Region Report: The Upper Great Plains

Dec. 5, 2016

For our final region report of 2016, the editors of Roads & Bridges travel up north

The Upper Great Plains states serve several functions. They are a large-scale agricultural region. They are home to several crucial, not-so-secret missle silos. They also serve as throughways for an incredible amount of freight­—in consequence of which, their roads and bridges sustain an enormous level of truck traffic, and degradation tends to be swift and persistent. In this, our third and final region report of 2016, we spoke with officials in three Upper Great Plains states to get the lay of the land and find out how DOTs there are fairing in the struggle to maintain their infrastructure.

One for the books

by Tim Bruns, Associate Editor

Coming off of the fourth largest construction season in state history, the North Dakota Department of Transportation (NDDOT) is buttoning up the nearly 200 construction projects under its belt from this year.

“We had a lot of work taking place and completed some significant projects this year,” said NDDOT Director Grant Levi, in a release. “This type of investment in the state’s transportation system helps to enhance safety and traffic movement for motorists across North Dakota.”

Major road construction projects for NDDOT this year included the Killdeer Bypass; Dickinson State Avenue Railroad Bridge; Dickinson Bypass; North Washington Street in Bismarck; U.S. 83 north of Minot; Carrington Roundabout and reconstruction work on U.S. 52; West Fargo Main Avenue; and I-29 work north of Fargo.

Department crews also completed roughly 1,454 miles of maintenance projects on state highways this construction season, including surface work such as seal coat projects and overlays.

Operating on a biennial budget, NDDOT’s 2016 construction program worked with $680 million, though only $560 million was bid out. While the department’s construction budget is expected to decrease in the next few years, federal funding is projected to rise as a result of the FAST Act. A tighter state budget has put about $80 million in projects on hold due to insufficient funding.

One project reaping the benefits of federal funding was the West Fargo Main Avenue Reconstruction project. With 80% of funds coming from the federal level, the two-year, 0.6-mile project is a response to increasing traffic volumes in the area. Marking the third and final phase of reconstruction for Main Avenue, the work for 2016 on the corridor began on March 8 and will wrap up before the close of the season. All major north and south side intersections at Main Avenue are open to traffic, and crews are currently working in the new median area. Project highlights include the replacement of the Sheyenne River Bridge with a new box culvert, roadway reconstruction of eastbound and westbound lanes, and removal of frontage roads.

Looking out towards the west side of the state is where projects such as the Killdeer Bypass can be found. A two-lane truck bypass is being built on the west side of the city, extending 4 miles from the intersection of S.R. 200 and S.R. 22 south of Killdeer to S.R. 22 north of Killdeer. Two roundabouts are included in the design for the bypass. This portion of the project provides benefits such as eliminating high-speed crashes, improved traffic flow and capacity, and accommodating all sizes of vehicles. The new bypass and roundabouts are currently open to traffic.

The I-29/I-229 interchange project in South Dakota includes the replacement of two bridges on I-29 over I-229.

Moving along

Benefiting from clear fall weather, the South Dakota Department of Transportation (SDDOT) has made significant progress on some multi-year projects.

One of these achievements is the I-90 Exit 14 project at the U.S. 14A interchange in Spearfish. The two-year reconstruction project was let this past February and is due to be complete in June 2018. The goal is to replace the existing I-90 Exit 14 interchange with a new single-point interchange to improve traffic flow, access and safety.

In addition to the interchange reconstruction, approximately 1.5 miles of interstate lane reconstruction is part of the project as well, according to SDDOT Belle Fourche Area Engineer Tammy Williams. “The contractor had to complete a majority of interstate lanes this year, and they’re actually going to exceed that—they’re going to complete all of it,” Williams told Roads & Bridges. She added that as the community of Spearfish has developed in the last decade or so, the area has experienced capacity issues, bringing a need for the interchange in order to allow a smoother traffic flow.

The $27.7 million project also realigns Colorado Blvd. to the north of the interchange and 27th Street to the east. The bridge structure at the interchange is a fairly wide span at approximately 265 ft wide, though only about 183 ft long. According to Williams, the contractor has completed a majority of the first half of the structure this year. “We still don’t have traffic on it, but the intent is hopefully to get traffic on it before winter sets in,” she said. “That way, they can remove the existing structure over the winter and set themselves up fairly well for starting the work on the second half next summer.”

A much shorter project, one that will be wrapped up by next summer, is the I-29/I-229 interchange project in Sioux Falls. The $33.8 million project involves the replacement of two bridges on I-29 over I-229, going both northbound and southbound. Workers are in the second phase of construction, which involves removing and replacing concrete pavement on I-29 northbound lanes.

Also, due to inadequate shoulder widths, both bridges undergoing replacement on this project were classified as functionally obsolete. Since widening was not an option, the decision was made to replace the bridges. Other improvements include roadway lighting on both interstates as well as signage. Additional lanes on I-29 also are new features to come out of this project.

Most of the work reached substantial completion on November 4 of this year, allowing the roadway to open to traffic. Work that remains includes bridge rehabilitation at Exit 73. “Most of the I-29 corridor has been reconstructed; this is one of the remaining segments that existed from its original construction back in the ’60s,” Sioux Falls Area Engineer Travis Dressen, P.E., told Roads & Bridges. “From a condition standpoint, the existing pavement was in poor condition and needed to be replaced.” Dressen added that expansion from the city of Sioux Falls towards the south and west as well as much needed capacity improvements made this project a necessity.

SDDOT plans for approximately $400 million on an annual basis through combined federal, state and local funding. According to Mike Behm, director of planning and engineering at SDDOT, the FAST Act provided the department a “more firm planning horizon for federal funding.”

One program at SDDOT that benefits local funding is their Bridge Improvement Grant (BIG) program, which provides funding to counties that put forth a five-year highway and bridge improvement plan. SDDOT sets aside a total of $15 million available in BIG grants per year.

Getting ahead of the game

by Brian W. Budzynski, Managing Editor

Traffic management centers allow IDOT to stay abreast of conditions on the most crucial corridors.

As a predominantly agricultural state, Iowa has more than its fair share of rural roads and bridges.

In fact, according to Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) statistics, there are more public road miles—114,486, not including ramps—than there are interstate miles in the entire 50 states. Of those 114,000+ miles, IDOT is responsible for only 9,403, meaning the remainder fall under the purview of counties, municipalities, parks and institutions.

Funding disparities between state- and/or federally maintained roads and bridges and those maintained at local levels is nothing new, and so it might come as little surprise that according to a recent report by national transportation research group TRIP, Iowa ranks third in the nation in structurally deficient rural bridges; moreover, research conducted by the Reason Foundation concluded that Iowa’s overall rural arterial pavement condition was third-from-last in the U.S. and its urban interstate pavement health was not much better (46th among the states).

It is little wonder that Iowa’s roads are being pummeled by major-league truck traffic, said Stuart Anderson, IDOT’s director of planning, programming and modal division.

“Iowa is a throughway state for the movement of freight, both from a highway and rail system perspective,” Anderson told Roads & Bridges. “We’ve also got lots of corn, much of which stays in state for ethanol production, and lots of soybeans, which we ship overseas to the export markets. Our agriculture is very dependent on our roads system. I-80, for example, which is our major east-west corridor, has a lot of truck traffic.”

One of IDOT’s main challenges, therefore, has been finding a balance between developing its urban areas, which are seeing, like many urban areas across the U.S., significant population growth, and strengthening and maintaining its pervasive rural system. It is a challenge the state has been taking head-on through legislative measures, comprehensive maintenance programs and 21st-century technology implementation.

Constitutionally protected

Though the FAST Act has boosted confidence in programming and enabled departments of transportation across the country to be more aggressive in their planning, notably of those projects earmarked for federal funding, many states still depend largely on state-generated dollars to get things done. Iowa is no different.

These dollars are sourced from several places, but in the end, all of them flow into a single funnel, which in turn feeds immovably into transportation infrastructure.

“We have a state road-use tax fund,” said Anderson. “It’s derived primarily from three sources. There is a state fuel tax that accounts for 41% of it, annual vehicle registration fees that account for 34%, a 5% vehicle purchase tax that account for 21% and the remaining dollars, about 44% of the overall amount, come from license fees, title fees and so forth.”

The first piece of the funding pie, the state fuel tax, saw an increase in March 2015 of 10 cents per gallon, which Anderson said will boost the state’s five-year transportation plan by $500 million, from an initial $2.7 billion to $3.2 billion. A boon, certainly—but that’s not even the best part of it.

“All sources, notably the fuel tax increase, are constitutionally protected,” Anderson said. “They cannot be diverted to other purposes by the legislature.”

Such security has begun, since the fuel tax passage, to generate results from the state Transportation Commission, a seven-member committee tasked with developing the state’s five-year plan.

“Given the funding situation prior to the FAST Act and the state fuel tax increase, a lot of projects had to be put on hold,” said Anderson. “Now they have been able to add in four-lane projects and corridor completions, rather than just adding new ones. Now we can improve the existing system. Pavements, bridges, safety projects, increased interstate system investments—we’re going to be able to get into all of that.”

“From our perspective . . . our approach is the same. Same materials, same level of service everywhere.” —Greg Bargfrede, IDOT winter ops administrator.

Trying to maintain

Iowa’s climate is typical Midwestern. It gets all four seasons, and when winter arrives it often does so with a roar. As such, winters have a major impact on maintenance. With a construction season that tends to wrap up around Thanksgiving time, IDOT’s six districts, each containing multiple counties, turn their attention to maintenance programming to mitigate the damage done by the turning of the seasons.

Each district receives a commensurate amount of funding for rural roads projects—and that includes maintenance.

“We’re faced with both state of good repair and capacity problems,” IDOT District 1 field services coordinator Andy Loonan told Roads & Bridges. “Each district gets $10-11 million per year, and we do need more than that. Counties are going to have some tough decisions in the coming years, deciding what to maintain, especially with a shrinking rural population. We need to be a little ahead of where we’re at, but we’re starting to get ahead of the game. Outside of winter, our maintenance strategy is a little bit of microsurfacing, a lot of chip seals, high-friction surface treatments and resurfacings, both mill-and-fill and full-depth work.”

What this adds up to is a deeper onus on winter maintenance protocols to mitigate degradation. This is an area IDOT winter operations administrator Greg Bargfrede has begun to see distinct progress.

“From our perspective, a winter maintenance and public safety standpoint, we don’t delineate between the interstate and rural road systems,” Bargfrede told Roads & Bridges. “Our approach is the same. Same materials, same level of service everywhere. From a budget aspect, we have to be cautious with our resources. All our trucks are outfitted with GPS/AVL systems, so we can track all our material usage, both liquid and solid. It helps us make sure we’re not overusing materials.”

Working with a fleet of a little over 900 vehicles, Bargfrede has fine-tuned his methodology for maintaining road safety. “We’re a huge brine state. In winter 2015-16, we put down 24 million gal of brine across the state. It’s a huge tool in our tool kit. We also track air and pavement temps rather pervasively. That gives us a good indication of what tools will work best at any time. We do pre-storm anti-icing brining applications. We don’t use a lot of ‘exotic’ chemicals to treat the roads. Magnesium chloride has too negative an effect on our concrete, for example. We use some calcium chloride, but we’re very cautious with it, and temps and conditions have to be exact before we choose to use it.”

Three years ago, IDOT started a plow-cam project, developed internally that takes photos every five to 10 minutes from the driver’s perspective. These photos are processed and posted to internal and external websites to give the public and the media a “no kidding” understanding of what’s going on with the system. “It’s been very helpful,” said Bargfrede. “It lets people know what’s really going on out there, so they can make smart driving decisions.”

HERE and now

I-380 is a mostly rural corridor but a crucial one to businesses in both Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. It also is a commuter corridor that sees 52,000 VPD between 23 metro areas, which made it ideal to test pilot a dynamic mapping program.

IDOT recently partnered with mapping service HERE to create a real-time map of road conditions. According to director of traffic operations Scott Marler, I-380 “was chosen because it’s the right size for us to get our arms around and have a good test of the HERE technology.”

The 3-D digital map will help highly automated vehicles navigate the interstate. Off a cloud-based infrastructure, it will enable two-way communication between cars and the infrastructure. It has been a low-cost investment in the future for IDOT.

“We’ve not had to do any striping work, and that is one of the ways this project is unique,” said Marler. “Using HERE’s technology, the mapping is actually on the processor of the vehicle, and it will allow for precise lane positioning. The communications allow the map to stay up to date. This will allow the driver to see around curves and over hills—things which cannot be done with the current technology. We’re also working on a predictive component primarily tied to weather, so that we can predict in advance when or whether stretches of the highway might be impassable or might have severe weather conditions that would make travel difficult. This could help with routing, construction, road incidents and congestion. We believe that ultimately we’ll see smoother traffic flow and safer road conditions.”


The Region Report series will continue in Feb. 2017 with The Great Lakes Region. Further installments in 2017 will include The Northeast and The West Coast.

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