseph Palmersheim

Anna Pierce, a metropolitan planning program coordinator, started at MnDOT last June.

Photo: Anna Pierce

Anna Pierce. Submitted photo

She’s based at MnDOT’s Central Office in St. Paul – but has only been there twice (once to get her laptop and another time for a chair assessment). For most of the past year, she’s been working from home in Moorhead.

Pierce is one nearly 400 people hired since March 2020, when nearly half of the agency’s employees were forced to work from home due to COVID-19.

While some of these positions are based in facilities in the field, like truck stations, other employees, like Pierce, are working remotely with people and teams they have not actually met in person.

“It's been a little different,” Pierce said. “Hally Turner, my supervisor, has been great. We’ve done personality assessments and made a small document that goes through preferred ways of communicating, personality quirks and preferences. We know a little bit more about each other, like how some people prefer Teams chat versus a phone call. I think I've been fortunate to have a team that’s very open and communicative. Encouraging people to turn on their web cameras can be helpful, so we can get faces to names.”

HR adapts to new normal

Not being able to meet in person is a challenge that MnDOT’s Human Resources staff have faced, too. While the electronic application processes remains unchanged, interviewing candidates and the onboarding process have adapted to the new normal.

Interviewing everyone virtually has been a learning experience for both the hiring supervisors and the candidates, said Mary Stohr, assistant staffing director. A new employee’s first day is also different compared to how things worked pre-COVID. Now, the new person comes into the office to get their computer, phone and other equipment, and they go home to begin their first day. Human Resources used to have new employees come in person on their first day, but now all of that is all done virtually. Benefits and I-9 information are reviewed via a Teams meeting, Stohr said.

While paperwork makes a straightforward conversion to a digital environment, the human aspect can be more nuanced. Taking the time to connect with new employees, even virtually, has helped.

“We haven’t heard a lot of comments, but we know there have been a lot of challenges for new employees and the hiring supervisors,” Stohr said. “We had a supervisor make a comment on how strange it is to not meet in person and see their new hires. However, people are making an extra effort to set up Teams meetings or assign new employees a mentor to connect each week, or to use video when meeting with the new person.

“For example, two new people started in Metro District Human Resources during this time, and it has been challenging for them to connect with coworkers they have never seen. We’ve taken extra steps to hold meetings with cameras on and have asked staff to connect with them so they are not isolated. We’re trying to reach out virtually to these new hires so they feel more connected.”

These less-formal meetings can include a supervisor holding a coffee chat, having virtual lunches together and talking about non-work topics, or scheduling non-mandatory get-togethers to connect with coworkers.

Employees share experiences

Photo: Pheng Vang

Pheng Vang. Submitted photo

Pheng Vang, a part-time Seeds student worker (enrolled at Metropolitan State University) works with Oversize/Overweight Permits at Central Office. The business computer system and management major sees his coworkers during weekly team huddles on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“I am thankful that I get to see and meet them, but I find it unfortunate that I cannot meet anyone outside of my group,” he said.

For some new employees, working virtually or in an empty office has been quite a change of pace from their previous roles. Shelly Ulmer, an executive administrative assistant in District 3, came to MnDOT last April after 23 years with Richfield Public Schools in the Twin Cities.

“My position at Richfield was a very busy, multifaceted position, and involved interactions with management, staff, parents and students each day,” she said. “These interactions were one of my favorite parts of the job. I am very much a ‘people person’ and greatly miss interacting with adults and children alike.”

Photo: Shelly Ulmer

Shelly Ulmer. Submitted photo

While she’s based at the Baxter office, Ulmer has been mostly teleworking since starting her new role. It’s gone well (“to my surprise,” she noted), and she’s been able to meet a few of her team members in person. Ulmer works in the office every Wednesday to do various tasks that can’t be done remotely, like badging.

“Even though I work with many people that I haven’t met in person, everyone has been very welcoming, supportive and patient as I learn my position from home,” she said. “Although I’ve found I really enjoy working from home, I am anxious to get back to the office, at least part-time, and start to meet other District 3 employees in person.”

Linda Rogentine, hired in February 2021 as an accounting officer senior with District 1, expressed a similar gratitude for the welcome she’s received from her colleagues, even if they’ve never met.

“I quickly sensed from others that there is a great rapport built, and I already feel like I’m part of the team,” she said. “My supervisor is a great teacher and extremely patient with my questions. It’s important to truly listen to, not simply hear, others when interacting via the phone or Teams meetings.”

Starting a new job in the middle of a pandemic was a leap of faith, but Rogentine is glad she did. She also learned about having a designated space for work while at home, so there is a boundary between the personal and the professional. It makes for an easier transition at the end of the day, she noted.

“I trust that I’ll look back at this as the most rewarding change I made in my career, gaining insight to new ways in developing relationships and tackling project work,” she said.

Photo: John Mattonen

John Mattonen. Submitted photo

John Mattonen, a District 1 project engineer who started about 10 days before the governor’s stay at home order in March 2020, echoed that sentiment.

“It is very interesting working with other people who I have never met, including those in District 1, Central Office and other districts and offices,” he said. “Everyone I have worked with remotely has been supportive and understanding. The interactions are now to the point that it feels like we know each other at least professionally, even though we have not ‘met’ person to person. The ways we can use our technology to reach out to others is very beneficial to our work during the last year and will be going forward. MnDOT has a great system of supportive, knowledgeable personnel that can be reached out to when you have a question or need assistance with solving a problem.”

So what happens next?

Under Gov. Tim Walz’s peacetime emergency declaration for COVID-19, state hiring is limited to only staff performing essential work. This freeze, enacted in April 2020, is still in place. MnDOT is hiring P1/P2-level positions, with no end date yet indicated for the hiring freeze (which impacts hiring for P3/P4 positions).

As to when employees might return to the workplace, planning is underway. Karin van Dyck, director of Human Resources, included the following information in an April 7 NoteMailer to all employees:

  • Expect a slow, staggered return. All MnDOT employees who are currently teleworking will continue doing so through June 30, 2021.
  • Employees will be notified at least one month before they are expected to return to their workplace.
  • Job duties that have been performed via teleworking can continue, to some extent, to be performed by teleworking in the future.
  • Proof of COVID-19 vaccination won’t be required to return to a workplace.

Looking back, forward

In the meantime, some employees have found what Pierce described as the “silver lining” to a time of unprecedented change.

“People have learned to have more grace with others, not just at MnDOT,” Pierce said. “In general, people have become much more understanding of the home life-work balance, with quarantining and cats walking across screens during meetings. There’s more understanding of the human aspect of work, and that's a major silver lining to this thing.”

Ulmer said each person has had their own way of coping through the past year.

“I think when I look back on this year, I can be proud of all that I learned about myself and MnDOT, how I was able to focus and be productive when I didn’t believe in my own discipline, and how I rose to the challenge of relocating and starting a new position in a new industry while working from home,” she said. “MnDOT has provided many excellent learning opportunities for me amidst the pandemic and it just feels right to be here.”

Working during the pandemic has allowed Rogentine to “pause and reset,” she said.

“I’ve learned that I can be productive with my approach to daily tasks and solutions with the use of technology, and I have a deeper appreciation for my coworkers who support the same mission I do,” she said. “What used to be potentially an easy transition from a casual conversation with colleagues at the water cooler to a full-blown brainstorming session supporting new ideas is now a little more intentional.”

Vang expressed pride in being able to balance both work and school remotely. This inspired better time management skills, he said. And not being around people as much has made him appreciate these interactions more.

“Being isolated with little to no human interaction other than family members can make life a bit dull, but going back to work has definitely changed my personality to try to interact with people more while keeping social distance,” he said. “Overall, it is nice to catch up with coworkers to see how their lives have changed. I think it will be interesting to see what society will be like after this pandemic.”



More than 200 projects included in 2021 state construction season

MnDOT will work on more than 200 road and bridge projects during the 2021 construction season, the agency announced April 8 via a news release and a video posted to social media.

These projects will help maintain Minnesota’s roads and bridges, improve safety and support thousands of construction jobs across the state, said Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher.   

“Safe, reliable, efficient and sustainable transportation is vital to the quality of life and economic success of our state,” she said. “Although Minnesota’s transportation needs greatly outnumber available resources, this year’s construction program demonstrates MnDOT’s commitment to making smart investments in our system to better serve all people.” 

In addition to these road projects, crews will make safety and infrastructure improvements to 51 multimodal projects with airports, ports, transit systems and railroads outside of the state road construction program.

Video: quick overview of the 2021 state construction program announcement

Minnesotans can also find an interactive map and full 2021 project list at Individual project pages include information about construction schedules, traffic impacts, maps, benefits and costs.
Highlights of this year’s program include:

  • Completing the Interstate 35W/I-94 project in Minneapolis in fall 2021. This project along a 2.5-mile stretch of I-35W began in August 2017 and includes rebuilding 11 bridges and repairing four more, installing new pavement on the 50-year-old freeway, building MnPASS lanes near downtown and a bus station at Lake Street for better transit service, and adding wider and more accessible pedestrian bridges.
  • Beginning pavement repair and resurfacing in St. Paul on I-94 between Western Avenue and Mounds Boulevard and on I-35E between I-94 and University Avenue. Work includes resurfacing ramps and frontage roads, repairing bridges, fixing drainage and making ADA improvements and sidewalk improvements.
  • Beginning significant work on the Twin Ports Interchange in Duluth. This multi-year project will enhance safety by eliminating blind merges and left exits, replacing aging infrastructure and improving freight mobility.
  • Resurfacing 15.6 miles of Highway 200 near the south shore of Leech Lake, replacing two culverts, widening shoulders and adding turn lanes to improve drainage and safety while creating a longer lasting road.
  • Reconstructing Highway 10 in Elk River between Simonet Drive and Lowell Avenue, adding multi-use trail, and improving access at Proctor Avenue.
  • Resurfacing Highway 87 from Frazee to Becker/Wadena County Line. Project includes 26 miles of resurfacing, widening shoulders between Frazee and Evergreen, and replacing bridge/box culverts east of Frazee.
  • Expanding 12.5 miles of Highway 14 between Dodge Center and Owatonna from two lanes to four lanes to improve capacity, safety, travel times and access. When finished next year, this project will complete a continuous four-lane road between Mankato and Rochester. 
  • Resurfacing Highway 60 from Highway 14 to Highway 13 in Waterville and reconstructing through Madison Lake. This project will improve sidewalks and crossings, update pedestrian ramps to meet ADA requirements, modify access and turn lanes, and improve county road lighting.
  • Realigning Highway 12 and reconstructing Highway 40, including adding two new bridges, to facilitate a new railroad line (Willmar Wye) on the west side of Willmar.

Employees can stay informed about projects and other transportation topics by reading Newsline, connecting to MnDOT via social media and signing up to receive email updates at



District 1 engineer Roberta Dwyer memorialized with scholarship

By Pippi Mayfield, District 1 Public Engagement and Communications

Roberta Dwyer left her stamp on the northeast district of Minnesota through her engineering expertise before she died in July 2020.

Now, thanks to the LHB Corporation, Dwyer’s legacy will be carried on through future engineers at the University of Minnesota Duluth. During her 39 years with MnDOT, Dwyer held a variety of engineering and management positions, including maintenance operations engineer, principal project manager and major projects project manager, among others.

LHB’s scholarship for future engineers at UMD started with a $25,000 endowment. The firm is challenging other engineering firms, MnDOT employees, professional organizations and individuals to match the donation and allow for more scholarship awards.

“It seemed the natural way to respect her legacy was with a lasting legacy,” said Brad Scott, LHB principal engineer. “It felt like a good, right thing to do.”

Scott knew Dwyer since beginning his career in the early 2000s. They met while working on the Mesaba Avenue project.

“I got to know her better and respect her as an engineer,” Scott said. “She was just such a presence in Duluth.”

Dwyer continued to work at MnDOT even after her cancer diagnosis, most recently as project manager on the Twin Ports Interchange project. Scott said Dwyer’s dedication to her work was impressive.

“There is a hole in the engineering community” since her death, he said.

Kristi Schmidt, director of corporate and foundation relations at UMD, worked with LHB on prior scholarships. She said LHB’s scholarship endowment means the company donates a certain amount to an account that pays out earnings in the form of scholarships for students. LHB’s initial $25,000 will support a scholarship for one student. If the challenge works and they can raise another $25,000, another scholarship will go to another student.

“I give a lot of credit to LHB,” Schmidt said. “It’s special for a company to recognize another company’s employee. It says a lot about Roberta and the relationship between LHB and MnDOT.”

Building a scholarship for another firm’s employee is rare, she said, adding that this is the only instance at UMD she’s aware of.

Andrea Schokker, an engineering professor at UMD, first met Dwyer when she started the UMD civil engineering program.

“She was supportive of our new program from day one and continued to support our students for over a decade,” Schokker said. “She gave presentations on the Interstate 35 Twin Ports Exchange and other projects to our Senior Design Capstone class and ran a mentorship program with us between MnDOT and UMD civil engineering.”

The Roberta Dwyer Civil Engineering Scholarship is dedicated to junior or senior civil engineering students in good academic standing. Being a female is a “plus factor” on the application.

“Roberta was such a champion for women in engineering,” Schmidt said.

“She was a mentor, leader and professional role model for women in engineering and we were so proud to have her in Duluth,” Schokker said. “We are so grateful to have a scholarship in her honor at UMD. Her impact on the region and our students is a true legacy.”

A website has been set up at for those interested in making contributions to the scholarship.

“Roberta’s fingerprints of impact on infrastructure projects in northeastern Minnesota are numerous and will be present for a long time,” said Pat Huston, District 1 assistant district engineer, major projects. “MnDOT is very thankful for LHB taking the initiative in creating a scholarship endowment in honor and memory of Roberta. It is another physical testament to her passion and accomplishments that will live on.”

Scott said while LHB may have started the scholarship, it’s really about Dwyer and her professional influence over the years. The engineering firm is just helping that legacy shine on for decades to come through the scholarship.

“It’s really about Roberta and the students who will benefit from this,” he said. “She had a depth of passion for women equality and promotion of women in the field.”



Microsoft Teams Tricks and Tips

The Microsoft Teams at MnDOT User Satisfaction Survey is still open and drives the content seen here.

Teams as collaboration tool  

Based on survey results, MnDOT employees are looking for more information on using Teams as a collaboration tool.

Teams allows for collaborative editing of documents, communication and project planning for group tasks. Here are some helpful trainings highlighting collaboration in Teams: 

Please be aware that MnDOT’s retention policy in Teams and OneDrive usage may be different than other state agencies. 

Removing attendees from meeting chats  

When a meeting participant leaves a Teams meeting by default, they are still able to see that meeting’s chat. This can cause confusion when those who exit do not hear the context around chat messages being sent. 

Meeting organizers and presenters are able to remove meeting participants from chat by: 

  • Inviting a meeting participant to leave the meeting. Organizers and presenters are also able to “remove” a meeting participant from the meeting through the participant tray. 
  • Navigate to the “chat” menu in the Teams application (not the Teams meeting window) and select the chat thread for the meeting. Only meetings where a chat has been started will appear. 
  • Select the “participant” icon in the top right-hand corner of the chat. Users will be able to remove chat participants from the drop-down menu. Participants will be unable to see chat messages from that point on. 

One new feature in Meeting Options is to disable chat in a Teams meeting. This will remove the chat function for all meeting participants.  

Learn/Help Button in Teams (schedule of upcoming Teams training sessions) 

Looking for Teams training and resources? The “learn” button connects directly to the MNIT’s Learning Pathways site with Teams information and trainings.

The “help” button (sometimes hidden in the “more” ellipses) connects users directly to searchable Teams guidance to make the most out of this new tool. Both buttons are located on the left-hand menu of the Teams desktop and web applications. 

New Surveying Tool: Microsoft Forms 

Microsoft Forms is an online survey, quiz and poll creator application. It has similar features to other survey applications such as Formstack, Snap, Survey Monkey and Mentimeter. There is no additional cost or installation required to use Microsoft Forms. 

Forms features and functionality include: 

  • Choice, text, rating, date, ranking and Likert questions (Note: “Likert” refers to a psychometric scale commonly involved in research that employs questionnaires).
  • Branching to redirect respondent to specific questions based on their responses  
  • Settings to control who can respond to the form  
  • Reviewing responses in real time
  • Exporting the results to Microsoft Excel for more in-depth analysis
  • Accessibility Support  

Forms users will need state email addresses and passwords to sign in. Go to Users can also access Forms and other Microsoft apps via the Office 365 Portal at The “All Apps” icon shows all the additional Microsoft online applications, such as Forms, OneNote, Planner and Stream.

See MNIT Learning Pathways or watch the App Integration (Focus on Forms) training session for more information.

This article was written by Evan Iacoboni, Technology Investment Management; Matthew Baszner, MNIT; Nkauj Her, Technology Investment Management; Bobby Underhill, MNIT; Jen Parshley, Commissioner’s Office; and Susan Ogbemudia, MNIT.



On the Job: Aklilu Tesfahunen finds variety working maintenance in Oakdale

By Rich Kemp

Photo: Aklilu Tesfahunen

Aklilu Tesfahunen has worked at the Oakdale truck station for the past eight years. Photo by Rich Kemp

Aklilu Tesfahunen works at the Oakdale truck station. He has driven snowplows and been a part of the Oakdale maintenance crew for eight years.

How do you like driving a snowplow?
I enjoy driving the snowplow. Everything you need is in the truck.

What do you work on in the winter when you aren’t plowing snow?
We will repair cable median barriers, fences and guardrail. We also trim trees and patch the roads. Sometimes I help the sign shop crew.

What do you like about your job?
I really like the variety. When you are plowing, it feels like you have accomplished something when the roads are clear. I like the benefits you receive at MnDOT and like the job security.

What is the most challenging thing?
The biggest challenge is watching out for the drivers on the road. When they see us with our lights flashing, that means the roads aren’t clear and can be very slippery. Give the snowplows the extra space so we can do our job and hopefully that will prevent any accidents.

How has COVID affected your job?
We have to do a lot more cleaning in the trucks and in the truck station. We had to get used to wearing a mask, but it is going OK now.

What maintenance job will you be doing this summer?
I will be working on the mason crew stationed here at the Oakdale truck station.

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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