Students drive highways, use GPS in metro ramp meter study

by K.C. Howard

Most Twin Cities residents would like to avoid congestion hassles on metro highways.
But for the last seven weeks, Lindsey Handel, a University civil engineering senior, and four other University students from the civil engineering department willingly took the wheel on some of Minnesota’s highways.
Since early October, the Minnesota Department of Transportation turned off ramp meters across the metro area to test their impact on congestion on major highways.
MnDOT contracted Minneapolis-based SRF Consulting Groups Inc. to conduct the study.
With specially equipped cars, SRF took the test drivers through a one-week orientation, where students learned to use a global positioning system, a device which graphs the car’s location with its speed.
The drivers also learned to pace the vehicle with surrounding traffic. They were then let loose on the road for three weeks with the meters on, followed by three weeks with the meters off.
Handel would wake up every Monday at 4:30 a.m. and arrive at the starting point of one of the nine designated routes by 5:30 a.m. She would then repeatedly drive the same strip of road until 9 a.m.
On Fridays, Handel drove in the afternoon from 3 to 6 p.m.
SRF paid Handel and the other students $11 an hour for approximately 15 to 20 hours a week of driving pre-planned routes during high commute times.
As part of the study, Handel and other drivers were asked to compare mainstream routes like Highway 35E with an alternate route and calculate which route was faster.
“It didn’t feel as comfortable with the meters off,” Handel said.
She added that she believed idle ramp meters, for the most part, increased traffic congestion and accidents. “There were a lot more incidents — at least I noticed.”
It is difficult for MnDOT to validate Handel’s statement, said Mike Sobolewski, director of the meter study, because not all the information concerning traffic accidents will be available until approximately four weeks after the department completes the study.
“There are indications that numbers of crashes have gone up, but we don’t have all of the data in,” Sobolewski said.
Shawn Bloch, another University civil engineering student hired by SRF, also agreed that shutting all the meters off was hazardous for commuters and said he thinks Minnesota needs to find a halfway point.
“There’s periods when the meters should be off, and when they should be on,” Bloch said, mirroring the comments made by many commuters to MnDOT since the testing began.
Sobolewski said MnDOT Commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg will decide what to do with the meters during the interim between the experiment’s conclusion and its debut at the state Legislature on Feb. 1.
It is unknown when the meter experiment will conclude, Sobolewski said. He indicated that weather conditions will affect testing dates.
Minnesota legislators will then study the data and deliver recommendations.

K.C. Howard welcomes comments at [email protected]