Higher powers


Job opening at MnDOT: Who’s it gonna be?

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

It’s official: Molnau ousted as transportation commissioner

Click above for the story, here for her statement.

Some of Roadguy’s colleagues have already started calling him “Commish,” but he’s still working on his resume. So pick a public official, your favorite engineer or someone else and let the bandying about of names continue.

(Through the magic of the Internet, I’ve revised this post and moved it up the page.)

Driving advice from the Vatican

Tuesday, June 19th, 2007

This blog isn’t above pontificating, but rarely do we get the chance to talk about the actual pontiff. So if you haven’t already, check out this story about an unusual Vatican document on driver behavior (including ten more commandments), then share your own edicts below.

Talking about the transportation of tomorrow

Thursday, April 19th, 2007

The public meeting that Roadguy attended yesterday had an official name so boring that he won’t mention it here, for he fears that it might put even his most alert readers to sleep. But the room was full of interesting ideas and Important People (a Bush Cabinet member led the proceedings), so read on to learn about policies that might affect you, an appearance by a canine, and some mighty cute traffic cones.

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Upon arrival at the meeting, Roadguy was introduced to a MnDOT employee named Kevin, who said oh, you’re the blog guy! Kevin looked like he could pass for a bouncer, and Roadguy is always a little nervous when people he’s never met have heard of him, but fortunately, Kevin was very helpful — when I mentioned that I might take some photos, for example, he encouraged me not to step beyond the serious-looking guys with the earpieces near the front of the room. Good point; Roadguy loves to travel, but he has no desire to see Gitmo.

Created by Congress, the commission at the front of the room is informally known as the “transportation for tomorrow” commission. Several of its members were in Minneapolis all day to gather information about our region, and this particular hearing sought recommendations for a new national transportation policy. Five regional bigwigs were on hand, and here’s a sampling of their thoughts:

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Carol Molnau (1), Minnesota’s lieutenant governor and transportation commissioner, told the commission that “the gas tax will never keep up” — more efficient vehicles and alternative fuels have reduced its revenue-generating power, and to replace it, she favors a mileage-based user fee that would keep track of how much a vehicle is driven. (A news story on Oregon’s test of such a system is here.)

The transportation chiefs of North Dakota (2) and South Dakota (3), meanwhile, made the case that revenue generators such as toll roads and public-private partnerships weren’t going to work in their states; you can’t have congestion pricing when you don’t have congestion. Their roads are taking a beating from things like increased ethanol production, which brings lots of trucks to rural two-lane highways, and they noted that, because of poor air service and limited or no rail service, their states are very road-dependent.

Peter Bell (4) of the Met Council and Peter McLaughlin (5) of the Hennepin County Board argued for a streamlining of federal bureaucracy so that transportation projects can get approved more quickly, with less second-guessing, because delays raise costs. As one member of the federal commission put it, “It takes 14 years to deliver a project, and that’s ‘on time.’”

The speakers were also generally opposed to earmarks, which were viewed as disruptive to the funding process. And there was much extolling of Minnesota’s success stories, from the light-rail line to the use of shoulder lanes to keep buses moving during rush hour.

After the hearing, there was a break, and as we were leaving the room, we were asked to take all bags with us, which raised Roadguy’s eyebrows a bit. The conference room was inside the McNamara Alumni Center on the East Bank campus of the University of Minnesota, where, unbeknownst to us at the time, there was a bomb scare. Our 5-minute break stretched to 45 minutes and included a visit by a bomb-sniffing dog from the airport police:

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The longer break gave Kevin enough time to introduce me to Carol Molnau and a few other Important People, though Mary Peters, the U.S. transportation secretary, didn’t seem to be hanging around in the lobby with everyone else — I think the earpiece guys were making sure she was safe.

She was indeed safe, and once she was able to reconvene her commission, the topic was congestion reduction, with a focus on Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS). She called the recent fix on Highway 100 “commendable,” and she and her fellow commission members listened as a new crop of speakers urged more funding for systems such as adaptive traffic signals. (Oakland County, Michigan, was mentioned as a model; click here to see what they’re up to.)

The ITS panel wrapped up pretty quickly because of its delayed start, and when it ended, it was time for Roadguy to get going. He hated to leave the hearings behind, though, because the conference room had a couple of cool transportation-y features. There were nifty little red/yellow/green desktop stoplights that kept panelists from going on too long:

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Wouldn’t those be handy at certain family gatherings? There were also mini traffic cones on the carpeting to keep people from tripping over a cable:

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Roadguy resisted grabbing the cones and mini-stoplight and slipping them into his bag, and he headed back out into the real world. Within minutes, he promptly encountered disruptive road construction…

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… challenging pedestrian crossings:

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… and scads of rush-hour congestion on aging highways:

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In other words, the “transportation for tomorrow” folks and other officials have their work cut out for them.

If you didn’t get a chance to attend the hearings but would like to submit your thoughts to the commission, click here; to submit your thoughts to Roadguy, click on the comments below.

A gas-price surprise and a possible act of Congress

Monday, April 2nd, 2007

As most everyone knows, gasoline prices have been doing their upward thing again (a Strib story is here; a USA Today story is here). So when Roadguy drove past this sign on West Broadway the week before last, it certainly caught his eye:

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Aside from the oddly placed decimal point, it seemed like quite a good deal. Then I looked around and took in the wider view. Not only was the low price a thing of the past…

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… the gas station itself was history. (I didn’t check to see whether the pumps were still functioning in some rogue sort of way.)

Relatedly, the Consumers Union sent Roadguy (and probably a few million other people) an e-mail last week urging recipients to tell Congress to pass stricter fuel efficiency standards so that future vehicles use less gas and are cheaper to operate. You can click here for a web page that apparently forwards your comments to Congress, and it includes a form letter that you can personalize or even rewrite (though I’m not sure what happens if you rewrite it to say that you oppose the fuel standards).

Roadguy will not be forwarding your comments to Congress, but he’d still like to hear your thoughts about mileage standards and fuel costs, so post ‘em below.

Mail: A summit, exit numbers and a new sign

Thursday, February 1st, 2007

More from the mailbag:

Alert reader Steve wrote in from Bloomington to make sure that I had heard about today’s Road Pricing Summit in downtown St. Paul. Indeed I had — it’s from 8:30-11:30 a.m. at the Met Councils offices, and numerous high-powered types will be talking about tolls, a mileage tax and/or other user fees that could help pay for transportation projects. I’d been planning to go, but a last-minute scheduling change means that my services are required at Roadguy headquarters for my entire workday. If you happen to attend, however, please tell us all about it. (Well, actually, no, not all about it — just the interesting parts.)

Next up — a question from Mike from Chaska:

I drove tractor-trailer for 6 years while attending college…. I remember reading that the interstate system had a “regulation,” if you will, that required states to place the exit number sign on the exit sign… [on the side] in which the exit actually was….For example, if you’re driving on an interstate highway and the next exit, let’s say Exit 69, was a LEFT exit, meaning you would need to get into the left lane to exit the interstate, the exit number sign would sit on the LEFT top corner of the exit sign. If the exit was to the right, the exit number sign would sit to the top RIGHT corner of the exit sign. My experience has been that this is pretty consistent in most every state I’ve traveled, but not here in Minnesota. Any thoughts as to why?

My first thought is that Minnesotans like to be special — we call that little strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street a “boulevard” even though no one else hardly anyone else does, we make it perfectly legal for slow drivers to stay in the left lane, etc. So maybe this is another unfortunate attempt at being distinctive, like an eyebrow piercing on someone who just shouldn’t have one.

I did some informal research, meaning I dug through some photos and drove around a bit, and guess what? Minnesota is indeed inconsistent on this matter. Sometimes we center the exit number…

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… and sometimes we put it off to the side:

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One similarity between these two signs: They both sit above exit-only lanes, and neither one warns the people below that their lane is about to veer off. That’s OK — drivers just love surprises.

Anyway, the bottom line is that, once again, Roadguy is a bit stumped — but alert readers and signage über-geeks like Froggie and HighPlainsTraveler might have an answer for us. Gentlemen?

We now close with a short note from Roadguy’s fellow blogger Amy, whose e-mail got my attention by using the subject line “The power of Roadguy”:

Hmmm… Roadguy blogs about the lack of a speed limit sign on Dell Road in Eden Prairie… and voila! A speed limit sign magically appears.

My, you do make Roadguy blush. I’m not in a position to claim credit — that sign may have been scheduled to appear all along — but I do know that my recent Eden Prairie post did get mentioned in the blog of E.P.’s city manager. That means that at least one public official is aware of my existence, putting me a hair closer to my goal of global transportation domination.

It’s gonna take a while, though, so keep those comments and e-mails coming.

Far out: Exploring the mysteries of Hwy. 55

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

Roadguy had never traveled on any of the western portions of Hwy. 55 — and by “western portions,” he means anything beyond the Lowe’s in Plymouth. The reason: He’d never been invited. Fortunately, on Tuesday evening, a few layers of government got together and threw an open house featuring some plans for the highway. The entire public was invited, so Roadguy seized the opportunity.

But first, as long as I was out that direction, I figured I might as well check out an on-the-road attraction that I’d heard so much about: the dots. As you may recall from last summer, MnDOT painted large dots on the pavement west of Rockford and erected signs that instructed motorists to pace themselves so there would be at least two dots between any two vehicles. The idea is that longer following distances would reduce crashes.

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(You may also recall that the dots inspired someone to paint a large Pac-Man on the road. It’s still there, though winter has taken a toll.)

Anyway, during the evening rush hour, I gave the dots a try. They’re 225 feet apart, which, I quickly learned, is quite a bit farther than my usual following distance. Fortunately, the truck behind me was also playing along, so I didn’t have anyone breathing down my bumper.

Like many traffic rules, this one was selectively adhered to — many of the cars I saw were bunched up as they zoomed through the rolling hills. But a MnDOT report (available at the tailgating safety project page) found that the average distance between vehicles increased by about 18 feet during the study period, so perhaps more dots are in Minnesota’s future.

Safety is one of the big reasons that officials are looking to redo much of Hwy. 55, as I learned after I arrived for the open house, which was held at the …

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… a mammoth structure that takes up much of Medina. It was cold outside, but inside, things looked like an opening night at an art gallery:

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Ever civic-minded, Minnesotans were not thwarted by near-zero temperatures — they wanted to learn about a project that could affect significant numbers of people.

The big maps hanging on the wall were actually aerial photos with various revamped roadways superimposed. There were two proposals for the Plymouth part of the project: one would turn Hwy. 55 into a four-lane almost-freeway, with overpasses and no stoplights. The other would convert it to a six-lane road and keep the stoplights. The engineers said that the four-lane version would actually have a greater capacity because a stoplight-free road can handle more cars. West of Plymouth, 55 would be four lanes (instead of the current two) all the way to the county line at Rockford.

There were lots of details on how the new road might be configured, but some key elements had yet to be determined, such as …

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Indeed — not much room for loop ramps. Plus, there was the whole matter of money. The entire Hwy. 55 project is, as they say, unfunded, so its schedule sort of trails off:

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Still, officials want to move ahead with preserving the right of way now, while it’s cheaper and less disruptive to do so.

This means that people in the project’s path have at least a little time to consider their options. One guy, the owner of an independent gas station, told me he’s been worried that upgrades to Hwy. 55 will permanently cut off one of his station’s three entrances. (He was interesting to chat with — topics included his recent viewing of “An Inconvenient Truth,” the global-warming movie. Maybe it’s secretly popular among gasoline vendors?) Another guy, a homeowner, held up his cell phone to take a picture of a map that included a “potential access connection” — a possible new road, shown in purple below — running through his rural neighborhood and very close to his house:

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Hwy55_IntersectionCapacity.jpgOf course, it works both ways — lots of people would be affected if the highway isn’t expanded. Not only would the safety concerns remain, but the number of vehicles using the corridor will keep increasing no matter what, said Jim Grube, a Hennepin County engineer who’s the project’s manager. On display at the open house was a chart showing how traffic delays would rise if nothing is done. (You can click on the thumbnail at right to learn which intersections would receive an “F” in 2030 for having delays in excess of “180 seconds.”) As far as I could tell, the overall plans contain no transit-specific elements, although Grube noted that improved speeds on Hwy. 55 would benefit bus traffic.

By the time the open house was over, an estimated 75 people had stopped by to learn about the project, offer their comments, and grab a free cookie. You can see some of the same things via the project’s home page — though you’ll have to bring your own refreshments.

Comments, as always, are welcomed below.