Innovation Spotlight: NJDOT UAS Program

The Federal Highway Administration has encouraged State Departments of Transportation to utilize Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), sometimes known as “drones”, to improve operations, construction, inspection, and safety by collecting data needed to design, build, and operate the highway system.

The NJDOT UAS Program has been a leader among state DOT UAS programs.  Several articles and a video have already featured the program origins, equipment and training needed to build capacity, and establish “use cases” for the integration of UAS technology within various NJDOT operations.  Glenn Stott, Program Manager, NJDOT Aeronautics & UAS, has been instrumental in standing up the UAS Program.  In this interview, we asked Glenn to provide an update on how the UAS Program has been deployed on recent projects.  Below is an edited summary of our interview and follow-up discussion.

How has the UAS Program been using its recent STIC incentive funding?

The UAS program really benefited from STIC funding at its start. The funding paid for the equipment to fly the missions and deliver regulation and procedures training to staff.  Two phases of training were devoted to legal and regulatory issues, and hands-on training, common to all state agencies. The third phase was mission-specific, exploring how drones could be used for infrastructure inspections and mapping projects. The training helped us build our agency’s capacity to work with UAS, strengthen our working relationships with other state agencies, and raise our awareness of regulatory compliance issues.

We received a second round of STIC funding to pay for equipment, but the Buy America program requirements have been a challenge to procuring equipment.  When we were defining our specifications for the new equipment, we were looking at technical capabilities, not national origin. We have also tried to stay with software similar to what we already have used for training and standardization purposes.

 Can you tell us how the UAS Program has functioned on NJDOT projects?

At NJDOT, our divisions are new to UAS and have their own methodologies that have been successful for decades. We have to find ways to merge our methodologies with theirs and assure them of a high level of success before they will agree to employ UAS.

UAS Team in the field exploring the damage from rockfall along I-287

UAS Team in the field exploring the damage from rockfall along I-287

UAS has played an in-house consultant role on many projects, including several rockfall projects. There are 400 rockfall areas along NJ roadways. NJDOT’s Geology and Capital Program Management (CPM) have been working diligently to analyze the areas and come up with viable solutions and prevent incidents. We flew 49 different sites along Route 15 to gather rockfall data and supported several projects along I-80.

I think we were particularly effective on the I-80 project in the vicinity of the Delaware Water Gap, a national park.  Outside consultants were unfamiliar with federal regulations, and the National Park Service (NPS) representatives were concerned about the use of drones on park property. We are not able to fly a drone from national park property. In this case, the drone was taking off from, and landing on, state property next to the highway. Although the NPS had no formal authority over airspace in this case, we wanted to be good neighbors and address any concerns they might have, particularly related to wildlife areas, and elicit their help in developing the mission profile. With our regulatory experience and knowledge of aviation laws, we developed a mission profile that complied with regulations and was acceptable to all parties.  A consultant flew the mission and we were onsite.

Along I-80, we had particularly challenging conditions in which to work.  In this case, the road has three lanes in each direction with a concrete median, no ditch and no right of way, and rock walls on both sides of the road. We do not fly over active roadways. We had to shut down the left lane in one direction and fly from the left lane. We knew this work had the potential to create road congestion and a distraction for drivers. We coordinated with our NJDOT Bureau of Safety to come up with a flight plan, a take-off and landing area, position of staging vehicles, and plan for support of safety vehicles. These types of projects take a lot of coordination. A consultant flew the mission but NJDOT UAS staff were on site. Although we want to be in the forefront of UAS development, we do not want to risk safety. The Department needs to be comfortable with the comprehensive process of developing the mission profile.

For NJDOT Multimodal, we have assisted with a number of rail projects funded through our rail freight assistance grants program. We fly our own UAS for project management to document existing conditions pre-construction, monitor during construction, and document post-construction to show how taxpayer money has been used. One project, about six months ago, was an NJDOT grant to work with Conrail on the Waverly Loop rail construction project. The Waverly Loop is intended to allow trains to reverse direction by following a teardrop track.

Conrail could not find a consultant to fly the project. The location is challenging as it lies across the NJ Turnpike from Newark Airport and was in the front yard of the state prison, and involves several environmental, wind, and traffic concerns.  We needed to coordinate with the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration], but we are familiar with their concerns and have operated in Newark Class B airspace many times. The agency has a Certificate of Authorization (COA) with all controlled airports in the state as well as with the Philadelphia International Airport.  In this case, we also needed to coordinate with the NJ Department of Corrections. We need to know the players and the regulations. On this project, NJDOT was the consultant and our UAS staff flew the project. We had to ensure that the mission profile and plan met regulatory requirements, the restrictions of the COA, Conrail and Multimodal objectives, and kept all the parties satisfied and informed. We are just one piece of making the project come together.

We have done a lot of work with the NJDOT Office of Maritime Resources, for pre-, during, and post-construction on dredging and other projects. Recently, we flew drones to make sure pipelines were not disturbed during construction in the marshlands near Atlantic City. We also had to prove compliance with NJDEP wetland restrictions when electrical poles were placed by helicopter in this area because dozers and heavy equipment cannot be used.

How has UAS been used for transportation planning and environmental projects?

Drones were used to inform a Concept Development Study of traffic congestion on Route 9 Northbound at the ramp to the Garden State Parkway.

Drones were used to inform a Concept Development Study of traffic congestion on Route 9 Northbound at the ramp to the Garden State Parkway

Two years ago, we worked with construction project management to help them address congestion along Route 9 at the entrance to the Garden State Parkway North to address commuter complaints. Usually, a crew would go out to the site to monitor traffic flow over a period of time. We scouted locations for take-off and landing and suitable vantage points to capture images of the entire road segment. We sent two drones up to take video footage. Reviewing the video, the project management team could quickly determine the source of the congestion. The project manager appreciated that the “eye in the sky” saved a lot of time in determining the problem, and the video helped to explain the issue to contractors and NJDOT supervisors.

We still need the right equipment to demonstrate how drones can support bat counts under bridges. There are nine species of bats in the state that are either federally-protected or state-protected. DEP regulations state that we cannot interfere with them during certain life stages such as migration and hibernation. Coordination with US Department of Fish and Wildlife and NJ Division of Environmental Protection was needed to address concerns about the potential negative effect of drones on the bats. We had to take a course with NJDEP and US Fish and Wildlife before participating in this use case. Bats wedge themselves deep within the cracks under the bridge. Our current drones could not get close due to proximity sensors, and illumination was insufficient. Cameras need to get relatively close to the bats and have good illumination to get quality photography. We have held two field trips to determine if the noise of the drone rotors would bother the bats and see what kind of photos we could get.  We discovered that the rotor noise was nothing compared to traffic noise. With the second STIC grant we hope to purchase equipment to improve illumination and image resolution, and allow us to get closer to the bats.

How many NJDOT staff from other divisions have been trained?

Ten staff members have been trained, and one of those has left. Only UAS program staff actively fly the missions, but trained staff members from other units have flown missions with UAS staff.  Although they do not fly frequently enough to be current and proficient, their knowledge of the UAS program helps their divisions with use case development – for example, in Traffic Management, CPM, and Multimodal. The intent of the STIC-funded training was to leverage our knowledge into the divisions. For example, when we confront a traffic issue for a project, I draw on the trained personnel in the traffic division to bring their colleagues into the conversation. They are our champions for the integration of UAS technology.

With our COAs, we are required to have night training.  With the regulations and procedures grant, we developed a NJDOT night-training video. We developed a PowerPoint training presentation with audio presented in a video format to be delivered to NJDOT UAS pilots. Not only initial training, but recurrent training is needed to renew certification and keep current. We have no active night missions with NJDOT at the moment but would like to do training missions in order to be prepared for an emergency response.

In our trainings and interactions with the divisions, we stress the importance of pre-flight preparation and coordination. A violation of regulations or inadequate coordination could set the program back years and other state DOT programs as well.

Have there been challenges to aspects of the program due to COVID-19?

Aeronautics is  currently understaffed with one of three inspector positions filled. I am the Program Manager for both Aeronautics and the UAS program so I am busy. The pandemic has affected our operations. In particular, coordination is more difficult without face to face meetings.

To what do you ascribe the success of the program?

For the I-495 project, live stream videos from drones were shared with traffic operations and command posts to assess traffic congestion during construction.

For the I-495 project, live stream videos from drones were shared with traffic operations and command posts to assess traffic congestion during construction

Lots of other state DOTs have UAS programs with more funding, resources, and staff but NJDOT’s program has been more successful because of our drive, determination, our champions, and relationships. The champions in NJDOT divisions have worked hard to successfully integrate UAS into their programs.

We have the confidence and experience to collaborate with federal agencies and other state agencies including FAA, airports, Secret Service, Homeland Security, NJ Department of Corrections, and state parks. During the Route 495 project, we had to deal with presidential temporary flight restrictions in Class B airspace. We had the confidence and the relationships with agencies, including Secret Service, to get through roadblocks. Homeland Security loaned us a staff person and a vehicle for several weeks to help support the Route 495 project. It is a collaborative effort; they bounce ideas off of us and we off of them.

Other state UAS programs have not pursued the relationships with these agencies or with divisions within their agencies.  We coordinate with NJDEP, for instance, for filming the NJDOT Winter Road-E-O which is held in a state park. We cannot take off and land in state parks but we can work with the state park to align our objectives with their requirements and regulations. Maritime missions in state parks are difficult to coordinate. However, with our contacts and our awareness of their concerns, we can streamline some of the approvals and fly the missions within the timelines we are given. The relationships are intangibles but a big part of the success of the NJDOT UAS program.


Resources

Drone Technology at NJDOT (Video resource)

Drone Program Takes Off in Bureau of Aeronautics 

Drone Program Reaches New Heights, Seeks to Go Higher

EDC-5 Initiative: Unmanned Aerial Systems

NJ STIC Mobility & Operations: Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Fact Sheet

FHWA EDC-5 Innovative Initiative: Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS)

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Peer Exchange at NJDOT

Spotlight on Innovation: Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) High Mast Light Pole Inspections Comparative Analysis (Infographic)

NJDOT Tech Talk! Webinar – Research Showcase: Lunchtime Edition

Please join us for an NJDOT Research Showcase Lunchtime Edition!

This Lunchtime Tech Talk! webinar features three research studies that we could not share at the 22nd Annual Research Showcase held last October.

  • Quantifying Impacts of Disruptive Precipitation to Surface Transportation: A Data-Driven Mitigation Approach, by Raif Bucar, PhD candidate, Stevens Institute of Technology
  • Lighting, Visual Guidance and Age: Importance to Safety in Roadway Work Zones, by John D. Bullough, PhD, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
  • Analysis of Overweight Truck Permit Policy in New Jersey, by Hani Nassif, PhD, Rutgers University

The Research Showcase is an opportunity for the New Jersey transportation community to learn about the broad scope of academic research initiatives underway and share technology transfer activities being conducted by institutions of higher education partners and their associates. The annual event serves as a showcase to present the ongoing initiatives and benefts of the NJDOT Research program. 

The event is free, but registration is required to receive the URL link to the webinar.  NJ AICP and PE credits are available, but you must be registered for the event. Click through the link below to register for this webinar event:

Research Showcase: Lunchtime Edition
Date:  Thursday, April 22nd
Time: 12:00 – 1:30 PM

2-D Hydraulic Modeling User’s Forum Web Series

The FHWA 2-D Hydraulic Modeling User’s Forum webinar series wrapped up on March 2, 2021 with a discussion of model controls and results, FHWA Resource Center opportunities, training opportunities, current software versions, resources, and FEMA guidance available. The tips and tricks segment provided an overview of the new 3D Bridge feature in SMS. The use of 2-D Hydraulic Modeling tools is promoted through the Every Day Counts Round 4 and 5 innovation Collaborative Hydraulics: Advancing to the Next Generation of Engineering (CHANGE).

For more information, please go to CHANGE.

If you missed the March 2nd meeting, or any of the previous meetings, or if you are looking for training material, free software and tutorials, please refer to the links below:

Transportation Curriculum Coordination Council

The Transportation Curriculum Coordination Council (TC3)'s mission is to develop and maintain a quality training curriculum to enhance the competency of the nation's transportation Construction, Maintenance, and Materials technical workforce. TC3 is a state-based initiative adopted as a Technical Service Program within AASHTO.

The TC3 Online Video Library contains playlists of instructive videos on Construction, Maintenance, Materials and Traffic and Safety.

Center for Local Aid Support (CLAS) On-Line Trainings

The FHWA’s Center for Local Aid Support has developed a series of self-paced online training courses for local agencies and tribal communities. The addition of these courses demonstrates the agency’s commitment to empowering transportation professionals with the skills necessary to deploy new innovation that keeps transportation moving into the future.

The courses are conducted 100% online and are on-demand, allowing users to learn at their own pace and on their own time.

The training courses focus on Every Day Counts initiatives such as:

  • Safe Transportation for Every Pedestrian (STEP)
  • Geosynthetic Reinforced Soil – Integrated Bridge System (GRS-IBS)
  • Gravel Roads Construction and Maintenance
  • Construction Inspection of Rockeries
  • Project Bundling: (1) Fundamentals Event, (2) Staging the Bundle Event, and (3) Creating and Contracting the Bundle Event

CLAS will continue to develop training that will keep transportation moving into the future. These courses can be accessed on the CLAS website.

A-GaME’s 2020-2021 Winter Webinar Series: Ready When You Are

The FHWA A-GaME winter webinar series featured several topics highlighting proven, effective exploration method and practices for enhanced, effective site characterization that reduce project risks, improve quality and accelerate project delivery.  Experts from the FHWA, state DOTs, industry and academia covered everything from the nuts and bolts of A-GaME methods to visualization and design.

If you missed the webinars live or want to review content, the archived webinars are now hosted on Deep Foundations Institute’s YouTube channel and available to watch on demand.

To stay in the know on A-GaME updates, FHWA invites you to Subscribe to A-GaME e-News!

For more information, contact Ben Rivers at Benjamin.Rivers@dot.gov.

Bike-Friendly Resurfacing in the DVRPC Region

The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) is advancing the development of bike-friendly infrastructure in coordination with road resurfacing projects in the Pennsylvania portion of the agency’s region. DVRPC is a metropolitan planning organization that includes nine counties in two states: Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia in Pennsylvania; and Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, and Mercer in New Jersey. Sarah Moran, Manager, DVRPC Mobility Analysis and Design, and Jesse Buerk, Manager, DVRPC Capital Project Development discussed the Bike-Friendly Resurfacing program in four Pennsylvania counties.

What is the program?

The DVRPC Bike-Friendly Resurfacing Program identifies roads for potential investment in bike-friendly improvements as part of regularly scheduled Pennsylvania DOT (PennDOT) resurfacing projects. DVRPC, PennDOT, the four suburban counties, and the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia are working together to provide resources to local municipalities to improve the biking environment. PennDOT began the PennDOT Connects program to involve municipalities early in the planning process for state-sponsored transportation projects. The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia is an advocacy group that works on the local level to inform municipalities about the program and connect residents with the counties and DVRPC. The Coalition also contributes information on local bicycling routes and route conditions.

PennDOT’s five-year resurfacing program for four suburban counties (Montgomery, Delaware, Chester, and Bucks) establishes the planned repaving schedule for state-owned roads. The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia created an interactive Google map of the paving projects for each year in the 5-Year Resurfacing Plan Map organized by county.

How does the program work?

To encourage more municipal interest in bicycle facilities, PennDOT District 6 worked with DVRPC, planners from the four southeastern Philadelphia suburban counties, and the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia to get regional support. PennDOT, DVRPC, the counties, and the Bicycle Coalition evaluate which segments on the resurfacing schedule are good candidates for bike-friendly improvements. DVRPC then reaches out to the municipalities to tell them about the opportunities and see if they are interested. Although PennDOT pays for the design and installation of the improvements, the municipalities need to comply with the bike improvement maintenance requirements set by PennDOT. The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia helps make the case for new bike facilities to municipal decision makers on an as-needed basis.

How are road segments prioritized?

DVRPC developed an online interactive Bicycle LTS and Connectivity Analysis map. It measures both levels of traffic stress (LTS) and connectivity of road segments. LTS is a bicycle comfort index for streets and paths that was initially developed by Peter Furth at Northeastern University expressed in the Mineta Institute publication, Low-Stress Bicycling and Network Connectivity. LTS as a classification scheme ranges from 1-4. LTS 1 identifies roads that are relaxing and suitable for most riders; LTS 2 roads are comfortable for most adults; LTS 3 roads are comfortable for confident bicyclists; and LTS 4 roads are not suitable for bicycle riding. (see Figure 1) The Bike-Friendly Resurfacing Program  prioritizes LTS 3 roads for improvement because they present the greatest opportunity to make them comfortable for more riders. (Figure 2 shows the web map made by DVRPC for multi-layer analysis.) The existing LTS layer classifies the road condition for the Delaware Valley Region, including the Greater Philadelphia area and four counties in New Jersey.

The connectivity analysis looked for the shortest path between any two census blocks within five miles. Improvements along the roads identified as priorities within this area would be most beneficial to build out a bicycle network by enabling the most low-stress bicycle connections(Figure 3). The bigger the role a road plays in connecting to multiple census tracts, the greater the chance it will be selected for bicycle improvements.

DVRPC is working to improve the Bicycle LTS and Connectivity Analysis by adding an equity analysis component.  DVRPC considers which communities the route passes through and who lives there, based on analysis of nine indicators of potential disadvantage, such as minority populations, low-income populations, and persons with disability. Every geography is given an overall score. Areas with an above average score have a higher proportion of these traditionally disadvantaged populations and this value is assigned to routes.

DVRPC is working to build this information into the connectivity analysis in order to prioritize places with more need.  DVRPC updates the Bicycle LTS and Connectivity Analysis map on a regular basis to address errors in the network, new trails, and changes in the equity analysis. Another pending improvement is consideration of slope.

The county transportation planners review every segment scheduled to be repaved in a given year for potential connections. Every segment that is identified as a priority by any of the partners goes to the next step for more analysis related to characteristics such as road width, speed, traffic volumes. Every county has a sense of priorities, including knowledge of county and municipal plans, so this process is not limited to just a technical analysis.

Figure 1. Levels of Traffic Stress, a bicycle rider comfort index, rates roads and paths from 1 to 4

Figure 1. Levels of Traffic Stress, a bicycle rider comfort index, rates roads and paths from 1 to 4

Figure 2. DVRPC map shows existing conditions map for Levels of Traffic Stress

Figure 2. DVRPC map shows existing conditions map for Levels of Traffic Stress

Figure 3. Regional map showing concentrations of connectivity between census blocks

Figure 3. Regional map showing concentrations of connectivity between census blocks

When were the first projects implemented?

The first municipal projects were implemented in 2018 after an initial trial run of this program. In 2019, DVRPC started looking at all projects in relation to the five-year resurfacing plan. Currently, the process includes working one year ahead to build up a pipeline of projects for each coming year. There are many variables that affect how many projects can be completed, such as budget, weather, and shifting priorities. Municipal engagement takes time to establish and depends on local resources.

How is the program funded?

Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) funds identified in the regional Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP) cover the design costs for these bicycle improvements on state highways scheduled for resurfacing. All the counties had to agree to this, even though the county of Philadelphia is not using these funds. The City of Philadelphia has a parallel program, as the City has the ability to design its own striping plans. PennDOT pays for the actual implementation of the improvements, and municipalities are responsible for the cost of maintenance.

The exact number of projects that are able to be implemented varies from year to year. DVRPC generally aims to complete two to three projects per county per year. It can be difficult to complete projects in rural areas, due to the program’s restrictions, such as being limited to the existing cartway width. However, DVRPC tries to look ahead for opportunities to even out the distribution of funding between the counties. As of now, six bike resurfacing projects have been completed and nine projects are in the pipeline.

What challenges has the program faced?

There are some challenges in getting municipalities to make the formal request to PennDOT. They have varying resources, and procedures for approval tend to be different for each community. In some cases, success comes down to finding the right contact to promote the project benefits to the community. Municipalities may lack equipment for stenciling and painting the road between resurfacings, and ongoing maintenance can be a challenge for them to take on.

All projects are limited to what can be implemented with paint. There are road segments that are too narrow to add bike facilities but at this time, it is not possible to widen or re-crown roads through this program. DVRPC keeps a list of projects that would require larger capital investments. The hope is to find ways to address these more complicated projects with other funding sources.

Why does the program work and will it work elsewhere?

Coordination and communication are key to the success of the program. Other regions could follow the process with or without the LTS analysis. Even without the technical analysis, it would be possible to establish a simple database for tracking.  DVRPC developed FAQs and other communications for municipalities, which also have general applicability. The connectivity analysis guides decision-making, but innovative technical tools only go so far. Relationship building and cooperation are needed to identify good projects and to see them through to implementation.

Note: The Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Planning Association (APA-PA) awarded DVRPC with its 2020 Award for Projects, Programs and Practices for the PennDOT Connects Bike-Friendly Resurfacing Program. This initiative combines different organizations’ planning efforts.[1]

[1] https://www.dvrpc.org/Newsletters/DVRPCNews/2020/November/


Resources

DVRPC. (2020). “APA-PA Awards DVRPC for its PennDOT Connects Bike-Friendly Resurfacing Project.”  Newsletter. Retrieved at: https://www.dvrpc.org/Newsletters/DVRPCNews/2020/November/

DVRPC. (u.d.). Bike Friendly Resurfacing Program. Website. Retrieved at:  https://www.dvrpc.org/Transportation/Bicycle/BikeFriendlyResurfacing/

DVRPC. (u.d.) DVRPC Bicycle LTS and Connectivity Analysis. Map. Retrieved at: https://www.dvrpc.org/webmaps/BikeStress/

Mekuria, M., Furth, P., and Nixon, H. (2012). Low-Stress Bicycling and Network Connectivity. Report. CA-MTI-12-1005. Retrieved at: https://transweb.sjsu.edu/sites/default/files/1005-low-stress-bicycling-network-connectivity.pdf

Innovation Spotlight: Bicycle-Friendly Resurfacing in Mercer County

Matthew Zochowski, a Transportation Planner with Mercer County spoke with us about Mercer County’s Bicycle-Friendly Repaving program to make roads safer for bicyclists by creating a network of bike routes throughout the County. He drafted the County’s 2020 Bicycle Master Plan, a sub-element of the Mobility Element of the County Master Plan.

What inspired the bicycle-friendly resurfacing program? What were the considerations when you started this approach?

Going back to where things really started would be with Matt Lawson, the Principal Planner-Transportation for Mercer County, who came to the county in 2005-6, and encouraged the engineering and planning divisions, our regional partners and municipalities, to improve the road network for bicycle use. He helped inspire our bicycle planning efforts and helped move them forward. Along with him, several people working at the County were outdoor enthusiasts who enjoyed hiking and bicycling and wanted other County residents to be able to use the roads and trails in a safe manner. Our County Administration as well as our new County Engineer, George Fallat also placed a larger emphasis on road safety which included bicycles and pedestrians.

In 2009, the Mercer County Bike-Pedestrian Task Force (MCBPTF) was created with the support of Mercer County Executive, Brian M. Hughes, and hosted by the Greater Mercer Transportation Management Association (GMTMA). The MCBPTF consists of municipal representatives designated by town mayors as well as various advocates and residents. The primary purpose of the organization is to help advocate for non-motorized infrastructure throughout Mercer County, including sidewalk improvements, bicycle improvements, intersection improvements, trail improvements, and many others. The group also acts as a forum to coordinate municipal efforts and keep each other informed of activities happening around the County.

The Mercer County Bicycle Master Plan promotes bike-friendly resurfacing in alignment with the County’s Complete Streets policy.

The Mercer County Bicycle Master Plan promotes bike-friendly resurfacing in alignment with the County’s Complete Streets policy

When I came to the County in 2017, I took on the projects Matt had been working on and the bike plan was one of the first things I was tasked with advancing. The County had already passed a Complete Streets policy in 2012 to promote safe access and mobility for all users of all transportation modes and since that time, every municipality in Mercer County has adopted their own Complete Streets policy. With a consistent policy across all jurisdictional levels, we knew that Mercer County had a common goal of advancing these types of projects.

Work began on the Bicycle Master Plan in 2017 with the goal of creating a continuous network of bicycle facilities on County-owned roads. At first, we were looking at establishing just a couple of routes, but we realized that the process that we were using could be applied to any number of routes. We took a comprehensive look at the entire 180 centerline miles of the county road network in 50- to 400-foot intervals, and particularly more highly traveled routes which were perfect candidates to incorporate bike lanes to create meaningful connections.

During our planning efforts, we had found out that one of the routes we were looking at was actually going to be repaved and our County Engineer allowed us to advance a concept we developed in-house. As a result of that project and experience, we have shifted to our resurfacing program as the main implementation method for building out our bicycle lane network. This bicycle friendly resurfacing program helps us implement the Complete Streets policy and Bicycle Plan.

We used the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) guidance document Incorporating On-Road Bicycle Networks into Resurfacing Projects to support the effort, and in particular, the argument for cost savings. This piecemeal method of incorporating bike lanes significantly reduces cost of each project and we believe that you have to start somewhere so that years down the line you have a connected network of routes. This was the same problem back in the day when planning boards began requiring sidewalks for developments that were in the middle of nowhere but over years as neighboring properties developed, they created a connected sidewalk network.

What factors did you consider when you identified roads for bicycle improvements?

Factors for analysis of our County Routes is described in great detail in the Mercer County Bicycle Master Plan.  We looked at cartway width, environmental constraints, crashes records involving bicycles, network connectivity, Level of Traffic Stress (LTS), Annual Average Daily Traffic, truck volumes, existing bus routes, existing and proposed speed limits, bicycle travel demand modeling and 8-80 Design. The idea behind 8-80 design is that if you design a project for an 8- year-old and an 80–year-old, it should work for nearly every person.

To anticipate the cost for implementation, we created a linear foot calculator in MS-Excel that looks at the type of facility and is assigned a code based on the amount of work needed to create an improvement. That code is based on both our striping contract in 2019 as well as general construction costs we tried to localize to New Jersey. When the code is multiplied against a linear foot number, we get a fairly accurate general cost estimate.

Mercer County uses their map of potential bicycle facility types for all County roadways and the Highway Department’s repaving schedule to identify projects for each paving season. Click for high resolution map

Mercer County uses their map of potential bicycle facility types for all County roadways and the Highway Department’s repaving schedule to identify projects for each paving season

To create our Excel table and map of the bicycle route analysis, we used a combination of GIS, Google Earth, field visits and Nearmap to define the cartway width, speed limit, pinch points, pedestrian activity, bus routes, and other factors with the goal of recommending a facility for every county road. Now, the plan does not commit the County to a particular projects or final recommendations because priorities and conditions can change. Our plan specifically mentioned that the map shows “Facilities to Be Considered” at the time when we draft concepts for advancement.

What projects have you implemented so far?

The 2019 Pilot Bicycle Paving Program included the implementation of almost seven miles of new bicycle lanes and we learned a lot that year on internal process and coordination with our towns. Our first real project was Scotch Road in Ewing Township which included a road diet with a 4-lane to 2-lane with center turn lane conversion. That project included buffered bike lanes and will eventually connect to a larger 17-mile “Greater Western Bikeway” project to the north and to the proposed bike lanes and extension of Silvia Street by Ewing Township to the south.

Since that time, we also implemented bicycle lanes on Elm Road in Princeton, N Main Street in Hightstown, Ewingville Road in Ewing, Prospect Street in Ewing and East State Street in Hamilton. We’ve also marked out sharrows in a few other locations. At this point, we essentially work with our Highway Department to receive the year’s repaving program and see where we can work to implement projects. Since we will need to have a crew out there to restripe, we look at those projects to determine what our year’s priorities will be.

Restriping on Scotch Road resulted in addition of a bike lane between the through lane and the right turn lane

Restriping on Scotch Road resulted in addition of a bike lane between the through lane and the right turn lane

In 2019, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC), the Metropolitan Planning Organization for our region, provided traffic engineering and bike facility planning assistance to help determine the feasibility of bicycle improvements on a segment of County Road 636 which is the main corridor between urban Trenton and suburban Ewing and The College of New Jersey. DVRPC assisted with the segment, between Rt.31 and Olden Avenue, which involved looking at two intersection redesigns.

Will the County take on more projects that are more than just restriping? 

The plan includes a variety of routes, some of which require simple striping and others that will require more intensive work such as road widening or intersection redesign that may involve drainage or right-of-way issues for example. We prioritize the roadways that are in need of repaving, and only need additions of epoxy paint or thermoplastic and signage to define the bicycle facility. We continue to plan for more complicated segments and work with our on-call engineering contractors as well as with our in-house staff. In the future, we will likely apply for federal funding for more significant and more complicated projects.

How are your typical projects funded?

Projects are primarily funded through the County’s capital budget. The County has applied for federal grants for projects as well. In 2018, we received a $2.3 million Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) grant for the Great Western Bikeway, a 17.5 mile route in the northwest part of the county that primarily will follow County Road 546 and run between Delaware and Raritan Canal towpath trails at Rt. 29 and Rt. 1.

Do you work with any municipalities on bicycle infrastructure on municipal roads?

We have assisted a few townships, either with general planning assistance or in design but all municipalities are not ready to take on this approach. We try to reach out to towns about coordinating efforts and we have a close working relationship with several towns. In those situations, we feel that we can build out a complete and connected network relatively easily. Other towns tend to be more closed off to and stick to home rule more than others. Despite that, we can still create a high level of connectivity throughout the County by establishing bicycle infrastructure on County roads which already serve as main connections between our municipalities and adjacent Counties.

Ewingville Road improvements included addition of bicycle lanes in both directions

Ewingville Road improvements included addition of bicycle lanes in both directions

Are you aware of other counties working on bicycle-friendly resurfacing?

I am not aware of other counties using this approach, or not to the extent that Mercer County is. It seems like Camden and Burlington Counties are not doing as much work with on-road bicycle networks, but are putting a lot of good work into establishing off-road trail networks and multi-use paths. Mercer County is one of eight NJ counties that have a Complete Streets policy, and the policy has really guided the Bicycle Master Plan. The success of the program is in part due to the support of both the Mercer Board of County Commissioners and the local pedestrian and bicycle advocate community.

 Do you anticipate that Mercer County will be able to continue this program? 

Yes, we will continue to work with the Bicycle Master Plan and coordinate on the paving list from our highway department. We’ll continue to select road segments for each year’s projects, conduct an on-site evaluation for each, and make recommendations to the County Engineer. We plan for 8 or so new repaving projects this year and generally have had 2-5 projects in an average paving season. For our larger projects, we will continue to go after state and federal funding which will help us with larger improvements that go beyond repaving.

We will continue to integrate bicycle facilities into resurfacing projects and make sure bicycle facilities are considered during routine road maintenance, reconstruction, construction, and land development reviews to create a network in alignment with the County’s Complete Streets Policy.


Resources

Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission and Mercer County. (2020).  Local Concept Development, North Olden Avenue, New York Avenue to Pennington Road.  Project Information Website. Retrieved from:  http://creative-mt.com/oldenavenue/

FHWA. (2015). Incorporating On-Road Bicycle Networks into Resurfacing Projects. Online report. Retrieved at:  https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/environment/bicycle_pedestrian/publications/resurfacing/

Mercer County (2020).  2020 Mercer County Bicycle Plan Element.  Website.  Retrieved at: http://www.mercercounty.org/departments/planning/2019-bicycle-master-plan

Mercer County. (u.d.) Great Western Bikeway. Website. Retrieved at: http://www.mercercounty.org/departments/planning/rfp-rfq-fair-and-open-process

Innovation Spotlight: NJDOT Local Aid Design Assistance Program

When cities, counties, and other local public agencies (LPAs) use Federal funds for transportation projects, they must follow all of the applicable Federal laws and regulations attached to the Federal aid. NJDOT, like other state departments of transportation (DOTs), oversees the LPA program and works with agencies to help them use Federal-aid effectively. During Round 2 of the Every Day Counts Program (EDC-2), FHWA promoted innovative strategies for overcoming common challenges with Locally Administered Federal-Aid Projects including practices for enabling “Consultant Services Flexibilities” on local programs and projects.   

To aid its LPAs in the delivery of its non-traditional projects programs, the NJDOT Division of Local Aid and Economic Development (Local Aid) established the Local Aid Design Assistance Program. The Design Assistance Program seeks to support LPAs that have received federal grants through the Safe Routes to School and Transportation Alternatives Set-Aside (TA Set-Aside) programs. The Program provides a pool of pre-qualified engineering design consultants to assist LPAs with plans, specifications and estimates (PS&Es) with the goal of seeing more infrastructure projects implemented. Laine Rankin, Director of Local Aid and Economic Development, and Julie Seaman, Project Management Specialist, described the program.

The NJDOT Local Aid Resource Center website provides links to information on the Design Assistance Program

The NJDOT Local Aid Resource Center website provides links to information on the Design Assistance Program

What are some of the most common challenges local agencies face with the project design process?

LPAs often face lack of staff, lack of funding, and staff turnover, all of which can limit their capacity to take on the federal grant process and can result in delays in infrastructure project planning and implementation. Because New Jersey is a home-rule state, the State has limited jurisdiction over county or local roads. Instead, the municipalities and counties are responsible for infrastructure improvements on their roads. The NJDOT Local Aid Office assists the municipalities in implementing these projects by administering the federal funding for them. Local Aid is ultimately responsible for the spending of these federal dollars.

Safe Routes and TA Set-Aside grant recipients face challenges in understanding and complying with requirements related to federal grant administration. In particular, the requirements of the Brooks Act, also known as Qualifications Based Selection, prove difficult to satisfy in project administration. The Brooks Act details federal requirements for the procurement of professional services of consultants, including:

  • Issuing a request for proposal or RFP from consultants based on approved written procurement policies and procedures
  • Solicitation, evaluation, ranking and selection of consultants
  • Selecting a consultant based on qualifications and experience, not cost
  • Negotiating a fair and reasonable cost and contract terms with selected consultant
  • Monitoring the consultants’ work
  • Evaluating the consultants’ performance
  • Contract completion

How does the design assistance program work?

The federal grant process

The federal grant process

Most grant applications that Local Aid receives do not describe projects that are construction-ready. LPAs need assistance to complete designs, and develop engineering plans, specifications, and estimates required to see a project built.

Through the Design Assistance Program, NJDOT procures a pool of design consultants that LPAs can then choose to work with. Once NJDOT and the MPOs have chosen the projects that will be funded for a grant cycle, Local Aid develops a Request for Proposals (RFP) that lists the selected projects and scope for each grant. The NJDOT Office of Procurement solicits a pool of engineering firms that will be able to assist the grant recipients with their particular projects. The firms considered for the pool are typically familiar with requirements associated with developing a set of plans which are compliant to the NJDOT plan and AASHTO standards. Once the consultant pool has been approved by NJDOT management, a letter is sent to all of the grant recipients of that grant cycle informing them of the engineering firms available.

The NJDOT Local Aid Office partners with NJ’s three Metropolitan Planning Organizations in the TA Set-Aside project selection process

The NJDOT Local Aid Office partners with NJ’s three Metropolitan Planning Organizations in the TA Set-Aside project selection process

Funding for design assistance comes from the same line of federal funding as the SRTS grant and the TA Set-Aside grants. LPAs receive grant funds for the design program above the amount awarded for the project itself.

For how many years has the design assistance program been operating?

Although this is a pilot program, we initiated the process in April of 2014 and it took about a year and a half to get it up and running following meetings with FHWA, NJDOT Procurement, and the NJDOT Deputy Attorney General. Our office talked to peers in other states including Kentucky, New York, Missouri, among others to understand how other Local Aid offices were handling design assistance for grant recipients and the consultant solicitation process. Design assistance programs were developed for both the Safe Routes to School (SRTS) and the Transportation Alternatives Set-Aside (TA Set-Aside) programs. Design assistance first became available to grant recipients in the 2014 grant round and we solicit grant applications on a two-year cycle, or after a grant solicitation for that particular program has been completed.

How do the LPAs find out about the design assistance program?

TA Set-Aside Grant Webinar explained the purpose and benefits of the Local Aid Design Assistance program

TA Set-Aside Grant Webinar explained the purpose and benefits of the Local Aid Design Assistance program

The design assistance program is introduced in our general training session for applicants that describes how to apply for a Safe Routes or TA Set-Aside grant. After the grant awards are announced, information about the program is included in the letter that we send to grant recipients, and a separate informational session is held with grant recipients to discuss the design assistance pool. All grant recipients are eligible to take part in the program; they do not apply for the program and there is no obligation to take part.

Can you say what percentage of grant recipients choose to use the program?

It has taken some time to publicize the program, but awareness among LPAs is growing.  In 2016, 19 of 36 TA Set Aside grant recipients, and 12 of 17 SRTS grant recipients elected to use the program.  Our 2018 pools are still open; to date, 13 of 25 TA Set Aside grant recipients and 13 of 18 SRTS grant recipients have shown interest in the program. We have approval from FHWA to keep the pool open for a year, with an option to extend up to two years. If an LPA proposes a TA Set-Aside project that involves some specialized work that the engineering firms could not respond to – such as architectural design, then the LPA will not be able to use the design assistance program.

Do NJDOT, the LPA, and the consultants work together through the design assistance process?

Yes. The project application is reviewed and a field meeting is typically scheduled with representatives of the LPA, the consultant engineering firm, the Local Aid regional office, and NJDOT environmental staff. The LPA, NJDOT, and the consultant then work together to develop the scope of work. The consultant prepares a fee proposal and Local Aid develops an independent cost estimate that is used to compare with the consultant’s proposal. NJDOT assists in negotiating the agreement between the LPA and the consultant but the LPA executes an agreement directly with the consultant. NJDOT authorizes federal-aid funds for the design, in excess of the project grant award. The LPA continues to work with the Local Aid District Office through the design process, and NJDOT conducts an environmental review as well. Before the project goes to construction, the plans and specs are submitted to the Local Aid District office for approval in order to ensure a biddable, buildable, project. The LPA pays the consultant directly and then requests reimbursement for the cost from NJDOT.

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What benefits have you seen from the program?

In our experience, what may seem like a simple project, such as installing a sidewalk, can be very complicated. In many cases, particularly for Safe Routes projects, the design costs may exceed the construction costs. We provide design funds for LPAs that choose to procure an engineering firm, but the LPA must comply with the Brooks Act in their procurement process. Some LPAs choose to work with their municipal engineer, but the engineer must be qualified to do the work. Municipal engineers who are involved in the design of these projects are not allowed to also inspect the projects, and these inspection costs increase the overall project cost for the LPAs. For LPAs not using in-house engineering services, the design services procurement process is burdensome.

Through the Local Aid Design Assistance Program, we are distributing more federal funds and seeing more projects advancing than in the past. When we give a grant out, we want folks to build it. LPAs can develop more involved projects. The program results in better compliance with complex state and federal regulations and helps resolve typical engineering issues, such as right-of-way and utilities, that can affect project cost and schedule. LPAs are better prepared for the permitting process.

Do you see the program continuing into the future?

We will be continuing the program. There are always some tweaks to be made but the program is helping local agencies implement projects that improve health and safety throughout the State.


Resources

American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC). (u.d.). The Brooks Act: Federal Government Selection of Architects and Engineers. Public Law 92-582, 92nd Congress, H.R. 12807, October 27, 1972. Legislation on Website. Retrieved from: https://www.acec.org/advocacy/qbs/brooks/

American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC). (u.d.). The Brooks Act: How to use Qualifications Based Selection. Website. Retrieved from: https://www.acec.org/advocacy/qbs/brooks2/

FHWA. (u.d.). EDC-2 Innovations. Website. Retrieved from: https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/innovation/everydaycounts/edc-2.cfm

NJDOT. (2020). Applying for Federal Transportation Alternatives Set-Aside Program Funds Webinar TA Set-Aside Grant Webinar Session #2. Online Session. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mxjlb1Zyr0&feature=youtu.be

NJDOT. (2020). Transportation Alternatives Set-Aside Design Assistance Program. Presentation. Retrieved from: https://njdotlocalaidrc.com/perch/resources/taset-asidedesignassistanceprogramworkshop-2-28-2020jules-1.pdf

2020 Francis B. Francois Award for Innovation – NJDOT’s Marine Navigation Retroreflective Markers

NJDOT's Flexible Marine Navigation Retroreflective Marker

Adoption of new technology and innovative solutions is pivotal to improvements in transportation systems and New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) is adopting innovation in its projects to increase safety and efficiency, and reduce costs. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) recognizes these efforts through its Francis B. Francois Award for Innovation. The award enables the winning state to fund a $10,000 graduate fellowship at a state university of the winner’s choosing. In 2020, 36 state DOTs nominated 79 projects and AASHTO awarded its Francis B. Francois Award to NJDOT for the innovative use of retroreflective markers for marine navigation.

Marine Navigation Retroreflective Markers are an innovative addition to the traditional lights required by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) on bridge fenders. The State of New Jersey owns and maintains 65 bridges that cross navigable waterways. Lighting equipment is used on bridge fenders to aid navigation through the channels underneath the bridges. Any failure of these lights creates a safety hazard and requires emergency repairs. Upon detection of a light failure, a work order is issued by NJDOT for an emergency crew, incurring costs due to lost productivity and overtime pay. In addition, the USCG may impose a penalty of $25,000 per day per incident. The genius of the innovation is in the installation of retroreflective panels, typically used on highways, which are themselves inexpensive. As a backup for the navigation lighting, these panels maintain safety for boaters, and help to ensure the safety of repair crews as work can now be carried out during daylight hours rather than immediately — irrespective of daylight or harsh weather conditions. This cost-effective solution makes navigation safer and reduces the burden of maintenance. The USCG has approved NJDOT’s Marine Navigation Retroreflective Markers as a backup to the navigation lighting system.

The Marine Navigation Retroreflective Markers can easily be adopted by other NJ agencies and other state DOTs as backup lighting for navigating waterways under bridges.

Watch the video shared at the AASHTO awards to learn more about NJDOT's Marine Navigation Retroreflective Markers.

Use of the marine navigation retroreflective markers can aid navigation

Use of the marine navigation retroreflective markers on bridges as backup navigation lighting

Use of the marine navigation retroreflective markers beneath bridges for better guiding boats