End of an Era as COATS Project Draws to a Close

After twenty-five years and eight phases, the California Oregon Advanced Transportation Systems (COATS) project drew to a close this year, marking an end to an era. Sharing roots with the founding of WTI, the COATS project has made a lasting impact on rural transportation in the western states and beyond.

The COATS initiative was established to investigate and address rural concerns using advanced transportation technologies in the northern California and southern Oregon region. COATS identified regional challenges and developed and evaluated appropriate solutions. Through the COATS partnership, the annual Western States Rural Transportation Technology Implementers Forum was established as a premier venue for technology transfer and ideas exchange on Rural Intelligent Transportation Systems. The project has provided an incubator for ideas that have evolved into stand-alone projects and products. COATS has served as the impetus for long-term partnerships and was the foundation for the Western States Rural Transportation Consortium (WSRTC) Pooled Fund, which is now in its second phase.

COATS research, either directly funded through the project or as a spinoff, brought substantial benefits to the region and other stakeholders. For example:

  • First-generation Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) planning and architecture documentation, which each state incorporated into its respective ITS efforts.
  • Successful implementations of ITS technologies, including CCTV cameras, dynamic message signs, and road weather information systems, to address regional transportation challenges.
  • Strengthened partnerships between the states, which have improved operations and maintenance of the transportation system, especially near the state border.
  • Innovative technology development activities, such as work providing new web-based traveler information mechanisms.
  • Evaluations of rural ITS deployments, for which the results have been presented in national venues.
  • Outreach to a variety of audiences, including the technology transfer activities of the Western States Forum.
Fifty people sit at conference tables and watch a speaker and powerpoint
Participants at the 2019 Western States Forum. Photo by Doug Galarus.

Notably, the initial COATS effort produced the first two Rural Transportation Management Centers (TMCs) in California. In addition, COATS project work developed the fundamental technical architecture for connecting the TMCs to rural field elements, resulting in the first all-Internet Protocol rural field element network in the California Department of Transportation. The second phase, called COATS Showcase, saw the evolution of the effort toward deployment, testing, and evaluation with multiple project implementations and the foundations for expanded efforts and spin-off projects. The Western States Forum was established in COATS Phase 3 and research on Rural Integrated Corridor Management laid the foundation for the One Stop Shop for Rural Traveler Information. Both the Western States Forum and the One Stop Shop are national award winners. In addition to growth of the Forum and establishment of the WSRTC, later phases of the COATS project included Evaluation of the Fredonyer Icy Curve Warning System, Regional ICM Planning, Survey of Western States Safety Warning Devices, Data Quality for Aggregation and Dissemination of DOT Traveler Information, Rural Deployment Assistance, Radar Speed Trailer deployment warrants, and Chain-up Delay Tracking with Bluetooth.

The COATS partnership has been productive and successful at addressing rural transportation issues with ITS, making a lasting impact in the western states region. We encourage you to review the COATS Project History page and the COATS Project Fact Sheet to read about all that has been accomplished through this project partnership. The work of the COATS Project continues under the scope of the Western States Rural Transportation Consortium.

WTI’s Dr. Marcel Huijser Awarded Y2Y Funding for Grizzly Bear Research

A man smiling in front of a highway underpass.
Dr. Marcel Huijser was awarded Y2Y funding to monitor this animal underpass by camera. He is particularly interested in documenting the activity of grizzly sows with cubs.

WTI’s Dr. Marcel Huijser received funds from the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y) to support continued grizzly bear research along US Hwy 93 North on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana. Conducted in collaboration with the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) – known as the SélišQl̓ispe in the Séliš language and K̓upawiȼq̓nuk or Ksanka in the Ktunaxa and Ksanka languages – the research is focused on grizzly bear use of wildlife crossing structures. “It is important to know if the existing crossing structures are suitable for the bears, particularly sows with cubs, so that their natural movements across the landscape can be supported. If the barrier effect of highways is substantially reduced, then their genetic and demographic connectivity is preserved, and they can also strengthen or repopulate other areas further away,” said Huijser.

The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative logo.

More wildlife fences and crossing structures are needed to reduce direct road mortality and facilitate the safe movement of grizzly bears from one side of the road to the other. Preliminary data collected by Huijser and two research collaborators, Payton Adams and Samantha Getty, suggest that while some grizzly bears use the large culverts that are the most common structures along the road, sows with cubs rarely do. They prefer very large (50-70 meters wide) crossing structures and large open span bridges. Currently, the vast majority of family groups cross the highway at road level, where they risk being hit by vehicles. Between 1998 and 2022, at least 22 grizzly bears were hit and killed along US Hwy 93 North on the Flathead Indian Reservations. Seven of them (32%) were cubs.

To reduce roadkill, the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) is currently increasing the length of the wildlife fences along US Hwy 93 and connecting them to existing underpasses. According to a United States Fish and Wildlife Service Tribal Wildlife Grants Program-funded report written by Adams, Huijser, and Getty and published by the CSKT, this will likely reduce the number of grizzlies and other large mammal species killed by vehicles. However, unless more suitable crossing structures are provided as well, extended fences may also result in a greater barrier for grizzly bears, especially sows with cubs.

Along with larger crossing structures and fencing, the researchers recommend a full suite of mitigation measures along Hwy 93 North such as wildlife jump-outs (mounds along the fence that are intended to allow animals to leave the roadway but not enter), zero fence gaps, and electrified barriers at access roads. Combining these mitigation measures with habitat restoration, especially along riparian zones, would allow for better habitat and easier access to crossing structures for grizzly bears of all ages and sexes.

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.