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Innovations Championed by State Transportation Innovation Council Translate into Better Services for Pennsylvania

August 30, 2022 02:40 PM
By: PennDOT Bureau of Innovations

A safety road countermeasure that dramatically cut fatal and injury crashes. 

A more efficient and cost-effective way for local governments to replace bridges that expanded to include all of PennDOT. 

A better approach to cutting intersection crashes and improving traffic flow at expressway interchanges. 

Expanding knowledge about how to better address winter storms, saving time and money for local governments.  

These are among the top success stories stemming from the 10-year history of the State Transportation Innovation Council (STIC) 

The key leaders at PennDOT and partner agencies who were responsible for these innovations recently were interviewed by Steve Chizmar, director of PennDOT’s Bureau of Innovations, for a series of podcasts celebrating the STIC’s milestone. 

“Innovation is extremely important,’ said Joe Szczur, P.E., the long-time district executive in PennDOT’s Uniontown-based District 12. He now is director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Sustainable Transportation Infrastructure and also serves as a member of the STIC. 

“If you are not innovating, you are falling behind,” he added during the podcast interview.  

Taxpayers are investing in a better transportation system, and the STIC helps provide “peace of mind that your tax dollars are being put to practice and being used very efficiently,” he said. 

Before the institution of the STIC, he added, it was questionable whether good ideas had a process to move forward. With STIC, there is a “forum that again encourages employees and gives them the confidence that they can bring up an idea.” Giving it the formal presence the STIC does is the way advancements are being made, and our folks deserve the best, and that is what it’s getting with the STIC,” he said. “It’s been great to be part of.”   

Szczur was joined on the podcast by his former District 12 colleague, Rachel Duda, P.E., assistant district executive for design. Both were instrumental in the adoption of the Diverging Diamond Interchanges (DDI) and Roundabouts innovations, both part of the Federal Highway Administration’s Every Day Counts Round 2 (EDC-2) Intersection and Interchange Geometrics innovation. The DDI installed along Interstate 70 in District 12 was the state’s first. Two additional DDIs have been completed in PennDOT District 8 at the Shrewsbury interchange of Interstate 83 in York County, and the U.S. Route 222/U.S. Route 322 interchange in Lancaster County.  

Duda, who also was leader of the STIC’s Technical Advisory Group (TAG) for Design for the past three years, referenced the safety impact of the DDI innovation. 

“Total crashes were down 46 percent the first year, and left-turn crashes were down 72 percent,” she said. “And really what DDI does and what roundabouts do, they eliminate a lot of the conflict points. Eliminating conflict points makes it harder (for drivers) to make a bad decision.”  

Among the DDI features are moving the crossroad traffic to the opposite side of the roadway at the on and off ramps to the interchange, which eliminates left turns across oncoming traffic. A Roundabouts flows traffic into a circular motion that eliminates the usual intersection cross traffic. 

Duda said she had a great experience as the Design TAG Leader. 

“Any time you bring an innovation to your TAG, you are sharing an idea that someone believes can save time, money or even lives,” she said. “In reality, that is the main goal of PennDOT and the STIC.” 

Saving lives was the big impetus for the High Friction Surface Treatment (HFST) innovation. Joining the podcast were two PennDOT leaders who played a critical role in its advancement: Jason Hershock, manager of PennDOT’s Safety Engineering and Risk Management Unit, and Neil Hood, safety engineer for PennDOT’s District 9, based in Hollidaysburg. 

“Lane departures in Pennsylvania are responsible for 50 to 54 percent of all fatal crashes in the commonwealth, a pretty big number,” Hershock said. Two-lane roads with curves make up about 10 to 15 percent of the state’s roadway network, but account for over 50 percent of highway fatalities, he added. 

Working through the STIC, PennDOT’s District 5 in Allentown did a pilot with the first application of HFST on Route 611 in Northampton County. The process involved adding a layer of epoxy materials, such as bauxite and aggregates, on the top of the existing road surface, to increase friction. That helps prevent skidding, especially on wet pavements. 

That stretch of Route 611 had 21 wet road crashes in just one direction between 1997 and 2005, said Hershock, who worked in the district and played a key role in the deployment. Between 2007 and 2015, all crashes were eliminated because of HFST, he added. Similar results have been seen statewide. 

“We found the HFST worked great and reduced not just certain crashes … it reduced all crash types. It was like the silver bullet of safety countermeasures,” he said. 

Hood said his district also applied HFST to intersections in addition to curves. 

“We are seeing a benefit here as well,“ he noted. “We’ve had good success so far. We want to continue that.” 

Hershock noted how FHWA, the construction industry and all elements of PennDOT collaborated to make HFST work across the state. 

“All of us had to work hard to develop good construction standards, quality specialized materials, and be willing to work with contractors and material suppliers to ensure a quality product,” he said. “And it’s made a big difference. We haven’t had any major failures …” 

The long-term failure of a small, locally-owned bridge in Huston Township, Clearfield County, opened the door to using Geosynthetic Reinforced Soil– Integrated Bridge Systems (GRS-IBS) in Pennsylvania.  

GRS-IBS is a low-cost alternative for short-span structures that local work forces or district maintenance forces can construct using readily available materials and without expensive construction equipment. Using this technique, these bridges can be completed in weeks instead of months, with costs 25 to 60 percent less than conventional methods. 

“It’s one of the most satisfying achievements in my career at PennDOT,” said Randy Albert, P.E., municipal services supervisor in PennDOT’s District 2 based in Clearfield. He and Kristin Langer, P.E., assistant chief bridge engineer, joined the podcast to talk about the innovation, which was part of FHWA’s EDC-1. 

“Part of my job at PennDOT in helping local governments is finding solutions to local road and bridge problems,” Albert said. 

When trying to help the township deal with the long-term closure of one of its bridges, Albert remembered a FHWA presentation he had seen about GRS-IBS and proposed it to the township.  

“There wasn’t any influx of funding or big grants to get it started,” Albert said. “There wasn’t a big study group or research group in Pennsylvania implementing a pilot program or anything like that.” 

Albert pointed out to the township that the concept was experimental, and they couldn’t use state funds. 

“We discussed the things that FHWA promoted: ease of construction, the economy in building it, the quick turnaround time in getting the bridge open. And since they wanted the bridge opened as quickly as possible, they decided to move forward.” 

The project was so successful it generated widespread media coverage and garnered an innovation award from the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors (PSATS.) 

Langer then entered the picture and was instrumental in developing specifications, explaining the concept and its benefits to her PennDOT colleagues and spreading the concept statewide. 

“Specially, they recognized the cost savings, the ease of construction, the speed of construction and everybody mentioned the elimination of the bump at the end of the bridge if constructed properly,” Albert said. “That’s really how it got started. It just started out to be a solution to a problem and took on a life of its own.” 

Langer said it was a challenge to get PennDOT district bridge engineers to buy into the concept.  

“We overcame it basically the way we do most anything, by taking baby steps,” she said.  

Working with FHWA, Langer worked to get specifications into PennDOT publications and manuals, and staged showcases for engineers and contractors to explain the concept. In 2018, FHWA STIC Incentive Program funding was awarded to underwrite extensive research that helped update the specifications for GRS-IBS bridges. Today, each PennDOT district has at least one GRS-IBS bridge, Langer said. 

Looking ahead, GRS-IBS may be used for overpasses and to help deal with increased flooding impacts on bridges. 

“We are starting to see and to be able to tout the benefits and tout the resiliency of those structures and carry that forward into the future to increase our resiliency on our bridges, especially in flooding situations,” Langer said. 

Aside from helping municipalities with bridges, a STIC innovation also provided salt and winter management training and support. 

Sam Gregory, technical expert for the Local Technical Assistance Program (LTAP), and Karen Atkinson, program manager for PSATS, joined the podcast to talk about those efforts. 

Atkinson noted that FHWA STIC Incentive Program funding, awarded in 2015, was the catalyst that helped accelerate development of the Salt and Snow Management Course now offered statewide to municipalities.   

“We always had a vision of developing this course, but with budgets, it’s just one-by-one … and it wasn’t really high on the list,” she said. “There were some other items we needed to take care of first. So, by having this funding, we were able to get this course out a lot sooner and help municipalities.” 

Gregory said one goal was to present national and PennDOT best practices to municipal staff. 

“We provided the knowledge to the locals to increase their level of service while at the same time saving them materials, which related to obviously saving money,” he said. 

By helping with calibration of spreaders and other efficiency steps, the courses had an impact, Gregory said, adding, “They noticed the savings in materials, and it saved them a lot of time, and they could get onto some of their other roads quicker. ... and they brought it to the point where they could upgrade a couple of their trucks to do pre-wetting, and when I would go back a year later, they would be upgrading their entire fleet.” 

Gregory noted that the coursework has to stay current. 

“Winter maintenance operations is one of the public works activities that is constantly evolving,” he said. “So obviously, any new technology that has come about after the original course, we’ve had to make sure it was updated to include all those changes.” 

The STIC’s focus on innovation and collaboration to reach success is important, Atkinson said. 

“STIC is definitely making a difference, and my goal from LTAP is to reach out to municipalities and work with locals so a lot of my involvement is having my ears open and trying to determine what ideas can be applied on the local level and making sure through LTAP we are also promoting the STIC innovations. For me, it’s been a great outlet to learn about things.” 

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