A Mix of Innovations Succeeds in Minnesota
Public involvement, full road closure, and new technologies helped the State speed completion of a reconstruction project.
As the Nation's roadways age and become increasingly overcrowded, departments of transportation (DOTs) continually look for ways to maintain service delivery during construction projects. From accelerated construction techniques and prefabricated elements to innovative contracting and road safety audits, DOTs have a growing range of strategies at their disposal to improve safety, maintain traffic throughput, and minimize construction-related headaches for nearby residents and daily commuters.
The Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) Highways for LIFE (HfL) program helps identify, promote, and accelerate adoption of these technologies and innovations. HfL's goal is to improve safety and highway quality while reducing congestion caused by construction. The HfL Web site highlights more than 40 success stories culled from across the United States — ranging from installing precast concrete bridge decks on Alaska's Dalton Highway to using full road closure during reconstruction of the Grand Loop Road in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. One aspect of the HfL program is the provision of funding to assist States in construction projects using innovative approaches. Thus far, 17 projects have been funded in 15 States, featuring more than two dozen innovations.
A project in Minnesota, one of the first to receive HfL funding, demonstrates how combining a number of innovations and best practices can contribute to a successful reconstruction and build goodwill among motorists and nearby businesses and residents. In early 2006, officials with the Minnesota Department of Transportation's (Mn/DOT) Metropolitan District faced the dual challenges of reducing congestion on a busy urban highway and ensuring safe pedestrian passage across the roadway. A 2-mile (3.2-kilometer) segment of Highway 36, a high-volume, commuter-heavy roadway, passes through North St. Paul, a small city east of St. Paul, MN. The highway divides the city of nearly 12,000 into a northern and southern section. Congestion had become an issue for motorists who often had to stop for six at-grade intersections along the short route through the city.
Mn/DOT and city officials also were concerned about pedestrian safety, as students at the city's North High School had to cross the busy highway in the mornings and afternoons. In fact, the need for a safe crossing for students was the driving force behind the project, which began with plans for an elevated pedestrian crossing and eventually morphed into full-blown highway reconstruction.
In executing the Highway 36 project, Mn/DOT Metro District personnel and North St. Paul city officials deployed a mix of innovations that helped make the project a success. Specifically, Mn/DOT surveyed the public about whether to partially or fully close the road during construction, reached out to local businesses and residents affected by the project, and applied new technologies to get the job done faster.
"Mn/DOT's efforts exemplify the effective application of HfL ideals and approaches," says Kathleen Bergeron, marketing communications coordinator for FHWA's HfL program. "Use of innovative market research techniques and a detailed, multifaceted public involvement and communications program helped build trust with the community, ultimately leading to success for this project."
For a number of years, North St. Paul city officials had been discussing the need for a safe pedestrian crossing over Highway 36. Grassroots mobilization eventually brought the issue to Mn/DOT's attention, and subsequent planning discussions expanded the scope of the project from the addition of a pedestrian crossing to full reconstruction of the highway. During the planning phase, highway designers at the Mn/DOT Metro District faced a critical decision about whether to close the road partially or completely during construction. Planning studies revealed that partial road closure would result in 16 months of lane closures, while full closure would shut down that section of road for just 5 months, with traffic detouring around the construction site. Full closure therefore offered a 70 percent reduction in the duration of traffic impacts.
Given the expected impact of road closure on commuters and downtown businesses and residents, Mn/DOT enlisted the help of in-house market researchers to gather information the engineers could use to support a decision to use partial or full road closure. Rather than leave the decision entirely up to the engineers, Mn/DOT public affairs and market research staff posed the question to the community: Would they prefer partial or full road closure during construction? In February 2006, the department enlisted a market research firm to help conduct phone surveys of residents, commuters, and local businesses. The researchers described the two scenarios — full closure for 5 months or partial closure for 16 months — and gathered respondents' preferences. In the end, the researchers surveyed 1,074 people, with the results split nearly 50/50.
Because the surveys did not reveal a clear public preference one way or the other, Mn/DOT's market researchers took this as an opportunity to rely on the department's best technical data. Weighing the benefits, Mn/DOT opted for full closure, which would allow faster construction, be less expensive and safer for workers and motorists, and yield a higher quality roadway.
Community Outreach And Events
Public involvement on this project did not end with the phone surveys. Recognizing that full road closure would detour traffic away from downtown North St. Paul, the department took steps to reduce the impact on city residents and businesses. Specifically, Mn/DOT hosted open houses and workshops in North St. Paul, the community most affected by the construction. At these meetings, representatives from Mn/DOT showed layouts and timelines for the project stages and answered questions from the public.
During construction, the department provided regular updates at city council meetings and business and local organization gatherings. Mn/DOT also sponsored a meeting in nearby Maplewood, a city located at the edge of the project area.
Additional meetings with business groups in North St. Paul provided a forum to brainstorm advertising and marketing ideas with local merchants to help them attract customers to their businesses during construction. A workshop, "Open for Business — Surviving and Thriving During Construction," presented by Mn/DOT, drew more than 150 people. The workshop provided an overview of the project and the anticipated traffic patterns, and then shared sample marketing tactics such as holding construction-themed sales to let customers know the businesses were still open during construction and printing project information on placemats at local restaurants. Mn/DOT stressed to merchants the value of projecting a positive attitude and offering good service as ways to entice customers to find alternative routes to their businesses during the highway closure.
Mn/DOT also sponsored events targeting the broader community. For example, a group of local businesses, city officials, and staff from Mn/DOT Public Affairs hosted a celebration christened "Detour Days" to mark the highway's official closing. The celebration included a 3-mile (5-kilometer) road race, a coloring contest for children, and local vendors selling food and other items. Other special events marked project milestones, such as the grand opening of a pedestrian bridge crossing the highway. An old-fashioned Christmas celebration in downtown North St. Paul also became part of the city's roster of events and continues to this day. The holiday celebration included a visit from Santa Claus, a dance, and special offers at area restaurants. Local businesses even hosted their own events. For example, a kung fu studio invited children to decorate Christmas ornaments.
The North St. Paul Snowman
Following reconstruction, North St. Paul's iconic snowman continues its vigil along Highway 36. Standing 44 feet (13 meters) high and weighing many tons, North St. Paul's snowman has stood watch over the city for more than three decades. The metal and stucco snowman was conceived by a local businessman following a visit to Disneyland. He felt the city and the local business community could benefit from a larger-than-life icon.
The massive city symbol replaced large snowmen built each winter by the Jaycees to celebrate the city's annual Snow Frolics event. Several years of minimal snowfalls in the late 1960s and early 1970s had made it difficult to truck in enough snow to build an adequate snowman, and the stucco creation replaced the real thing.
Construction of the snowman began in 1971 and was completed in 1974 with all volunteer labor at a cost of $2,000 for materials. It originally was located at the corner of 7th Avenue and Margaret Street in downtown North St. Paul but was moved in the early 1990s to its current location overlooking Highway 36 at Margaret Street.
Crews took special care to protect the snowman during reconstruction of the highway, including drilling preliminary soil borings to determine the soil composition and driving pilings to support the huge snowman. With work on Highway 36 and the Margaret Street bridge completed, the snowman remains on duty "watching" local citizens and traffic on the highway.
"Mn/DOT worked extensively with the citizens and businesses to make this project as painless as possible and provide some benefits for them," says Jan Walczak, North St. Paul city council member and city council liaison to Mn/DOT.
In addition, the department distributed news releases covering not only construction updates but also community events — an uncommon combination of purposes for DOT news releases. Weekly updates from the project engineer were sent to an e-mail list and posted on the project Web site, which was set up well in advance of project startup. Mn/DOT also posted photographs of construction activity on the project's Web site. Media coverage included regular project updates and stories on activities to celebrate milestones. By the end of the project, 677 people had signed up for the project's e-mail updates.
In addition to the public involvement efforts, Mn/DOT applied innovative construction techniques on the Highway 36 reconstruction, including machine control technology and intelligent compaction.
Machine control involves applying global positioning system (GPS) technology to the operation of earthmoving equipment such as bulldozers and road graders to establish the grade. Mn/DOT operators relied on real-time GPS satellite transmitters to monitor equipment movement and determine exactly where earth needed to be excavated or filled. Three-dimensional computer models helped monitor progress and indicated when the correct amount of aggregate had been placed. This technology helped minimize or eliminate the need for placing stakes in the ground, saved time, and helped ensure a smooth driving surface when the project was complete.
"We have effectively used machine control on many of our projects and are continuing our efforts to fully implement this technology," says State Construction Engineer Tom Ravn, in the Mn/DOT Office of Construction and Innovative Contracting.
Another innovative technology used during the reconstruction was intelligent compaction, which equips rollers with sensors that precisely measure the stiffness or compaction of the ground and roadway materials beneath them. Integrating measurement, documentation, and control systems, intelligent compaction rollers allow for real-time corrections in the compaction process. By reading a computer screen that identifies the compaction of the grade, roller operators could easily identify soft areas in the roadway that needed additional compaction and avoid over-compaction and aggregate crushing, which could ultimately lead to loss of structural support.
"Ongoing research in this area has allowed us to improve our specification and quality of our embankment construction," Ravn says. "We will continue to refine the technology based on these research results and experience on future projects."
Although construction of the entire highway was not completed until late summer 2008, Mn/DOT lifted the road closure a full year earlier — in August 2007 — in fewer than the 5 months predicted. In spring 2008, the market research team launched a follow up survey of residents, businesses, and commuters to evaluate the closure portion of the project.
The market researchers added a series of questions addressing signage, communications, access, and road closure to the initial Highway 36 survey. They kept questions as close as possible to a survey that Mn/DOT used for a statewide tracking study called the Community Construction Evaluation project, which the Office of Construction and Innovative Contracting adopted as a best practice after evaluating five Minnesota projects in 2005. Mn/DOT therefore could compare the results from the Highway 36 survey to those of surveys following projects without full closures.
Overall, survey respondents were overwhelmingly positive about the closure and the progress of the entire construction project. Nine out of 10 respondents from each audience segment surveyed (residents, businesses, and through commuters) reported strong or somewhat strong agreement with the decision to close the highway. For those who agreed with the closure decision, the most common reason was that it allowed the project to be completed much faster. According to Chris McMahon, director of Mn/DOT's Market Research unit, this finding supports a growing trend since the 1990s in Minnesota that shows the public prefers more inconvenience over a shorter time rather than less inconvenience over a longer period.
Other benefits such as safety aspects and money saved with the closure ranked highly among those surveyed. Respondents reporting negative opinions about the closure cited a perception that the closure had a negative effect on local businesses and caused inconvenience to motorists.
Hear Every Voice
In 2009, Mn/DOT's public involvement process, "Hear Every Voice," celebrates 10 years of reaching out to the public for input on important transportation issues affecting the State. The initiative began in 1997, when Mn/DOT assembled a task force to review and update procedures for involving the public in the department's program delivery decisions. Two years later, Mn/DOT released its guidance document Hear Every Voice: A Guide to Public Involvement at Mn/DOT. The booklet covers the role of public involvement in planning and project development, including case studies and tools to assist in selecting appropriate techniques.
Mn/DOT, in conjunction with the FHWA Minnesota Division Office and the Minnesota Local Technical Assistance Program, recently updated its guidance materials for public and stakeholder participation in transportation projects. The updated components include a new Web site, a training curriculum that addresses managing effective public involvement, and a revised version of Mn/DOT's public involvement guide, Hear Every Voice: A Guide to Public Involvement at Mn/DOT.
For more information, visit www.dot.state.mn.us/pubinvolve/partner.html.
Many respondents who initially reported being against full closure changed their minds as of the followup survey. At least two in five respondents in each audience segment (and nearly half of business respondents) changed their opinions toward the positive compared to their preproject responses. Fewer than 1 in 10 respondents in each segment changed their minds toward the negative.
Even though the results of the postclosure survey revealed that the community deemed the project a success, McMahon cautions that each community is likely to be different, and some might be much more averse to a full closure. "North St. Paul was a community split in two by the highway, which likely promoted favorable response to the closure, since the construction would eliminate the bottleneck for residents traveling from one side of the town to the other," she says. Further, McMahon recommends using market research techniques to survey a community and through travelers for reaction before making decisions about full closure.
"Going the extra mile with the market research and working with residents and businesses to devise and promote community events around the construction was critical to the project's success," McMahon adds. "That extra effort paid off. Although there was opposition to the highway closure, by being accessible and responding to concerns, we were able to soften the effects of construction through North St. Paul and actually gain support for the work."
And what of the pedestrian safety and accessibility issues that initially inspired the project? Most of the construction took place between May and August, largely during the summer months when the students would be away from school. Now students and others can safely cross Highway 36 by way of a new pedestrian bridge or the new bridge at Margaret Street. Plus, with the highway now below grade, Mn/DOT has eliminated the old at-grade crossings, enhancing safety for pedestrians and improving traffic flow for motorists.
R. Kent Barnard is a communications and media specialist in Mn/DOT's Metro District. He began his career with Mn/DOT in 1989 as editor of the internal newsletter Mn/DOT Today and as a writer/photographer for the monthly EXPRESS magazine. In 1992 Barnard became a public affairs coordinator, and since then he has covered construction projects in the north and east Twin Cities metropolitan area, including reconstruction of Highway 36. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth with a bachelor's degree in communications and political science.
For detailed information about the market research report, contact Chris McMahon at 651-366-3771 or email@example.com. Information about the communications and marketing on the project is available from R. Kent Barnard at 651-234-7504 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on Highways for LIFE, visit www.fhwa.dot.gov/hfl.