Universities’ research making transportation safer

Auburn’s track tests several varieties of pavement at once.

Traffic, road conditions, safety — common concerns and complaints of drivers everywhere. But here in Alabama, aside from the traditional state and federal departments that oversee the various means of travel, constant breakthroughs and problem-solving methods are being developed through the state’s two largest universities and the innovative work of faculty members dedicated to transportation.

In Tuscaloosa 

At the Alabama Transportation Institute (ATI), located at the University of Alabama, faculty, staff and students work to provide products and expertise that advance the state’s economy, safety and quality of life.

One of the foremost roles of ATI is service to the state — putting the institute’s research into practice to solve transportation issues. That could mean performing studies, procuring funds or providing expertise, says Justice Smyth, ATI’s outreach director.

“It could be anything: nuisance flooding, road-widening, building an overpass, or even analyzing the cost of doing nothing at all,” Smyth says. “Our interests cover all modes of transportation — vehicles, rail, ports, bikes and so on. Our researchers are talented, innovative and will generally have the answer to the problem or will take a fresh-eyes approach to finding it.”

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UA students check a data-logging traffic controller in Tuscaloosa. Middle, Monitoring traffic on the UA campus.

To date, ATI has helped obtain $85 million in federally supported projects to build communities’ transportation infrastructure.  

“Transportation touches virtually every part of life: access to healthcare, job opportunities, education, the ability to purchase items that were shipped to the store, or even access to a river or lake for recreational purposes,” says Smyth. “Our goal is to develop creative solutions to today’s transportation-related problems for the purpose of supporting the economic well-being of the state and improving the quality of life of our people.” 

While assisting communities and organizations with the specific issues, ATI’s team is busy addressing the overall challenges of the existing transportation system and seeking improvement innovations for the future.

Currently, the institute is in the midst of a $16.8 million project entitled Advanced Connected Transportation Infrastructure and Operations Network, or ACTION. The initiative’s core theme is to use technology to streamline traffic in normal conditions and during bad weather, emergencies and special events.  

The project began in 2014 with installation of a data-logging traffic controller at a single campus intersection. Over the next three years, 85 traffic signals were equipped with data-logging and radio communication devices, turning the cities of Tuscaloosa and Northport into a traffic laboratory. As it’s collected, data is sent by UA to the regional Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) Traffic Management Center on the UA campus. Engineers and researchers monitor traffic and adjust traffic signal timing as needed.

The next stage of ACTION, currently in the design phase, will be located along the I-20/I-59 corridor and will cover 32 miles through Tuscaloosa and to the east, says Dr. Alex Hainen, a UA engineering professor and ACTION project researcher.

“The interstate segment is a complimentary piece to what was started in Tuscaloosa and Northport,” Hainen says. “It’s all connected and they depend upon each other, as football game traffic demonstrates.”

According to Hainen, 135 intersections in West Central Alabama will be upgraded. The key components include a network of sensors, cameras, radar detection devices, traffic signal systems, and communication technologies such as the Travel Safely app, which is free and currently being used across the country. As information is collected it will be sent to the ALDOT Management Center and also shared with drivers.  

Monitoring traffic on the UA campus.

“We’ll be able to identify incidents — the type, location, when they occur, how often and how long they last,” Hainen says. “We want to make the road safer and more efficient, and this will help us with that.” 

This phase of ACTION is expected to go out for bid this summer with construction to begin in 2022. At the end of the project, the West Central ALDOT Regional Traffic Management Center will take over ownership. 

In addition to government agencies, regional manufacturing and trucking interests are also represented in the partnership.

“This is a great collaboration that will help improve this very important network that’s vital for the economy and supply chain,” Hainen says.

In Auburn

Auburn University established the AU Transportation Research Institute this year, but many of its programs have their roots in the original, 150-year-old civil engineering program. Today, some $24 million annually goes toward transportation research, exploring infrastructure, traffic control and safety and more.

One primary focus of AUTRI is bridges, says Dr. Justin Marshall, director of the Advanced Structural Engineering Laboratory.

“From the perspective of bridges, we can do many things, including testing steel or concrete girders at full-scale to check performance and development of more efficient designs,” Marshall says. “We test bridges of all sizes and in all locations — interstate, city, country, even those over little creeks in neighborhoods.”

The Advanced Structural Engineering Laboratory at Auburn University.

Because of the extensive cost of bridge materials and construction, there’s a constant search for ways to make them last longer and perform better, including how to speed up construction of components like the deck, Marshall says.

“The most common process to construct a bridge deck is to build a formwork or mold, but that takes time,” Marshall says. “We’re looking to create modular systems so construction is quicker and the time traffic is closed off is lessened.”

Other bridge components include the supporting columns, foundation and abutments, which all deal with the weight of traffic and transferring it into the earth.  

“It’s a very complex mechanism,” Marshall says. “When we build a steel beam, we know its strength, but dealing with soil has a lot of unknowns, and that’s where the geotechnical chamber comes in.”

“We fill the chamber with that soil, build a foundation, and use hydraulic actuators to apply very large forces to see the reaction,” Marshall says. “We can also conduct tests for railroad bridges and signs like you see on exits, as well as light and power poles.”

According to Marshall, a good portion of the research is funded by ALDOT, but testing is also done for other states and is tailored specifically to those locations.

Whether on interstates, city streets or country roads, travelers are concerned about the condition of the pavement beneath them. To address the issue, Auburn and the National Asphalt Pavement Association partnered in 1986 to form the National Center for Asphalt Technology. Over the years the center has worked with state, federal and private entities to assess and develop new products, designs and construction methods aimed at improving road conditions.  

While lay people think of roads as a  generic asphalt, says Center Director
Randy West, asphalt is actually just the black glue that binds a pavement together, and pavements are typically built of multiple layers of paving mixtures and a crushed stone base on compacted stone.

Auburn University’s Advanced Structural Engineering Laboratory can test steel and concrete girders for bridges.

Usually, the mixture is made of rocks, sand and asphalt, he says, but often it includes “recycled materials like asphalt pavement, roofing shingles and ground tire rubber,” West says. “The latest material we’re just starting to evaluate is waste plastics. We’re doing lab research now and will begin field testing this summer.”

While researchers often conduct experiments in a laboratory, a unique capability of the asphalt technology center is its test track — a 1.7-mile loop with 46 sections upon which highway departments and private industries can test pavement mixtures and different combinations of layer thicknesses. The track, now in its 8th research cycle, has a small fleet of loaded trucks, each with three loaded trailers totaling 156,000 pounds.

“We run the trucks 16 hours a day, five days a week — so we’re testing the experimental pavements with a lot of heavy axel loads,” West says.

With the importance of safety and the demand for reliable roads, West says the growth of the center’s workload is inevitable.  

“The driving public wants a smooth ride without the inconvenience of road maintenance delays, and NCAT is working on safer, quieter roads that last longer through the use of better materials and construction methods,” West says.

This story appears in the June 2021 issue of Business Alabama magazine. 

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