PLT Fellow to Present NPS Transportation Research

Charlie Gould (B.A., History), a Public Lands Transportation Research Fellow (PLTF), will give his final presentation on innovative and emerging mobility technologies in National Parks on December 13th at 11:00 A.M. EST. The PLTF program assigns recent college graduates to a Federal Land Management Agency (FLMA) unit or field office with a known transportation issue. The fellow works with staff to research and implement solutions while gaining career and public service experience. Participants may have the option to transition to a permanent position within their unit at the end of their fellowship.

As a PLTF, Charlie partnered with staff at Yellowstone National Park, Wright Brothers National Monument, and Acadia National Park to conduct autonomous vehicle research, pilot shuttle demonstrations, and investigate emerging technology solutions. His B.A. in History provided him with valuable experience in writing, research, and cartography, which he used to inform his work.  Charlie will continue his research as an Advanced Fellow through September 2024.

To join Charlie’s live presentation, please visit: https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/8645481247449260629

To learn more about the PLTF program, please visit: https://westerntransportationinstitute.org/professional-development/public-lands-transportation-fellows/

 

PROJECT NEWS: WTI Researchers Demystify the Salt Phase Diagram

Road salt, most often sodium chloride (NaCl) melts ice and is a crucial tool for winter maintenance crews around the world. However, the constant application of road salt is resulting in long-term environmental and economic impacts. To slow the negative effects of sodium chloride deicers by optimizing salt use, researchers from WTI and Washington State University completed Understanding the Salt Phase Diagram, a project sponsored by Clear Roads, a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) pooled fund. Led by Laura Fay, WTI’s Cold Climate Operations and Systems Program Manager, the team completed a literature review and laboratory investigation of the NaCl phase diagram, a graphical representation of the physical states (liquids or solid salt/ice) of salt brine depending on concentration and temperature. They distilled the information into training materials to help winter maintenance practitioners better understand the salt phase diagram and to support efficient and effective roadway deicing.

To provide visual aids for the training materials, the researchers needed to demonstrate the behavior of salt solutions in a laboratory setting. They collected video and photographic evidence of ice formation in salt brine at a range of concentrations and temperatures, verifying the familiar process of lowering ice’s freezing point with the addition of salt. They also clarified the effects of high salt concentrations on ice formation.

By synthesizing their laboratory data, the researchers created an updated NaCl phase diagram, fact sheet, and accompanying video. WTI’s Visual Communications Manager, Neil Hetherington, ensured that the phase diagram was associated with easily recognizable design elements (e.g., green = good = ice prevention). Fay noted, “Neil [Hetherington] took subject matter that was science and engineering heavy and converted it into useful, digestible information that is easily transferable. He also took time to collect quality photographs which effectively conveyed the information.”

The research has been well received. Fay has presented the training materials and findings to multiple organizations. “These materials serve as powerful education tools,” noted Fay, “and they are being used across the country.”

The full report is available on the project webpage of the WTI website.  The video may be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xzrvOoJGH_w

PROJECT News: Scan of Communities with Fewer than 10,000 People finds Biking/Walking to be “Wheelie” Popular

Walking and bicycling have become increasingly popular transportation modes as people consider the positive impacts of active living. While there are examples of large, urban areas driving the implementation of infrastructure to support these modes within their jurisdictions, communities with populations smaller than 10,000 people may have limited infrastructure and know-how. Since 84% of communities in the United States are home to 10,000 people or fewer, these geographically distributed communities can have big impacts on transportation trends.

To investigate multimodal transportation options in these small towns, WTI researchers Natalie Villwock-Witte and Karalyn Clouser conducted Case Studies of Communities of Less than 10,000 People with Bicycle & Pedestrian Infrastructure. Funded by five state departments of transportation and the Small Urban, Rural and Tribal Center on Mobility (SURTCOM), the project examined 15 communities across five states (Florida,  Kentucky, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Vermont).

Researchers traveled to each community to conduct on-site research on existing infrastructure and interact with community members. They collected geo-located photographs and data on active transportation infrastructure and condensed this information into infrastructure maps, conducted interviews, and provided on-site survey distribution. “For rural areas, in-person contact is key,” noted Villwock-Witte. “Local buy-in had a dramatic impact on data collection.”

The resulting case studies for each community highlight examples of active transportation infrastructure and outline characteristics that lead to a successful bike/walk culture. Also, the final report synthesizing all the case studies can provide guidance for other small communities. “These case studies,” said Villwock-Witte, “show that [bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure] does exist and describe how small communities across the U.S. have put it in place. The selected case studies are not the exception to the rule.”  As existing infrastructure, such as state highways through small towns, is reimagined, communities will look to their peers for inspiration noted Villwock-Witte. “I see lots of opportunities to build on this work in the near future and for many years to come.”

The case studies and final report are available on the project page of the WTI website

IN THE NEWS: Montana State University Highlights Two Decades of Wildlife Crossings Research

car on a rural highway approaching a wildlife overpass in mountainous region

In a follow-up to last week’s New York Times article, Montana State University News published a feature article summarizing WTI’s long history of researching and advancing wildlife crossing structures.

Starting with the first report to Congress on wildlife vehicle collisions in 2006, the article also highlights WTI’s long-term research on the effectiveness of wildlife crossing structures on US 93 in Montana and on the Trans-Canada Highway in Banff National Park.  In addition, the article mentions WTI’s collaborative workshops to develop innovative materials and designs for the next generation of crossing structures.

NEW PUBLICATION: Forest Service Releases Report on Wildlife Crossing Structures

The United States Forest Service (USFS) has published Highway Crossing Structures for Wildlife: Opportunities for Improving Driver and Animal Safety. The report is the result of a seven-year collaboration by USFS, WTI, ARC Solutions and additional federal, state, and private agencies, combining the work of a team of engineers, ecologists, biologists, landscape architects, and policy experts. Highlights of the report include:

  • An exploration of the high cost of wildlife-vehicle collisions and the many challenges to transforming the U.S. road network.
  • Documentation of the safety, ecological, economic, and social benefits anticipated to accrue from investing in highway crossings for wildlife, including enhanced motorist safety, reduced wildlife mortality, and improved habitat connectivity.
  • Identification of policy and funding improvements and activities that would further support the deployment of crossing structures.
  • Recommendations on how to build upon successful efforts to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions already underway at the federal, state, local, and tribal levels.

WTI Road Ecology Program Rob Ament served as one of the editors for the report, and WTI Research Scientists Tony Clevenger, Marcel Huijser, and Angela Kociolek are contributing authors.

CITATION: Ament, R.; Jacobson, S; Callahan, R.; Brocki, M., eds. 2021. Highway crossing structures for wildlife: opportunities for improving driver and animal safety. Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-271. Albany, CA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station. 51 p.

IN THE NEWS: New York Times Showcases Video of Wildlife Using Crossings

The New York Times has posted an online feature article highlighting excellent footage of wildlife using various forms of highway crossings.  “How Do Animals Safely Cross a Highway? Take a Look” includes footage of a herd of antelope crossing a highway in Wyoming; moose, bear, wolves and deer using crossings in Utah; and an alligator and panther using underground passages in Florida.  WTI Road Ecologist Marcel Huijser was interviewed for the article in which he discusses that despite the upfront installation costs, wildlife crossings yield significant safety and conservation benefits that save money in the long run. Whisper Camel-Means, a tribal wildlife program manager who collaborated with WTI on US 93 wildlife crossing projects in Montana, was also interviewed for the article.

PROJECT NEWS: A Smart Transit Hub Feasibility Study for Fort Smith, Arkansas

Graphic shows text and images related to three categories of mobility coordination: services, diverse populations and destinations

WTI recently completed a feasibility study for a “Smart” transit hub to serve an eight-county rural region in western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma.  The study presents a menu of technologies and programs that help connect people experiencing transportation barriers in rural communities to healthcare, employment, and higher education opportunities.

WTI’s Small Urban, Rural and Tribal Center on Mobility (SURTCOM) conducted the project in partnership with the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO) Research Foundation, Western Arkansas Planning and Development District, and Frontier Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). NADO and WTI have been collaborating on a series of projects that assist rural communities with passenger transportation projects that enhance mobility options for residents.

 “A traditional transit hub is a physical location where travelers can access multiple services in one place,” said Principal Investigator Rebecca Gleason; “while physical hubs are not always viable in rural areas, regional coordination and emerging technologies offer new ways to connect people to transportation information and services.” The study findings, which are highlighted in a newly released Executive Summary, include recommendations that can be implemented over time, such as hiring a regional mobility manager, exploring methods to connect more people with rides on existing systems, creating a 5-year transit development plan, and piloting a new transportation program. The Executive Summary and full study are available on the project page of the WTI website.

Animal Crossing: New Research Guides Efforts to Protect California’s Amphibians and Reptiles from Road Danger

A Yosemite toad looks through mesh fencing alongside a road used to mitigate negative road impacts and guide amphibians towards safe passages.
A Yosemite toad looks through mesh fencing alongside a road used to mitigate negative road impacts and guide amphibians towards safe passages. (Credit: Cheryl Brehme, USGS Western Ecological Research Center. Public domain.)

Companion video shows underground crossing structures in action

Roads can be dangerous for California’s reptiles and amphibians, but a five-year study and new video show that there are effective strategies to help these animals cross roads safely.   

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) released the results of the study this week in a comprehensive, evidence-based best practices guide that explains approaches and techniques for minimizing the impact of roads on fragile and diminishing habitats and species, including frogs, toads, salamanders, turtles, lizards and snakes.  

The best practices guide is the first of its kind for amphibian and reptile management and conservation near California roads.

“It is no longer a case of putting a few pipes and fences into the ground with a ‘fit and forget’ approach,” said Tom Langton of Herpetofauna Consultants International, Ltd., primary author on the guidance document. “This guide offers resource managers in California opportunities and a clear plan to improve existing crossings and build new ones to better standards where they are most needed. The guidance should be valued in other states with similar wildlife-road issues and at the international level, too.” 

Many reptile and amphibian species must cross roads to reach essential breeding and foraging habitat, are slow moving or are too small for drivers to see and avoid. Snakes and lizards may also be attracted to paved roads that typically absorb and retain heat.  All these behaviors put them at high risk of vehicle collisions.  

“We have a responsibility to maintain the highway system in a way that doesn’t impede or disrupt wildlife, including the movement of California’s threatened and endangered reptile and amphibian species,” said Caltrans Director Toks Omishakin. “This study allows us to analyze feasible and effective ways Caltrans can use ecologically-minded design to minimize impacts on these wildlife populations.”    

Traditionally, transportation agencies and wildlife managers have installed structures to help amphibians, reptiles and other small animals cross highways safely, such as tunnels under roads or barrier fencing.

“While agencies have made significant investments in these structures for many years, there has been little research into how effective they are,” said Dr. Robert Fisher, a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) supervisory ecologist involved in the study. “Management guidance informed by science is needed to help ensure this critical infrastructure is safe for sensitive species.”  

With these concerns in mind, the goals of the collaborative project were to address this information gap using a logical framework and to help transportation agencies like Caltrans plan barrier and crossing structures more effectively. 

To help Caltrans determine which reptile and amphibian species to prioritize, USGS scientists created a ranking system for more than 160 species and sub-species, based on their vulnerability to road dangers. Turtles, tortoises and snakes dominated the highest risk category. USGS also developed a mapping system to allow Caltrans to easily find where the ranges of high-risk species overlap with California highways and statewide conservation efforts. Species ranked high and very-high risk of negative road-related impacts include desert tortoise, California red-legged frog, sierra newt and red diamond rattlesnake, among others.  

Then, in a series of field experiments, the USGS scientists investigated how reptiles and amphibians interact with different types of fencing, how far high-risk migrating amphibians move along road barrier fencing before “giving up” or finding a passage, and the effectiveness of turnarounds at fence ends.  

“We were happy to find that turnarounds at barrier fence ends were largely effective in changing the trajectory of many species to help lead them back toward a passage,” said Cheryl Brehme, the USGS project lead. A new video by USGS shows a California tiger salamander successfully make it to an underground crossing after being guided by one of these turnarounds. 

USGS and partners also designed and tested of a new type of passage structure called an elevated road segment.

“The elevated road-segment is really exciting,” said Brehme, “because it can be made to any width and length enabling reptiles, amphibians and other small wildlife species to freely move back and forth across wide stretches of roadway.” 

Caltrans used the results of these combined studies to produce the best management practices guide, which will inform the work of district biologists and engineers and will likely be useful to many other organizations involved in the planning and construction of transportation infrastructure. USGS has also released a comprehensive report of its studies in conjunction with the new guidance document.  

The guide emphasizes that different landscapes – and different species – need a range of solutions, and the needs of different species and their numbers will influence positioning and sizes.

“Planning for smaller rare species calls for designs that take into account the sensitivities and needs of these understudied and often forgotten species” said Dr. Tony Clevenger of Western Transportation Institute, who led the development of the best management practices guide. The best practices guide was produced for Caltrans by the Western Transportation Institute of Montana State University with Herpetofauna Consultants International, Ltd and is based on existing knowledge and foundational studies by the U.S. Geological Survey Western Ecological Research Center. 

Graphic logos for Caltrans, Western Transportation Institute, USGS and Herpetofauna Consultants International, who are partners in the best practices guide for amphibian reptile road crossings.

CONTACTS

California Department of Transportation (Caltrans)
Amy Bailey, Supervising Environmental Planner

Amy.Bailey@dot.ca.gov

Luz Quinnell, Senior Environmental Planner
Luz.Quinnell@dot.ca.gov

Western Transportation Institute
Tony Clevenger, Senior Research Scientist
apclevenger@gmail.com

Herpetofauna Consultants International, Ltd
Tom Langton, Ecological Consultant
TL@Langtonuk.co.uk

USGS Western Ecological Research Center
Cheryl Brehme, Biologist
cbrehme@usgs.gov

Robert Fisher, Supervisory Research Biologist
rfisher@usgs.gov

FOR MORE INFORMATION: KEY DOCUMENTS

Langton, T.E.S. and A.P. Clevenger. 2021. Measures to Reduce Road Impacts on Amphibians and Reptiles in California. Best Management Practices and Technical Guidance. Prepared by Western Transportation Institute for California Department of Transportation, Division of Research, Innovation and System Information. https://westerntransportationinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/4W5589_BMP_Impact_Reduction_Amphibians-Reptiles_Ca-20210226-LR_rev.pdf

WTI Project Webpage: https://westerntransportationinstitute.org/research_projects/california-sensitive-reptile-and-amphibian-highway-crossings/

Brehme, C.S. and R.N. Fisher 2021. Research to Inform Caltrans Best Management Practices for Reptile and Amphibian Road Crossings.  USGS Cooperator Report to California Department of Transportation, Division of Research, Innovation and System Information. 65A0553. https://dot.ca.gov/-/media/dot-media/programs/environmental-analysis/documents/final-caltrans-usgs-report-herproadresearch-rev.pdf

Langton, T.E.S., and Clevenger, A.P. 2017. Amphibian and Reptile Highway Crossings: State of the practice, gap analysis and decision support tool. Report prepared for the State of California, Department of Transportation, Division of Research and Innovation, Office of Materials and Infrastructure Research, June 2017.
https://westerntransportationinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/4W5589_Lit_Review_amphib-reptile-crossings_3July2017.pdf

Brehme, C.S., Hathaway, S.A. & Fisher, R.N. An objective road risk assessment method for multiple species: ranking 166 reptiles and amphibians in California. Landscape Ecol 33, 911–935 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10980-018-0640-1

U.S.G.S. Turnaround, Salamander! (outreach video) 2021. https://www.usgs.gov/media/videos/turn-around-salamander

PROJECT NEWS: Tools and Strategies for Developing Severity Indices

snow plow drives on snowy 2 lane highway through forest

The Clear Roads research program, which sponsors practitioner-focused winter maintenance research, is highlighting a recently completed severity index project on its website. For “Evaluation of SSI and WSI Variables,” the Narwhal Group and WTI collaborated to create a step-by-step guide to support implementing a severity index, paired with a flowchart tool that helps match users with existing indexes.

These tools will help winter maintenance agencies select the most appropriate storm severity index and winter severity index to compare storms across more than one winter season. “While a number of severity indexes exist, determining if you can apply or modify one for your needs or develop your own can be a daunting task. This guide and flowchart tool will support agencies in this task,” said Cold Climates Program Manager Laura Fay, who served as a co-PI. The final report is available on the WTI project webpage and there is a research brief on the Clear Roads project page.

IN THE NEWS: Reducing Wildlife-Vehicle Collisions in Appalachia

Marcel Huijser

Public Policy magazine In These Times recently interviewed WTI Road Ecologist Marcel Huijser for an in-depth article on wildlife crossings.  “Toward a World Without Roadkill” highlights efforts by residents and local organizations near Great Smoky Mountains National Park to reduce the rising number of bears, deer, and elk being hit by vehicles on Interstate 40.  Marcel discusses how mitigation efforts such as wildlife crossings can have significant conservation, safety, and economic benefits.