May 26, 2021
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Statewide traffic returns to pre-pandemic levels

By Joseph Palmersheim

Photo: a variety a vehicles travelling on a freeway

Beep, beep: Afternoon traffic May 24 on Hwy 252. Twin Cities metro traffic levels are around 85 percent of pre-pandemic levels. Photo by Rich Kemp

When many Minnesotans stayed home due to the pandemic last year, their vehicles stayed home, too.

More 14 months after those first shutdowns, traffic levels around the state now are approaching or have returned to pre-pandemic levels. While statewide traffic volumes are near normal, Twin Cities metro traffic levels are around 85 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

Brian Kary, director of the Regional Transportation Management Center, said Twin Cities metro freeway traffic numbers have consistently been lower due to a reduction in commuter trips and longer trips.

“Last year, at the start of the pandemic, metro freeway volumes were down 50 percent and climbed up until about October,” he said. “When COVID cases started to rise in November, we saw volumes drop again, but only down to about 25 to 30 percent from normal. Now, as we come into May, it looks like metro freeway volumes are recovering back up to within 10 percent of normal, so we are starting to see congestion return on some higher volume corridors during the afternoon.”

Metro freeway traffic volumes in the afternoon are closer to normal than the morning peak, so the system is starting to see the return of some p.m. congestion, Kary said. According to Metropolitan Council data, traffic started to rise not long after the pandemic measures went into effect, with afternoon rush hour returning in the last few months.

Three maps showing varying traffic levels.

A tale of traffic: these images illustrated the traffic volumes at 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 16, 2019 (left), Oct. 14, 2020 (center) and May 6, 2021.

The changes over the last year brought both opportunity and challenges. Early on, MnDOT’s construction and maintenance crews took advantage of the lower traffic volumes to have more daytime lane closures, which stopped about mid-summer last year as volumes recovered.

One of the biggest challenges has been higher traffic speeds. While crashes decreased due to lower traffic levels, traffic fatality numbers didn’t go down. Preliminary Minnesota State Patrol reports show there were 394 traffic deaths on Minnesota roads in 2020, compared with 364 in 2019. Lower traffic levels, together with the increase in fatalities, resulted in the highest fatality rate on Minnesota roads since 2009.

Looking to the future, the move to teleworking “will be an interesting dynamic that is difficult to predict,” Kary said. Other trips may come back over the course of the summer as restrictions are lifted but if a lot of employers allow at least part-time teleworking, the continued drop in vehicle miles travelled could continue, especially in the morning peak hours, due to the decrease in daily commuters.

“The number of people teleworking will play into this a lot. The push to teleworking showed it can be done. You see articles about how employers are open to the idea and employees are wanting it. Part-time commuting could reduce traffic volumes enough to have a dramatic reduction in congestion levels. There are some studies looking into this further, but it will be interesting to see what becomes of it.,” Kary said. “Even having people just teleworking on snow days could really help maintenance out on the road with plowing and reduce those horrendous snow day commutes.”



Shoulder widening on Hwy 87 aims to improve safety for Amish, all highway users

By Emma Olson, District 4 public affairs

Photo: a roadway under construction

Photo of shoulder widening operations on Hwy 87 near Frazee. Photo by Emma Olson

District 4 received a letter from an Amish elder near Frazee in November 2016.

“We, the Amish Community, here between Frazee and Wolf Lake, have a concern that this highway does not offer any room to move to the side, out of the line of traffic, with our horses and buggies, because there is not enough shoulder space,” Andy Mast wrote.

Seven non-fatal vehicle/buggy crashes happened on Hwy 87 in the four years prior. Amish residents were also concerned about the safety of people walking along the highway, including numerous children walking to and from the neighborhood schools.

Knowing MnDOT had a project scheduled to address the pavement condition on Hwy 87, Mast wanted to see if the shoulder width could be addressed at the same time.

“We agreed with their assessment that shoulder widths on Hwy 87 were narrow and less than ideal,” said Tom Pace, District 4 project manager. “We had some budget constraints at first, but applied for Highway Safety Improvement Program funding and were able to upgrade the project from a mill and overlay to a reconstruction.”

Five years later, construction on Hwy 87 has started, and the requested shoulder widening is currently underway.

“It’s pretty incredible to see how much of an impact that one letter had on this project’s design, and the overall impact it’ll have on safety for all users,” Pace said.

For the 2021 project, crews are reconstructing and resurfacing 26 miles of pavement between Frazee and the Becker/Wadena county line, widening shoulders between Frazee and Evergreen, and replacing two box culverts, including the Otter Tail River bridge.

Crews are one month into construction and making significant progress on the $13.8 million project. Reclaiming and paving has finished east of Evergreen to the county line, and shoulder-widening operations and the bridge replacement at the Otter Tail River have begun. Construction on Hwy 87 is expected to wrap up by mid-October.

Learn more by visiting the project website



New statewide plan improves transportation options for people who walk

By Anne Meyer

Photos of pedestrian safety demonstration projects across the state. Submitted image

Creating safe, more convenient places for people to walk is the mission behind the new Statewide Pedestrian System Plan.

The plan, released this week by the Office of Transit and Active Transportation, doesn’t stop at prioritizing locations for investment. It also provides new guidance to existing practices, offers opportunities to improve maintenance outcomes on the pedestrian system and identifies potential costs to implement recommended improvements.

“Safety is our top priority at MnDOT, and this plan provides an important framework to help ensure we are meeting the needs and interests of people, today and into the future,” said Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher. “Creating safe places for people to walk is essential to improving equity and mobility, addressing climate change and ultimately providing a better quality of life for everyone.”

Work on the pedestrian plan begin in February 2019 and included two public engagement efforts that reached 2,700 people statewide. Seven pedestrian safety demonstrations projects were also installed across Minnesota to show certain safety measures in action. All of that feedback went through an internal process of evaluation to help MnDOT achieve better outcomes for people walking.

The new plan will help drive MnDOT’s work, and can also serve as a guide to communities across the state as they plan for future development.

“This plan helps MnDOT identify opportunities and implement the right strategies on projects to make walking safer and more convenient for all Minnesotans,” said Tori Nill, OTAT director. “While the plan doesn’t tell us exactly what to do in every situation, it does provide the tools we need to make those decisions and make sure pedestrian safety is included on every highway project.”


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Carefully, now: Twin Ports Interchange project hits bridge removal stage

Two photos of highway overpasses in various states of demolition

The Twin Ports Interchange project is in full swing this summer. At left, Southbound Hwy 53 to southbound I-35 is one of the first bridges to be taken down, as shown in in this photo taken May 20. Crews first broke up the concrete, knocking it away from the steel beams, which were then removed. At right, Northbound I-35 ramp to northbound Hwy 53 is being taken down at the same time. The bridges are being removed at certain points so the construction doesn’t disrupt existing bridges still in use. Photos by Cole Maetzold


Training equips field staff for working with people experiencing homelessness

By Micaela Resh, Office of Research & Innovation

Photo: Screengrab from MnDOT's training video for working with people experiencing homelessness

At least 7,600 Minnesotans are homeless on any given night.

The number of people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota and nationwide has been on the rise in recent years. As these numbers grow, so does the likelihood of MnDOT staff encountering unsheltered people living along roadsides.

MnDOT’s Homeless Encampment Team worked with a consultant last year to develop a training curriculum - Safety in the R.O.W. for MnDOT Staff and People Experiencing Homelessness - to help field staff navigate the complexities of these encounters. These video modules are intended to be shown at various work locations. The team includes Metro District staff Dewayne Jones, maintenance superintendent; Brian Duffee, transportation program specialist 2; and Sheila Johnson Maintenance Operations engineer; and Kristie Billiar, ADA implementation coordinator; Bob Vasek (maintenance operations engineer, Office of Maintenance; Sue Lodahl, assistant state maintenance engineer; and Peter Morey, Roadway Data & Support director, from the Central Office.

This work stems from Heading Home Together, an interagency plan to prevent and end homelessness. Part of MnDOT’s commitment is to train staff on how to effectively interact with people experiencing homelessness. Select MnDOT staff also coordinate with social service and volunteer organizations who connect unsheltered homeless people to needed resources.  

The seven training modules cover the unsheltered population; situational awareness; being prepared; interacting with people experiencing homelessness; site dangers; personal wellness and partnerships. The modules could be used as a topic at safety meetings or as standalone sessions.

Modules are intended for use in a group setting with the local supervisor facilitating a question-and-answer session after viewing. A discussion leader briefing module will assist supervisors in leading those group discussions. The Metro District conducted a pilot session in early March for two of the modules, followed by the remaining modules being done independently at truck stations and facilitated by the local truck station supervisor.

“The training modules that were developed have really helped our field folks to be more aware of encampments and what to do if they encounter one," said Dewayne Jones, a supervisor with Metro District Field Maintenance.

Plans call for the annual review of the modules by all Metro Maintenance field staff. The modules are available for statewide use depending on local need. Supervisors should contact their district safety administrator or employee development specialist about setting up a session and recording them in Pathlore for attendees.

In addition, MnDOT is conducting research to improve the safety of both staff and people experiencing homelessness. “Remote Sensing in Unsheltered Encampments” will test infrared and thermal technology for detecting human presence along highway rights-of-way. This recently funded project builds upon a transportation research synthesis, “Remote Sensing in Maintenance Work,” published last year.



Environmental practices play crucial role in protecting Minnesota’s many waterbodies from erosion, plastics

By Ken Graeve, Office of Environmental Stewardship

Most of us take pride in Minnesota’s many lakes and rivers and do our best to keep them clean and healthy. MnDOT also protects surface waters during construction projects by preventing soil erosion and keeping sediment from washing into the water. This is important because sediment is a major water quality problem. It can affect lakes that should normally be nice and clear by turning their water brown or even green.

Ironically, though, erosion and sediment control practices may be contributing to another water quality threat: plastic and microplastic pollution. This is because many erosion and sediment control products are made of plastic. Most such products are temporary. Some are meant to be removed after use, but this generates a large amount of waste. Other products are actually meant to be left in place even after their temporary need has expired. Products that remain in place have been known to trap small wildlife or deteriorate into microplastic particles. A few years ago, MnDOT projects were creating about 30 tons of plastic waste from erosion and sediment control practices each year.

The Office of Environmental Stewardship, with input from Peter Leete, Department of Natural Resources liaison, has been working to phase out plastics in erosion and sediment control products. This includes spending several years reducing the use of erosion control blanket that contains plastic mesh. In 2014 MnDOT used enough plastic erosion control blanket to spread 12.5 tons of plastic fiber and netting over 550 acres of roadside slopes and ditches. With the launch of the new 2020 Standard Specifications for Construction, which only allows natural fiber netting in temporary rolled erosion control products, the agency will be bringing those numbers down to zero.

MnDOT also is continuing work on other products, such as hydromulch, sediment control logs and silt fence. Biodegradable alternatives do not exist for all of these products, so the agency is working with other states, discussing national standards, talking to manufacturers and partnering on research into biodegradable alternatives. One area of research will explore the use of Minnesota-grown hemp as an alternative to plastic erosion and sediment control materials.

“There is a lot of work to do, but we hope that in the near future, MnDOT's erosion and sediment control efforts will not only protect our lakes and rivers from sediment, but from plastic and microplastic pollution as well,” said Marni Karnowski, chief environmental officer and director of the Office of Environmental Stewardship.



IT Asset Verification for computers kicks off

Starting this week, all MnDOT employees assigned a computer will need to perform an IT Asset verification for computers that they use or manage.

Decorative image of a laptop computer

All employees need to complete the IT Asset verification by June 25.

Employees will be able to verify the computers they use or manage remotely through the IT Storefront on or after May 24. The project team anticipates that the verification process will take no more than 10 minutes per computer.

What do employees need to do?

Employees can use the IT Storefront to view computers that are assigned to them and verify that they are in possession of the computer. They will need to verify all computers that are assigned to them in “managed by” or “used by” status.

Detailed instructions are available on the IT Storefront IT Asset Verification page.

Note: Please use Chrome or Edge web browsers to complete the IT Asset Verification for computers process.

Why do computers need to be verified?

Computers are considered “sensitive assets” by the Minnesota Department of Administration. Not only are they costly, computers can also contain sensitive data. The Department of Administration requires a biennial physical inventory for all “sensitive assets.” This participation allows MnDOT to meet this mandatory requirement. To have a successful inventory, MnDOT must achieve 95 percent or greater accuracy.
Please contact the IT Service Desk for technical support.

For questions about the IT Asset Verification Project, contact: Joy Graham, ITAMS project manager; Betty Lucas, assistant office director, Office of Financial Management; or Susan Walto, Business Continuity, Office of Financial Management.

This article was written by Don Brabeck, Susan Ogbemudia and Bobby Underhill (all with MnIT@MnDOT); and Joy Graham and Evan Iacoboni (both with Office of Financial Management).



Strong passwords help protect state systems, devices

When employees create strong passwords, they ensure that cyber criminals are not able to penetrate the state systems and devices relied upon to provide services for all Minnesotans.

Recent ransomware attacks have plagued government services and private companies across the country, jeopardizing data and services for millions of Americans. The recent Colonial Pipeline attack highlights the need to make sure that systems are always protected, starting with a strong password.

“When we take action to protect state systems against a cyberattack by creating strong passwords, we make sure that Minnesotans can buy their hunting or fishing license, purchase health insurance, or check travel conditions online during a winter storm,” said Rohit Tandon, Minnesota’s chief information security officer and assistant commissioner for MNIT.

What employees can do to protect state systems

New password procedures from MNIT help ensure that all network passwords are strong. State employees are now required to avoid common phrases and passwords for their login information. Learn how to make a strong password that meets these guidelines.
A weak password creates an opportunity for cyber criminals to target personal and state data to steal information, commit identity theft and infect devices.

Check out other security tools to protect against ransomware:



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:

  • June 3: Equity in Transportation - Equity in Tribal Affairs
  • June 7: Lunch and Learn: Office of Research & Innovation - Human Centered Design

View full calendar



On the Job: Bridget Miller helps project managers get the job done

By Joseph Palmersheim

Photo: Bridget Miller

Bridget Miller. Submitted photo

Bridget Miller joined MnDOT 22 years ago. After spending the majority of her career in District 4, she became the project management support manager with the Office of Project Management and Technical Support in Central Office this spring. Prior to that, she served as a design engineer for seven years, which included hydraulics, predesign and environmental work.

What do you do in your current role?
While I am still figuring out my new role, I will provide support and guidance to help project managers deliver construction projects. My new section includes the Alternative Delivery Unit, Shared Service Center and Project Management Support. I am hoping I will be able to help provide statewide leadership and direction for implementing and continuously improving project management (like cost, scope, schedule, risk, resource and quality) on construction projects.

What do you find interesting about it?
So far, everything is interesting since it is a new job. I always knew MnDOT has a lot of data at our fingertips on how we manage our workloads.  I am excited to find ways to take the information we already have and process it in a way that is useful for our function groups and management, so we can make informed decisions and improve our processes.

How did you become interested in engineering-type work, and what inspired you to pursue it?
I worked three summers on the North Dakota Department of Transportation maintenance crew in high school and drove semi for Mayo Construction for the paving crew prior to going to college. I found the defects on the road interesting. I was always asking why and never got a real answer, so I figured I would go to college and one day figure it out. I also worked for a construction company and enjoy learning how things are built, how technology is improving how we do construction, and what is needed on the design side to make it easier in the field.

What’s your favorite part about what you do?
I enjoy learning and problem solving. MnDOT has a lot of hardworking, intelligent people in the functional areas who all know their area very well. I enjoy listening to the people that are doing the work, seeing how it relates to what the other groups are doing, and seeing how it comes together. I don’t like changing things just for the sake of change, but like to listen and see what isn’t working and find a way to make it improve it. My favorite part of my job, hands down, has always been the great people I worked with in District 4. I am enjoying meeting and learning from all my new co-workers in CO.

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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