May 12, 2021
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Prescribed burns manage roadside vegetation for healthy environment, safe roadways

By Joseph Palmersheim

Photo: a MnDOT worker standing near a smoldering line of grass

Joe Callan, transportation generalist, District 6, walks by a prescribed fire this spring on Hwy 14. MnDOT crews have done 17 burns so far this year, with organizers hoping for 30 by the end of spring. MnDOT staff photo

While the old saying “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” still holds up, another variation each spring and fall is “Where there’s smoke, it may be from a MnDOT controlled burn.”

These prescribed burns (sometimes referred to as “controlled burns”), are part of MnDOT’s Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management program. Many types of plants actually need fire for ideal growth. Healthy roadside vegetation is necessary for preventing weed infestations, controlling erosion, protecting water quality and keeping roadways safe. Crews have done 17 burns so far this year, with organizers hoping for 30 by the end of spring.

Nathan Johnson, Office of Environmental Stewardship, oversees the prescribed burn program for the entire state. Districts 2, 3 6 and Metro have their own crews and fire activities. He is working to establishing a crew in District 7 (which requires people, protective gear and training) and is discussing starting one with District 4 supervisors and staff.

Johnson is no stranger to the idea of fire as a tool.

“I have worked with fire my entire adult life,” he said. “Before working for MnDOT, I worked for the DNR for 20 years, where fire was a big part of my job.”

Detailed planning ensures that a fire can accomplish its goal while still being kept under control. Prescribed fires require:

  • Choosing weather conditions chosen carefully
  • Coordinating necessary equipment and crews
  • Mowing fire breaks to improve control
  • Notifying authorities and nearby landowners
  • Obtaining DNR burn permits

All MnDOT fire crew members have taken a nationally recognized training for basic wildland firefighters. They are experienced in working with prescribed fires on roadsides and have all the necessary equipment to safely control the fire.

“These burns take a large amount of coordination between myself, burn crew leaders, maintenance supervisors, district information officers and others,” Johnson said. “We use very specific weather parameters, like temperature wind speed, wind direction and relative humidity, to decide if or when we can burn. Each burn requires a burn plan and a burn permit, which we get through the DNR or county sheriff.”

The fires are started using drip torches, fueled with a diesel/gas mixture applied on the downwind side of the fire away from the road. Crews control the fires by burning against plowed agricultural fields, mowed breaks and woodland edges. They’ll also use ATVs with water tanks to spray water on anything they don’t want to burn, and keep the fire within planned boundaries.

Part of this involves letting travelers know what is going on.

“We put out signs that say, ‘Controlled burn ahead’ and ‘Smoke over road,’” he said. “We have trucks with flashers running one the side of the road. We also notify the county sheriff’s department. We don’t get as many phone calls from the public as you may expect.”

Looking to the future, Johnson secured a $217,000 Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund grant to create a self-sufficient prescribed fire program at MnDOT. The four-part proposal would keep a full-time fire boss at the agency, mentor MnDOT’s fire crews, increase monitoring at burn areas to assess effectiveness, and build plans based on the monitoring data. Johnson estimates the agency’s controlled burn capacity would be between 40-60 burns a year when these changes go into effect.



Two major design-build projects part of construction season in District 6

By Mike Dougherty

Photo: a construction site with a partially completed bridge

Thanks to good weather, crews were able to start early this spring on the Hwy 14 expansion Dodge Center to Owatonna. project Photo by Rich Kemp

Two major, multi-year construction projects in southeast Minnesota this year have the attention of many residents and lawmakers.

The Hwy 14 expansion project between Owatonna and Dodge Center is in its second full year to expand the road from two lanes to four lanes on a new alignment in Steele and Dodge counties. The $107 million project was funded through the Corridors of Commerce program. It is using the design-build method.

Meanwhile, to the northeast, the Hwy 52 Cannon Falls to Zumbrota design-build project is reconstructing the southbound lanes, building a new interchange, replacing bridges and installing permanent snow fence. The project was originally planned as a mill and overlay based on funding available, but the district was able to look at it more comprehensively when the Legislature provided Chapter 3 bonding money in 2017. The $69.7 million construction project is set to begin its first construction season in mid-July and will go through 2023.

Hwy 14 expansion Dodge Center to Owatonna

Dry weather this spring is allowing crews to make good progress in a schedule that aims to put traffic on the new 12.5-mile route by this November. Some additional work is scheduled to take place in 2022 as the project wraps up.

The project has drawn great interest from communities along the route as well as advocacy groups such as the Hwy 14 Partnership. District 6 had planned regular tours for individuals and groups to help them follow along the progress, but with the restrictions brought on by COVID-19 for in-person gatherings and face-to-face contact, engagement efforts have relied on news coverage and social media posts to help the public follow along. The new route is south of the current two-lane route, so the progress may not be as apparent to passersby.

Not all of the project work is focused on roads. The work will establish a new controlled access section of the road that stays south of the Canadian Pacific Railway line, so there are not more at-grade rail crossings.

Plans call for the conversion of the last gap of two-lane highway to four lanes, creating a continuous four-lane highway between Rochester and Mankato.

The new route is in former farm fields, and consists of:

  • More grading and paving along the remaining 12.5-mile new route
  • Completion of the Dodge Country Road 3 and Steele County Road 16 bridges
  • Construction and completion of the Hwy 14 interchange at Hwy 56 and Dodge County Road 5

“Construction in 2020 showed progress and the 2021 plan will be a busy one to get us to the point of having traffic on the new route by this fall,” said Tory Thompson, alternative delivery project engineer for MnDOT and the manager for the project. “We’re building roads and bridges on what once were open fields, so it’s a relatively rare experience at MnDOT to do so.”

Project website for Hwy 14 expansion Dodge Center to Owatonna

Hwy 52 Zumbrota to Cannon Falls

Construction on Hwy 52 north of Zumbrota will begin in July.

In the first year, crews plan to replace the Hwy 60 west bridge at Zumbrota and the northbound Hwy 52 bridge over Hwy 60 east, which is south of Zumbrota. Crews will also be building crossover lanes to prepare for a full season of construction in 2022.

The reconstruction of the southbound lanes was chosen because it’s the original road bed before the highway was expanded to four lanes.

The project went through extensive public engagement the past three years. MnDOT met with community members along the route, as well as township, city and county leaders, and others who use the busy highway between Minnesota’s third largest city and the Twin Cities.

“MnDOT has done a lengthy process of outreach and there have been vigorous discussions with the community and others on closing access at some points and improving the safety to move us a few steps closer to the long-term vision of making this a controlled access freeway,” said Thompson, the manager for the project.

The project is one of four projects scheduled on Hwy 52 between Rochester and the Twin Cities between now and 2024. District 6 and Metro District have teamed up with the Web Team to provide a single landing page for the public to find projects and follow along on news and updates with each. Two Metro District projects are also taking place this year on Hwy 52 that affect traffic at different times.

Project website for Hwy 52 Zumbrota to Cannon Falls



Crews prepare rest areas for active travel season

By Joseph Palmersheim

More than 20 million travelers visit MnDOT’s 204 rest areas each year.

The rest areas range from modern, open-24-hours-day Class I site to seasonally operated, no-bathroom Class IV sites. Minnesota’s rest areas remain busy with commercial motor vehicles year-round while visits from recreational travelers hit a peak from late spring through MEA weekend in mid-October and through the end of fall color season. There are 51 Class I, 14 seasonal Class II/III and 139 Class IV rest areas across the state.

“Rest areas are essential safety features on the highway system that help address driver fatigue, a major cause of serious accidents,” said Rob Williams, rest area program manager. “Their basic service is crash prevention. Studies indicate that a 15- to 20-minute break improves individual performance, even among sleep-deprived people.”

Other benefits include accommodating trucker hours of service regulations, reducing the need for shoulder stops and supporting economic development.

COVID-19 impacts

Like everything else, the COVID-19 pandemic posed several challenges over this past year to Minnesota’s rest areas.

Collaborating with other state DOTs, MnDOT instituted many COVID-19 mitigation measures at rest area in order to keep them open to the motoring public and to support critical commercial freight movements during the pandemic.

At the onset of the pandemic, this included providing onsite workers with personal protective equipment and using hospital-grade disinfectants every half hour or immediately after multiple people leave a rest area building. The sanitation routine is still in effect, along with mask requirements, social distancing and asking people to “be quick.”

These mitigation measures will remain in effect until the release of Minnesota Department of Health guidance saying they are no longer needed.

Also, MnDOT was one of a few states to permit food truck operations at rest areas during the period when restaurants were closed early in the pandemic. Ordinarily, the ability to permit such commercial activities at rest area is prohibited by federal and state law; however, through the Federal Highway Administration and a Governor’s Executive Order, this prohibition was temporarily waived.

Clear Lake and Des Moines River rest area replacement, improvements

Photo: Rendering of the Clear Lake rest area

This rendering shows what the Des Moines River rest area in District 7 will look like when construction finishes. The new structure replaces a 50-year-old building, and includes a green roof and expanded parking options. Submitted photo

Crews are working on building replacement, site improvements and ADA work at the Clear Lake and Des Moines River rest areas in southern Minnesota. This rest area pair is west of Jackson on I-90 in District 7.

These rest areas were approaching 50 years of age, functionally obsolete and in poor physical condition, said Robert Williams, rest area program manager.

Both rest area buildings will feature energy-saving green roofs. These reduce cooling and heating loads by 6 percent, saving $30,000 over the 50-year life span of the facility. The lifecycle cost of the green roofs is comparable to that of an EPDM roof typical on many MnDOT buildings.

“Contextually, the green roofs recall the sod house construction historically common in the area and the use of sloping roofs, earthen berms and walls will control snow drifting in key areas of the sites,” Williams said. “Large bird-safe glass windows with large roof soffits will also contribute to facility energy efficiency.”

A separate pavement project will follow. This second project involves rebuilding the car and truck parking lots, expanding truck parking lots, rehabilitating ramps, and replacing parking lot and ramp lighting systems.

Thompson Hill Travel Information Center improvements

Reconstruction of vehicular pavements, replacement of parking lot lighting and ADA improvements will begin this construction season at the Thompson Hill Travel Information Center, which serves travelers on I-35 in Duluth. The building will remain open to the public during construction.

Goose Creek Rest Area honored

Photo: Outside of the Goose Creek rest area.

The Goose Creek Rest Area project in the Metro District won an Honor Award from 2020 AIANY + ASLANY Transportation + Infrastructure Design Excellence Awards. This photo shows the curving pergola and children’s playlot. Submitted photo

The Goose Creek Rest Area project was honored at the 2020 AIANY + ASLANY Transportation + Infrastructure Design Excellence Awards.

The project was one of eight transportation and infrastructure projects from across the country awarded by an independent jury of architects, designers, critics and planners. Goose Creek won an Honor Award, the highest level of achievement bestowed by the jury. Each project was evaluated based on its commitment to sustainability, community engagement and civic architecture. This national competition was sponsored by the American Institute of Architects, New York and American Society of Landscape Architects, New York Chapter. This is the second award Goose Creek has received since it was reconstructed.

Floodwood Rest Area closed

MnDOT, working in partnership with the city of Floodwood, is no longer running the Floodwood Rest Area facility as a rest area.

The state transferred ownership of the facility to the city of Floodwood on April 5. The city plans to develop the building and parking area into a future asset for the community. The building, a historic train depot, proved difficult to maintain because it was not designed to function as a rest area, Williams said. That, compounded with the minimal usage of the site, made it not cost effective to operate.


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Two District 8 employees are eligible for vacation donations

By Joseph Palmersheim

Two MnDOT employees are eligible for the state’s vacation donation program, which is designed to help critically ill employees who have used up all sick and vacation time due to their illness. The program allows all state employees to donate up to 40 hours of accrued vacation leave each fiscal year. The vacation hours are converted to sick leave that may be used by one or more critically ill state employees who have applied to receive assistance through the program.  

Photos: Kyle Goosmann and Melissa Hjelle

Left: Kyle Goosmann. Right: Melissa Hjelle. Submitted photos

Kyle Goosmann, a transportation generalist senior with Willmar Maintenance in District 8, has been battling colon cancer since 2018. The cancer has returned, and the 10-year MnDOT employee will be starting treatment again. He will need to be off work approximately three months and may need further treatments and surgery.

Melissa Hjelle, a Minnesota Toward Zero Deaths regional coordinator, is based out of the District 8 office. She has been a state employee since August 2019. Hjelle underwent craniotomy surgery on March 4 to remove a malignant brain tumor. She is undergoing extensive radiation and chemotherapy treatments spread out over a year.

To donate vacation hours, go to the Employee Self Service website and click “Other Payroll” and then “Leave Donations.” The site also allows employees to view a list of all state employees eligible for the program and to enroll as a recipient.



Global Accessibility Awareness Day is May 20

Join state employees May 20 to learn key steps and best practices to organize and run meetings that are inclusive for all as part of Global Accessibility Awareness Day. Minnesota IT Services’ Office of Accessibility will a host this informal online session from 1-2 p.m.

Find more information about the event and add the event to your calendar.

How to get involved in digital accessibility

  • Follow along on social media: #GAAD is the search term used on Twitter, Facebook and other social media accounts. The Minnesota IT Services Twitter account and Facebook page will feature accessibility tips, resources and more.
  • Share with friends: these accessibility quick cards are accessible PDFs.
  • Challenge colleagues to experience the need to incorporate digital accessibility into virtual meetings first-hand with the No-Mouse Challenge.

No-Mouse Challenge

If a computer mouse suddenly stopped functioning, would an employee be able to continue working? What if they had a deadline and couldn’t wait for a replacement? Using a mouse is not an option for some employees. This may drastically limit their ability to use a website, web application or even navigate operating systems.

Employees are encouraged to spend at least 15 minutes doing their jobs without using a mouse by taking the No-Mouse Challenge. Here are some handy keyboard shortcuts.

Staff who have taken the No-Mouse Challenge are asked to share their thoughts and reactions with a quick survey.

Want to hear about others’ experiences? Visit the GAAD 2021 SharePoint page. Help make a difference by remembering these simple guidelines:

  • Make sure all documents are formatted for accessibility.
  • When writing requirements, include accessibility for all deliverables, from interface to training materials.
  • Include keyboard shortcuts in your instructions.
  • Require vendors to incorporate accessibility in their deliverables.
  • Talk about accessibility with your co-workers.



MNIT’s security message: Quarantined emails and how to handle them

By Joseph Palmersheim

Photo: screen grab of quarantined email message

A quarantined email is a message that the state email system identifies as potentially dangerous. It is separated, or quarantined, from other email sent to users to protect state systems. It might be flagged as a threat because it:

  • Looks like a phishing attack
  • Includes suspicious attachments or links to questionable websites
  • Is spam (email sent in large quantities)

If an email is placed in quarantine, users will receive a notification in their inbox. Users can also access quarantined emails online if they think a valid email has been incorrectly quarantined. 

What should users do when an email is quarantined?

When users receive a notification that an email is in quarantine, they can choose to: Block Sender, Release, or Review. MNIT recommends leaving the email in quarantine, and not releasing the email to an inbox unless the user has reviewed and confirmed that the message is not dangerous.
Here are the steps to evaluate a quarantined email:

  • Select “Block Sender” if the sender is recognized as malicious, or if emails from them aren’t needed
  • Select “Review” and then “Preview Message” to view the content of the email safely in a secure browser
    • If an email appears to be work-related, confirm with the sender through alternate, legitimate channels such as a phone call or known website
  • Select “Release” only if the email is confirmed as legitimate, or is required for legal or data retention purposes

Finally, delete the notification email from an inbox evaluating the quarantined email.



Contract Management Policy updated

Updates to MnDOT’s Contract Management Policy went into effect on March 11.

The policy establishes uniform standards applicable to all MnDOT contracts to ensure that legal and financial risks are addressed and managed, and to ensure integrity and accountability. The updates reflect current agency practices, so offices should not experience any business impacts. 

Highlights of the revised policy and the procedures document include the following:

  • The policy and procedures update various definitions and clarify roles and responsibilities
  • The policy requires the agency to enter all core contract data into the Contracts Agreements Auditing Tracking System
  • The policy recognizes tribal nations’ unique status as sovereign nations with the inherent right to self-govern, and the procedures provide that MnDOT staff will not require tribal nations to provide a resolution when contracting with them
  • The procedures incorporate the goal of an inclusive state contracting process and require staff to include applicable provisions supporting the goal of inclusivity and implementing various civil rights programs
  • The procedures contain a new section detailing unique requirements by contract type

The updated policy can be found here, and the procedures document can be found here. Please contact the Contract Management section with any questions.



Upcoming events

Keep up-to-date on MnDOT staff-related events by regularly checking the iHUB calendar. Events coming up in the next two weeks include:

  • May 12: Minnesota Management and Budget MMB Emerging Leaders Institute  and Senior Leadership Institute Lunch and Learn
  • May 12: Mapping Prejudice: Illuminating Minneapolis’ long-hidden history of exclusionary housing practices Lunch and Learn
  • May 19:Past, Present and Future of the Minneapolis American Indian Center and Urban Indian Community Lunch and Learn
  • May 26: Tribal Affairs & IERG Roundtable Discussion around Indigenous Experience at MnDOT

View full calendar



On the Job: Makala Simon enjoys work rotations as graduate engineer

By Rich Kemp

Photo: Makala Simon

Makala Simon. Photo by Emma Olson

Makala Simon has gained a lot of experience as a graduate engineer in the two years she has been with MnDOT in District 4’s Detroit Lakes office.

What has been your career path?
My first engineering-related position was as a student design assistant for the North Dakota DOT at the Department of Transportation Support Center on North Dakota State University’s campus over a period of two years. I also had a summer internship with the city of Fargo as a construction inspector. I was fortunate enough to start at MnDOT, District 4 in Detroit Lakes, right after graduating in 2019.

What do you do in your current job?
I have been rotating as a grad engineer for the past two years and have enjoyed meeting everyone and learning more about each of the functional areas. I have finished my rotations and am currently helping Construction as a project engineer. I will be a project manager later this summer as a grad 2 engineer.

How did you become interested in engineering?
I have always loved building and creating. Engineering was always on my mind and the idea was reinforced after enjoying math and Project Lead the Way (Introduction to Engineering) classes in high school. I had amazing teachers who encouraged me and parents who inspired me. My dad has been a truck driver for many years and the few trips I took with him across the U.S. opened my eyes to his over-the-road experiences. I learned at an early age how important safe and efficient roadways are, especially for semis.

What is your favorite part of your job?
My favorite thing about every rotation I have had is learning more about MnDOT. Each department works hard to plan, implement and collaborate to make our roads better. I have had the opportunity to see projects at every stage and help prepare Intersection Control Evaluation Reports, create Material Design Recommendations, write consultant contracts, create project cost estimates, design ADA plans and complete snow fence cost benefit analyses. Also, the Grad Program is an amazing opportunity! I encourage anyone who has the chance to work for a different functional area to try it, even if it is outside their comfort zone.

What are your biggest challenges?
I have been in seven different functional areas over the past two years and had to learn about so many things in such a short amount of time. It has been a blessing to work in the various departments, but also hard to leave when I really enjoy the work and people.

Has your job changed a lot because of COVID-19?
Working from home made the rotation experiences very different. There are a lot more meetings and it seems harder to walk away when my workstation is in-between the living room and kitchen in my apartment. I was fortunate enough to have met everyone while in the office, so switching departments wasn’t as hard as I assumed it was for newer grads or employees. I think Construction has helped maintain some normalcy since during COVID it isn’t very different. Because of COVID, I have learned I am more of an extrovert than I previously realized, I enjoy learning hands-on, and I appreciate the face-to-face interactions.

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.

Recent employee profiles:



Happy Public Service Recognition Week!

By Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher

photo: Margaret Anderson Kelliher

Margaret Anderson Kelliher. File photo

This past year has challenged us, both personally and professionally.

We’ve experienced moments of struggle, success, and everything in between. Throughout it all, MnDOT is incredibly fortunate to have you on our team. May 3-7 was Public Service Recognition Week, and May 5 was Employee Appreciation Day. I just wanted to take a moment, on behalf of our entire agency leadership team, to say thanks.

We appreciate and are grateful for your contributions every week. We all know that MnDOT is operating in a different capacity then we were a little over a year ago – but through it all, you have persevered. From keeping our construction projects on track to safely and efficiently executing our snow and ice responsibilities and so many other critical tasks, you’ve continued to provide essential services to all Minnesotans.

With vaccination rates increasing and plans to safely return employees to offices and workplaces coming together, we know that more change is on the horizon. Please continue to take care of yourself and support each other. We’re all in this together, and I’m confident we will succeed because of the incredible team we have here at MnDOT.

Be sure to watch this video from Governor Walz recognizing Employee Appreciation Day, too!
(Note: This video will open in YouTube, which may not be accessible to all viewers, especially those using assistive technology or screen readers. A full transcript is provided below.)

Thank you again for all you do – this week and every week.

Full transcript of Governor Walz video:
Hi everyone, Governor Walz here!
Happy State Employee Appreciation Day.
These words mean something even bigger this year.
I don’t think any of us expected the challenges the last year would bring.
Each and every one of you has handled these extraordinary circumstances with professionalism and a deep sense of commitment to our state.
We’ve faced so much together, and I’m grateful for the work that you’ve done.
As far as I’m concerned, every day is State Employee Appreciation Day.
You have all been a critical part of Minnesotan’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as our work to create systemic change to improve the lives of all Minnesotans.
I know this has been a difficult year, and I know the work isn’t over.
As public servants, we have an extraordinary opportunity to help lead change for our state and our nation.
I can’t wait to see what else we can do together.
Thank you!


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