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Jan. 18, 2023
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Mechanics keep plows up and running when the snow is falling

Photo: Heavy equipment mechanic Clint Imker.

Clint Imker, heavy equipment mechanic, replaces an engine exhaust manifold. Photo by Rick Vollan

By Joseph Palmersheim

It takes a lot of team work to keep MnDOT’s equipment on the road.

There’s fuel to filled, fluids and bulbs to check and windshield wipers to maintain, to name a few things. There are various electrical, mechanical and hydraulic systems that bring each of MnDOT’s 800 plows and 400 other snow-fighting machines (like loaders, blowers, dozers, graders and large tractors) to life.

When it’s cold outside, it doesn’t take much for things to go wrong. Air brakes leak, blades dull, hydraulics fail and hoses wear. Nothing mechanical performs better when it is cold. Sometimes, it’s a challenge just to find the problem when it’s encased in inches of solid road ice on the bottom of a freezing plow.

This service and repair work doesn’t happen by itself, and when the plows are out around the clock during a snow event, the blizzard of needed repairs can match the intensity of the snow outside. MnDOT’s 155 mechanics are responsible for maintaining the machines that keep the roads clear.

Most of the repair work is done in maintenance shops, but sometimes, it’s done where it needs to be done.

“Our field technicians are out there in the worst possible elements,” said Rick Vollan, the District 7 shop supervisor in Windom, who started as a mechanic 25 years ago. “I can speak from personal experience here, as field mechanic for seven years. I’d be lying on my back, under a truck, in the middle of a blizzard. It's very challenging at times. We do everything we can do to get the truck back in service quickly and safely, but for some breakdowns we have to call a towing company.”

MnDOT’s maintenance shops each have a supply of commonly used spare parts. Windshield wiper assemblies are crucial – if a truck can’t see during a storm, it’s no good to anyone. The blades are easy to find, Vollan said, but finding the wiper arms, motors and other parts can be a challenge for the older trucks in the fleet. Sometimes, the parts need to come via a shipping service, which can take days. When the snow is coming down, that’s time you don’t have.

“This really is a well-orchestrated dance,” said Jed Falgren, state maintenance engineer. “It’s absolutely a blast to watch [our entire team] when things are clicking.”

Crews track repairs and maintenance through the M5 Fleet Management program. Supervisors can use the data there to evaluate vehicle availability and upcoming maintenance. Sometimes, if the situation calls for it, crews will perform repairs to get the vehicle safely through the storm, and then complete the necessary long-term maintenance work once the snow stops.

“In the repair world, our Super Bowl is now, and we do our best to get our trucks back out to our operators,” Vollan said. “That may involve ‘Band-Aids,’ or fixes we can do now, immediately. We document everything, like what we'd done initially, and what we need to do later when we have time. For example, if a truck comes in and needs a specific part that I have to order, I can fix it in a way that gets it back out on the road. When the part arrives, I'll call that truck back in and we can fix it.”

Every blizzard stops eventually, and plowing the snow off the road is simply the first step in the battle. Crews also have to widen lanes, haul snow away from spots that are saturated with it, and plan ahead to ensure there’s a place for snow from the next storm to go. (After the recent snow event at the beginning of the month, when snow stopped falling on Jan. 4, crews in some districts were out for several more days doing this critical follow-up work.)

And the next time the snow falls, the process starts again. The plows will be out and their mechanic crews will be working to keep them there.

“You do the best you can, and when you get that equipment working again, it’s really gratifying,” Vollan said.

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MnDOT staff attend TRB annual meeting in Washington

By Micaela Resh, Office of Research & Innovation

Photo: Research operations engineer Bernard Izevbekhai.

MnDOT research operations engineer Bernard Izevbekhai discusses his poster on “Heavy Truck International Roughness Index–Induced Excess Fuel Consumption in the Minnesota National Highway System.” Photo by Materials & Road Research staff

MnDOT staff joined thousands of transportation administrators, practitioners, policy makers, and researchers at the 102nd Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting, which was held Jan. 8-12 in Washington, D.C. MnDOT staff presented their work in more than 39 workshops, presentations, and poster sessions, with topics including “Building Consensus on Resilience Metrics,” “Novel Approaches for Pavement Condition Evaluation” and “Equity in Past and Present Practice.”

For more information about the MnDOT staff presentations, see the whole list on the Crossroads transportation research blog. Videos from the event are available online, including the Fireside Chat with U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm and the Chair’s Plenary Session Keynote with Jennifer Homendy, Chair of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Photo: Group of female leaders from MnDOT.

MnDOT leaders, including Commissioner Nancy Daubenberger and Deputy Commissioners Kim Collins and Jean Wallace, join MnDOT colleagues for dinner during the Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting held Jan. 8-12 in Washington, D.C. Photo by Tessa Enns

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Office of Land Management unit gets a new name

By Adam Smith, Office of Land Management

Graphic: Planimetric map.

This planimetric map overlaid on an ortho-rectified mosaic is an example of the unit’s work. Graphic provided by Photogrammetry & Remote Sensing Unit

The Office of Land Management’s Photogrammetric Unit has a new name: it is now the Photogrammetry & Remote Sensing Unit, which better reflects its scope of work.
An explanation of the name:

  • Photogrammetry is the art, science and technology of obtaining reliable information about physical objects, the environment and terrain, through processes of recording, measuring and interpreting stereo images.
  • Remote sensing is the process of detecting and gathering information about an area of land or object without direct physical contact. This is typically accomplished using sensors mounted on aircraft, ground vehicles or tripods. 

The Photogrammetry & Remote Sensing Unit uses these processes to create planimetric maps (maps that do not include elevation data), Digital Terrain Models (which are “3D representation of the terrain elevations found on the earth’s surface”), orthorectified mosaiced imagery (“geospatially accurate visual representations of the earth,” which is to say high-resolution imagery that has been corrected to remove distortions).

For more information about the unit, visit its web page.

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Central Office cafeteria officially opens for business

Photo: Central Office cafeteria sign.

The Central Office cafeteria is back in action after being closed for more than two years. Photo by Stephen Terhaar

After a successful two-week trial at the beginning of January, the Transportation Café at Central Office has officially opened for business. The cafeteria had been closed since April 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of employees working on-site.

The cafeteria is open Monday through Thursday from 8:00 a.m to 1:30 p.m. and Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. The menu includes hot breakfast sandwiches, burritos, muffins and pastries in the mornings, and lunch offerings of grab-and-go salads and sandwiches, a self-serve rotating hot food bar (including Taco Tuesday) and other options. The most current menus are posted on-site.

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On the Job: Austyn Dagen covers lots of ground as a graduate engineer

Graphic: Austyn Dagen.

Austyn Dagen.

By Doug Mack

MnDOT’s Graduate Engineer and Land Surveyor Program gives civil engineering and land surveying graduates practical work experience within the agency, providing a taste of various careers and opportunities. Austyn Dagen, one of the current graduate engineers, reflects on her experiences in the program.

How long have you been at MnDOT and in what positions?

I have been working at MnDOT for five years. I started as a temporary worker, then worked as a student worker, transportation generalist, and now I am a graduate engineer in District 1. I have completed rotations in construction, design, traffic and hydraulics. I am currently in my Tribal Affairs rotation.

What are your day-to-day tasks?

My day-to-day tasks vary greatly and have changed from rotation to rotation. Since joining the Tribal Affairs office, I have traveled to meet with different tribal nations and have attended consultations to discuss issues that involve the tribe and MnDOT, a land transfer ceremony in Grand Portage, Tribal State Relations Training and the Mille Lacs State of the Band Address. I’ve also been reviewing documents that are used by the agency while working in Indian Country and an ArcGIS [mapping software] layer that shows treaty boundaries.

What the most challenging and rewarding parts of your job?

One challenge while being in the graduate engineer program is that the rotations are either three or six months. This is enough time to only learn the basics of what’s done by each office that I rotate through. I also see this as a positive because I am able to rotate through several departments and can see first-hand how they operate. When I am completed with the grad program, I will have much more knowledge of the resources I have access to, and will have made the connections with coworkers who can assist me when I have questions. The support I have received from my supervisors and coworkers has made working for MnDOT a great experience, and I can’t appreciate it enough. One of the most rewarding parts of working for MnDOT recently has been meeting with Tribal Council members and being able to assist in strengthening relationships with Tribal Nations.

Is there anything about your job that might surprise other people (either inside or outside MnDOT)?

I am a MnDOT legacy. My dad was a project engineer and my grandma retired in maintenance.

Are there any upcoming projects that you’re particularly excited about?

I am excited to continue learning and to start my final two rotations in project management and bridge hydraulics.

What are your interests or hobbies outside your work with MnDOT?

I enjoy hiking, snowboarding, adding to my plant collection and traveling. I’ve been completing a lot of house projects recently as well.

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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