Every October, Montana State University hosts the Milestones in Service Award banquet to recognize employees who reached five-year employment increments during the previous fiscal year. This year’s event included three WTI employees celebrating significant work milestones. Of special note are Susan Gallagher, WTI’s Education & Workforce Program Coordinator, and Marcel Huijser, Senior Research Ecologist, for whom 2023 marks 20 years as MSU employees. Thank you all for your years of hard work and expertise!
Natalie Villwock-Witte presented a poster at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) 2023 Safety Summit in Kansas City, October 17-19. The event brought together state DOT leaders, management, and practitioners, as well as transportation professionals in the public, private, non-profit, and academic sectors to discuss opportunities for expanding the incorporation of safety across state department of transportation functional areas and the roles of AASHTO committees in supporting states’ safety efforts. The summit looked to instill a more comprehensive approach to safety by incorporating it more deeply into every phase of a transportation project, from planning and design through construction and maintenance. Natalie presented highlights from the Effectiveness of Highway Public Safety Information in Montana project she led funded by the Montana Department of Transportation and the Small Urban, Rural and Tribal Center on Mobility (SURTCOM).
We are both sad and honored to announce that Rob Ament has retired after 18 years with WTI. Rob is one of the early pioneers of our Road Ecology program and, as Program Manager, has grown it into the world-renowned focus area it is today. Having spent his childhood exploring the Mississippi River, Rob developed his love of ecology early. He devoted his early career to remote and wild places in the western U.S. – working for the Forest Service in Alaska, which he describes as “stinky thick with grown bears,” and as a Wilderness Ranger in the greater Yellowstone.
In the off season, Rob wintered in Bozeman, where he took graduate courses at Montana State University. He officially started a master’s in plant ecology, along with a new job in conservation, in 1993, investigating which plants communities reestablished after wildfires. The Yellowstone fires of 1988 were the perfect study subject, and park managers were relieved to learn that native plants, not invasive weeds, were returning to Yellowstone post fire. Rob’s work helped prove that fires are a natural part of the ecosystem – even early in his career, he was on the cutting edge.
Rob spent the next 12 years doing conservation work with American Wildlands, which he describes as “the first NGO to worry about corridors and connectivity.” It was during this period that he first collaborated with WTI, studying the impact of Interstate 90 on the animal corridor out of Yellowstone. That project led to the construction of animal underpasses at Bear Canyon, just east of Bozeman, Montana, and paved the way for Rob’s future position as WTI’s Road Ecology Program Manager.
In 2005, after six years as the Executive Director of American Wildlands, Rob decided to make a career move. He was offered jobs at WTI and the American Wildlife Society but was asked to start immediately. Abandoning his plans for a winter-long skiathon, Rob accepted both jobs – devoting half his time to conservation and half to research. He was determined to keep not just his love of research, but advocacy for implementation as well.
“WTI was a great place for me,” says Rob. “If you were curious and could put together a research proposal, you could explore a multifaceted field.” WTI is also a collegial space. “There are no weird dynamics at WTI – people have loved my crazy ideas. I’ve always felt supported here.” He notes that’s true of his work with a plethora of MSU professors too. “I really am grateful for the opportunities I’ve had.”
WTI’s focus on applied research has also suited Rob. The results of good research can be implemented right away, which he finds satisfying, and he’s proud of what he’s built at WTI. “The world is finally paying attention to road ecology, especially the wildlife component. It’s sexy.” He points out that as the last unfragmented landscapes start to see their first 4-lane superhighways, WTI publishes research on effective habitat connectivity solutions. “If you do the work, do it well. That’s what we’re all about.”
Rob will continue conservation work through the Center for Large Landscape Conservation (CLLC), where he has worked part-time since 2008, shaping policies that influence ecological connectivity and landscape integrity. Within days of retiring from WTI, Rob traveled to Thailand to investigate road network impacts on Asian elephants, a project sponsored by CLLC. A Borneo trip is also on the horizon. “It’s always some work and some play,” says Rob. “Looking at new highways and developing rainforests, but also seeing elephants and wild orangutans, eating good food, immersing in other cultures, and experiencing new ecologies.”
For play, he’s planned a 250-mile bike ride across Missouri with his siblings and is looking forward to an intensive Spanish immersion program.
At Rob’s retirement celebration last month, WTI Executive Director, Dr. Kelvin Wang, expressed deep gratitude to Rob for his phenomenal work and dedication. “Rob has worked hard to establish a robust Road Ecology program over the last decades that is recognized both in the U.S. and abroad,” said Dr. Wang. “His team will continue building on the relationships Rob developed and expanding on the program long term.”
As I am entering the second month as WTI director, I have learned a lot about the organization, Montana, and the rural transportation improvements needed in the region. I am happy to report that WTI and partners submitted our proposal for the USDOT Region 8 University Transportation Center (UTC). In addition, Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) and WTI have engaged in extensive dialogue about forging closer ties to solve transportation challenges in Montana. WTI is at a critical junction to grow and expand.
WTI has many strengths in transportation research with several programs of leading reputation, both nationally and internationally. This reputation was built on many decades of relentlessly pursuing excellence and I envision that these programs will continue to thrive and grow. I would like to expand the presence of transportation infrastructure research at WTI in collaboration with civil engineering and other MSU academic units. I also plan to renew our partnerships with existing labs and facilities in order to make the most of our joint efforts in the coming years, which will improve the operation, safety, and condition of the state’s pavements, bridges, and other assets.
The WTI operation figure below illustrates the general organization of WTI and its research focuses. In the weeks ahead, I look forward to further expanding these focus areas through discussions with WTI and MSU staff to further refine our approaches to anticipated growth and expansion. As I learn more about WTI and the state, more details about WTI’s future will be released in the coming months.
As Montana State University prepares for the start of the Fall semester, August is also bringing change to WTI as we welcome a new director. As many of you may know, David Kack and his family have started a new life chapter in Tennessee, and while David will continue remotely as WTI’s Program Manager for the Mobility & Public Transportation group and as the Director of the Small Urban, Rural and Tribal Center on Mobility (SURTCOM), he is handing over the role of WTI Director here in Bozeman. David joined WTI as a researcher in 2002 and his many years of experience and institutional knowledge earned him the position of Director when long time WTI leader, Steve Albert, retired in 2019. David’s tenure was anything but business as usual. Within his first year he was immersed in emergency response management as the coronavirus shutdown began. During this time, David continued research and director responsibilities, but also sanitized our offices and common areas on a regular basis, motivated us through clever communications as we adjusted to working remotely, and welcomed us all back when the coast was clear – well, sort of clear. Most memorably, he managed and hosted the twice rescheduled (due to the pandemic) Council of University of Transportation Centers (CUTC) Summer Meeting in Big Sky during a new COVID surge in 2022 that coincided with an epic 100-year flood on the Yellowstone River, stranding Summer Meeting participants in airports and flooded areas. His signature calm, humor, and level headedness prevailed and executed a successful and very memorable Summer Meeting. While his accomplishments and contributions to WTI and the Gallatin Valley are too numerous to cover here, we extend huge thanks and appreciation to David for his dedication as Executive Director over the last four years.
David Kack is handing over the role of director as his family starts a new chapter out of state. He has led WTI since 2019 and has guided WTI through Covid-19, the transition to work-from-home, and bringing everyone safely back to the office. David will continue in his role as Program Manager for the Mobility & Public Transportation group, as well as the Director of the Small Urban, Rural and tribal Center on Mobility (SURTCOM). Thank you, David, for you dedication to WTI and leadership!
Below you will find a note from both of our directors:
From David: On Merging and Passing
I’ve noticed that merging into traffic is often accompanied by a feeling of anxiety. We get up to speed at an interstate onramp or to pass a vehicle, especially a big truck, and feel the need to pay a bit more attention to what we are doing. This is how the month of August will feel for me, and for the next Director of WTI, Dr. Kelvin C.P. Wang, who officially began his new role August 1.
I merged my professional life with WTI back in 2001 when I started as a half-time employee. I was fortunate to work on many different projects with an array of co-workers. At the time, I was only the third non-engineer that was working at WTI. I quickly became a full-time employee, then became the Program Manager for our Mobility & Public Transportation research area, and then the Director of the Small Urban and Rural Livability Center (a Tier 1 UTC) under MAP-21. In 2019, I was named the Interim Director of WTI when our long-time director, Steve Albert, retired. The “Interim” tag was removed in 2020 and it has been an honor and privilege to lead an amazing group of people at WTI these past four years.
Now, however, I am passing on the title and responsibilities of Director to Kelvin, who is moving to Bozeman from Stillwater, Oklahoma and has decades of experience as university faculty and four years as a DOT engineer. I will continue my role at WTI as Program Manager for Mobility & Public Transportation, as well as fulfilling my role as Director of the Small Urban, Rural and Tribal Center on Mobility (SURTCOM), our Tier 1 University Transportation Center (UTC) funded through the FAST Act.
Though the title on my business cards and emails is changing, my dedication to WTI and the transportation profession remains as strong as ever. Kelvin and I will pay a bit more attention during the month of August, as he merges his professional career with WTI, and I pass the Director role to him.
May all your personal and transportation-related mergers and passes go smoothly!
I am honored and grateful to be the new director of WTI. Since mid-June, I’ve been familiarizing myself with the operations of WTI and its relationships with various entities at MSU and the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT). I would like to thank Mr. David Kack for his expertise and unreserved support during our transition in roles.
Based on what I’ve learned, I can say that the future of WTI is bright, and we have enormous opportunities to grow in the coming years. I will provide a more detailed plan in September outlining our potential expansion. Thank you all for your hard work in the last decades to make WTI a national and international leader in transportation research! Together we will open a new chapter at WTI, where we will continue to provide high-impact research solutions to the state, the nation, and our international partners. I am excited for what is to come.
Rob Ament, the Road Ecology Program Manager at WTI, Dr. Tony Clevenger, a WTI Senior Research Scientist, and their colleague Dr. Rodney van der Ree of Australia, are the lead editors of a new technical report published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and its World Commission of Protected Areas. Titled “Addressing ecological connectivity in the development of roads, railways and canals,” the report seeks to provide guidance on solutions and best practices that conserve wildlife and maintain ecological connectivity during the development of roads, railways and canals. “This report has been a four-year effort with over 30 contributors from six continents. Tony and I hope it helps improve the design and management of transportation systems to make them more wildlife friendly in all corners of the globe,” said Rob Ament. He noted that the IUCN is primarily a volunteer organization and counts 165 countries and more than 1400 organizations as its members, from indigenous groups to conservation non-profits. It is the world’s premiere organization addressing the biodiversity crisis.
WTI is proud to announce that a National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), WTI, and Aurora Pooled Fund study relating weather conditions and roadway friction measurements has received the High Value Research award from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).
Led by NCAR’s Gerry Wiener, with WTI’s Cold Climate Operations & Systems Program Manager Laura Fay as co-PI, Roadway Friction Modeling used atmospheric data, cold laboratory testing, and machine learning to infer friction conditions in locations where monitoring isn’t available. The trained computer models will help winter maintenance professionals identify when and where to apply deicer and anti-icer treatments, improving safety for road users. “This project was an amazing opportunity,” said Fay. “Working with NCAR to merge lab and field data with machine learning to advance the use of friction data in winter maintenance operations has been a goal of mine.”
The High Value Research award is determined by the AASHTO Research Advisory Committee with guidance from state departments of transportation. Fay noted that receiving the award was great news. “We worked hard, and we’re honored to be selected by AASHTO and recommended by Montana Department of Transportation.” All 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia participate based on region – enjoying “friendly” competition, identifying shared and differing research priorities, and participating in annual AASHTO and Transportation Research Board (TRB) poster presentations.
The Roadway Friction Modeling study was made possible by the Aurora Pooled Fund research program, which is a collaborative partnership between national and international highway agencies and administered by the Center for Weather Impacts on Mobility and Safety (CWIMS) of the Institute for Transportation (InTrans) at Iowa State University. Aurora Pooled Fund research focuses on road weather information systems (RWIS) and has partnered with WTI researchers for many years.
Work is moving forward on a collaborative project between WTI and Big Sky Community Organization (BSCO) on an Ousel Falls Road traffic calming and place-making project. Organizers believe that the temporary infrastructure, funded through the Building Active Communities Initiative (BACI) and the Big Sky resort tax, will increase safety and connectivity for pedestrians and cyclists in the heavily trafficked city center.
Beginning in December 2021, WTI Researchers Rebecca Gleason and Matt Madsen used traffic data collection and community input to design the installation. The proposed curb extensions, crosswalk, and street art will slow motor traffic but will not limit parking. Currently in the permitting phase, Gleason and Madsen hope that installation will occur in mid-May, weather depending.
As a test piece, the Ousel Falls traffic calming project will receive continuous monitoring. WTI will collect data on vehicle, pedestrian, and cyclist behavior in relation to the installation, which will inform suggested next steps. All information, along with a case study of traffic calming in other small towns, will be reported back to the community. As a temporary project, Madsen stressed, the installation is always open to improvements.
WTI Researcher Matt Madsen, along with the Big Sky Community Organization (BSCO), is spearheading a traffic calming project in the heart of Big Sky, Montana. Madsen describes the upcoming project in the Explore Big Sky article “Traffic calming project set for Ousel Falls Road,” as well as participation opportunities for interested community members. “Community engagement with these projects is very important, especially because traffic calming will be in high-traffic areas,” said Madsen. “We want people to be aware of what is going on, and the reasons behind it.”
Wildlife Connectivity and Animal-Vehicle Collision Reduction Project Sparking Public Interest
Online news organization Explore Big Sky highlighted WTI’s $1.2 million dollar wildlife connectivity and animal-vehicle collision mitigation project, TPF-5, in multiple March publications. The articles include comments from WTI Executive Director David Kack, Researcher Matthew Bell, and Road Ecology Program Manager Rob Ament on the scope and impact of the research and reports.
Read Wildlife crossings don’t have to be so pricyhere.
Read Montana State University releases reports on wildlife crossing structureshere.
The U.S. National Highway System (NHS) – the federally managed bridge and road network that moves American people and goods – has suffered from decades of insufficient maintenance and heavy use. Lack of funds, increasing traffic loads, and environmental exposure have encouraged rapid bridge deterioration in an already aging system. In 2016, nearly 40% of the nation’s bridges were over 50 years old and 9.1% were rated “structurally deficient.” To properly prioritize maintenance, repairs, and reconstruction, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has implemented the National Highway Performance Plan (NHPP), which requires states to design and implement management strategies for their NHS assets.
To fulfill Montana’s NHPP requirements, two WTI employees, Senior Research Engineer Damon Fick and Researcher Matt Bell, have developed a bridge assessment program for the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) using three decades of inspection and deterioration data. By performing a time-based statistical analysis on these data Bell and Fick were able to create graphical deterioration projections – or Deterioration Curves – for bridges across the state. These were then adjusted to better reflect the deterioration observed in MDT’s real-world observations. “These bridge deterioration curves guide maintenance planning and decision-making at both the project and network level,” noted Bell. “By reflecting what we see in the real world, MDT can use the curves to appropriately allocate money for future work and make sure maintenance is happening at the right time.
While the deterioration curves indicate the general deterioration rate of bridges across Montana, Bell and Fick will identify specific deterioration variables (deicers, precipitation, traffic volume, etc.) in their next MDT project. “Faster or slower deterioration rates in different Montana districts may be related to maintenance practices, as much as, or in combination with, environmental conditions,” said Bell. “For example, bridges that permit heavy truck loads may experience faster deterioration. If we understand the specific impact, MDT can improve truck permitting and preemptively identify maintenance activities and building specifications. Continually improving the accuracy of the deterioration curves will support the decision-making process for our colleagues at MDT.”