A divided section of Interstate 94 west of the Twin Cities looks — at first glance — like any old construction detour that pepper state highways. But this is no ordinary fork in the road.
Minnesotans zipping to and from work, home or the family cabin on this 3.5-mile stretch of freeway are unknowingly helping engineers in Minnesota and around the country design better roads. The westbound lanes between Albertville and Monticello are part of MnROAD, one of the country’s leading pavement research facilities run by the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
An anonymous reader sought more information about the purpose of this test road from Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune’s community reporting project fueled by reader questions.
Researchers at MnROAD primarily study how different pavement materials and designs hold up in real-world traffic conditions amid Minnesota’s harsh winter climate. They conduct as many as 50 experiments at a time on the westbound lanes, aided by data from underground sensors.
Engineers as far away as Iceland rely on the findings, since variables like traffic, temperature, moisture and the passage of time are difficult to recreate in lab environments.
“We can develop new paving materials, pavement designs, and better ways of managing our roadways and have real world data from MnROAD to back our results,” explained MnDOT engineer Ben Worel, who oversees operations at the facility.
There are actually three sections of test road. In addition to the westbound lanes, a MnDOT truck loaded with weights makes loops on a self-contained “low-volume” road to the side of the freeway. MnDOT periodically closes one of the westbound lanes to make changes to the roadway.
Researchers inspect the roadway for visible changes, such as ruts, faults, cracking. But they also analyze pavement temperature, moisture, and the strain of passing vehicles using the underground sensors, which are linked by fiber optics directly into MnROAD’s systems.
The data collected from the experiments enables MnROAD and its partners to make design or material recommendations based on small investments in the test sections. That can shape policies affecting the way Minnesota approaches infrastructure around the state.
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