Federal aid helps center pave road to future

by Heather Fors

A bright orange ceremonial check for the amount of $874,576 sits atop a mirror hanging on the wall of Lowell Benson’s office.
“The check is a symbol of government financial support for programs like these,” said Benson, the manager of the Intelligent Transportation Systems Laboratory at the University’s Center for Transportation Studies.
But to Benson it also represents the need to find alternative ways to solve the country’s transportation needs.
The center’s researchers strive to improve existing transportation systems — like highways and streets — by coming up with technological advances, such as video cameras, heat sensors and timed lights.
For instance, the technology has been put to use on the University’s transitway, which connects the University’s Twin Cities campuses, where timed lights and fiber optic cables have reduced the number of accident along the corridor.
Prior to the installation of the lights, 32 accidents occurred since its opening in 1992. But since the lights were fully installed in January, there have been no accidents on the thoroughfare.
The traffic lights on the transitway are just a snapshot of what the center does in its attempts to transform the transportation landscape. Local, state and national officials have inquired about using the technology to make other roadways and railroad crossings safer.
But without federal funds, the amount the center can do is limited. The federal money pays for projects that are springboards to bigger transportation innovations. That’s why the center is paying close attention to Congress this year.
The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act, which shapes transportation from highways to railways, is up for renewal.
“Transportation: Everything depends on it,” said John Bray, public affairs director for the Minnesota Department of Transportation in northeastern Minnesota. “Economic development always follows good transportation.”
But because of toll on the environment and increasing construction tabs, lawmakers don’t want to keep sinking money into building more highways.
The trick is to find alternatives, said Gerard McCullough, director of the Center for Transportation Studies. And this is where the Center for Transportation Studies comes in.
With funding from the federal and state government, the center works to make the nation’s veins safer, less congested and easier for emergency vehicles to navigate.
About 19 percent of the center’s annual budget comes from federal money. The center, which began its work in 1985, applies the $1 million it gets from the federal government each year to a host of projects.
Some of the projects the center executes include:
149> using video cameras and computer simulation programs to study problems with congestion;
149> researching car-pool lanes with heat-detecting cameras to cut down on lane abusers who use blow-up dolls and animals to satisfy occupancy requirements;
149> studying whether relationships between telephones, computers and e-mail cut down on business travel or increase it because of expanded transaction circles.
Certain projects require collaboration with the state transportation department. Because of this, the Minnesota Department of Transportation contributes some of its federal aid to the University.
Each year the state can allocate 25 percent of its federal funds to the University’s center.
How much the center gets from the state varies by year and the number of projects underway. The University has gotten anywhere from $250,000 to $2 million annually from the state’s research branch called Guidestar.
The center works in conjunction with faculty from several University departments to further transportation initiatives. From the English Department to the Institute of Child Development, the faculty is as varied as the projects.
Although the center funds and executes hundreds of projects, it doesn’t accept just any proposal. Each one is examined by a team of 10 to 20 volunteers who consider the project for three to six months.
Resources are allocated to different projects depending on whether they can be used outside in the real world, not just in the lab.
This, said Minnesota Rep. Martin Sabo, makes the center’s federal funding justifiable. Sabo has championed the center’s causes as a key Democrat on the House Transportation Appropriation Subcommittee.
Sabo said the reports he gets every year on the center’s progress prove to him that its research is essential and has great potential for the future.
Other factors also play into decisions on what projects the center will undertake.
McCullough said the center rates projects depending on whether they can find a partner who can use the product and a faculty member with the expertise to make it.
There have not been any real research failures, McCullough said, and the teams don’t look for specific things to turn down when looking at proposals. It’s just a matter of timing and convincing possible supporters.
A study involving the possibility of charging people to use specific freeways in Minnesota hasn’t panned out the way center officials would have liked. The idea for the research wasn’t a failure; getting support for it was the hard part.
“It’s not that the research is bad, it’s just a controversial idea,” McCullough said.
Cities in California and Georgia are among the places where this concept is being implemented as a way to alleviate traffic.
Other University departments, such as the Human Factors Research Laboratory greatly depend on funding from the center. They work extensively with the center on many projects.
The lab has screens and computers to simulate driving situations and road conditions.
“We try to understand how people drive and those factors that might contribute to problems and factors that might contribute to their safety,” said Stephen F. Scallen, interim director of the Human Factors Research Laboratory.
Each year the lab gets a significant portion of its funding — about $350,000 — from the transportation study center.
Running down a list of accomplishments of the Center for Transportation Research, McCullough is firm in his belief the center casts a wide web of influence across the state and nation.
“I think that there are tremendous benefits to transportation but it imposes a very high cost to the public in terms of pollution, cost and safety — we want to reduce this,” said McCullough. “I think there have been some real successes over the past six years.”