Build a Better Mousetrap is a national program that recognizes local and tribal agencies who use innovative solutions to address challenges in their transportation programs. For 2023, the Federal Highway Administration received 53 nominations for the competition with four winners selected. For this newsletter, we are profiling the four winners. Be sure to download the 2023 booklet for information on all 53 nominations. Visit: Website 2023 Video
Build a Better Mousetrap: Innovative Project Winner
Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation
Caption: Mobile Unit Sensing Device attached to an utility pole. Photo Credit: Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation.
The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation is one of the federally recognized tribes in Washington State. Within the Yakama Nation reservation, there are approximately 1,200 miles of public roads. Most of the roads are in rural agricultural settings and crashes happen every day on these roadways. Of the land governed by Tribal Governments, Yakama Nation has both the highest number of pedestrian and vehicle fatality rates in Washington State. Yakama Nation Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Engineering program has been deeply concerned by these crashes and high fatality rates and determined to work on solutions addressing the safety issues and reduce and eliminate serious injuries and fatal accidents. One of the significant challenges faced by Tribal and rural communities is the lack of real-time traffic and safety data, particularly on low-volume rural roads. This data scarcity hinders effective planning and decision-making processes. Moreover, when applying for grants or funding opportunities, the absence of comprehensive data undermines the credibility of their proposals and reduces the chances of securing financial support. Hollyanna Littlebull, Assistant Director of the Northwest Tribal Technical Assistance Program says, “Everything was outdated. The data was like five years or older. We knew that the trending issues did not accurately reflect the data that we had.”
Hollyanna was working on a data portal project when she came across the Mobile Unit Sensing Traffic (MUST) device during a visit to the University of Washington Star Lab. “When I saw the sensor, I immediately knew this was the solution,” she said. The Mobile Unit for Sensing Traffic (MUST) device was customized specifically for use along Tribal and rural roads with limited infrastructure support, including limited internet connectivity. The device is equipped with camera, environment sensor, computing, and communication capabilities. It is ideal for monitoring traffic, detecting dangerous events, and providing real-time warning messages to road users. Hollyanna says, “I worked with the Star lab to program the device to differentiate between farm vehicles, freight vehicles, horseback riders. The device was also programmed to differentiate between fog and smoke. The programming required me to ride around and take a lot of pictures for the sensor. It was a lot of work but once the project started rolling, it went really fast.” A key advantage of the device is the computing capabilities that allows it to operate individually without infrastructure support, which helps in areas without reliable internet connectivity. The device can also individually perform data processing and analysis functions without the use of servers or cloud platforms, thus securing the data. “The device does not record faces or license plates. It only counts the vehicle itself. The cost benefit alone is invaluable. That thing is working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and it’s constantly getting data,” says Hollyanna. “There’s an app that you can download on your phone to see the information in real time. There is no one needed to service it. You can query any of the data like average temperature or average humidity. The amount of data we can get from this thing is amazing!”
Congratulations to the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation for their innovative Mobile Unit Sensing Traffic (MUST) device. They are the Build a Better Mousetrap 2023 Innovative Project Award winners.
The Innovative Project Award recognizes any solution that addresses any or all phase(s) of the ‘project’ life cycle – Planning, Design/Engineering, Construction, Operations and Maintenance. This project shall introduce new ideas, is locally relevant, original, and creative in thinking.
For more information, contact Hollyanna Littlebull at firstname.lastname@example.org or 509-830-6639.
Build a Better Mousetrap: Bold Steps Winner
New Jersey Department of Transportation
Caption: Completed Road Diet Project in NJ. Photo credit: NJ DOT
The Route 71 Drawbridge is an historic bridge built in 1923 in New Jersey and is heavily traveled. The mechanical span lock equipment that allows the bridge to open and close safely failed in 2021 causing damage to the structural steel. The bridge is slated for replacement within the next 10 years. So, the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJ DOT) needed a short-term solution that would keep the bridge in operation. “Our options were to either restore the bridge back to pre-failure condition, which would have involved a lot of steel work, cost millions of dollars and require the bridge to be closed for extended periods of time or close the bridge entirely,” says Gerald Oliveto, P.E., Supervising Engineer in Operations Support for NJDOT.
However, there was another alternative solution that would provide a much faster and less expensive response to the issue. The NJ DOT decided to implement a road diet, which meant reducing the roadway to one-lane in each direction, moving the balance of traffic away from the damaged center-section of the bridge. “Initially we had extreme opposition from the local townships. They were not happy hearing about the lanes being reduced. They were worried about heavier congestion, and they just didn’t understand how this works,” says Gerald. “We (NJ DOT) developed an outreach campaign to help them better understand why this was needed and how the community would benefit.”
Implementing the road diet project took one month and only cost the state $150,000. Additionally, residents saw improved signal timings, extended bike lanes, and high visibility crosswalks. “In the end it was a huge safety improvement. We took what could have been a negative with this bridge and turned it into a positive,” says Gerald. “The innovative solution has exceeded expectations as traffic is no longer an issue with the bridge. We knew people were going to use the new bike lanes and crosswalks but not to the extent that we’ve seen.”
The New Jersey DOT is looking to implement the road diet with some other draw bridges. Gerald’s advice to other agencies is if you are pretty sure it is going to work, you will have to work through the obstacles. “Push through and you’ll have a positive outcome. This project was a homerun. The coordination among the DOT was better than anything I’ve seen. Everyone did their part.”
Congratulations to the New Jersey Department of Transportation as the Bold Steps Award Winner for the Route 71 over Shark River Road Diet project. The Bold Steps Award recognizes any locally relevant high-risk project or process showing a break-through solution with demonstrated high reward.
Contact Gerald Oliveto at Gerald.Oliveto@dot.nj.gov or 609-963-1524.
Build a Better Mousetrap: Smart Transformation Winner
St. Louis County, MN Public Works Department
Caption: Nighttime image of snow-covered roadway captured by solar camera. Courtesy: St. Louis County, MN Public Works Department
The St. Louis County, Minnesota Public Works Department is responsible for maintenance and snow removal of approximately 3,000 miles of roads. Road conditions can vary greatly at any given time during winter storms. The agency needed more accurate and immediate access to information to assist with emergency response. Traditional methods for gathering this information can be too expensive for a county budget. “We looked at numerous game cameras costing anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000 per station. Budgetarily, these cameras did not meet our needs,” says, St Louis County Deputy Public Works Director in Maintenance Operations, Brian Boder. He says their task was to find a game camera with an on-demand trigger. Game cameras are rugged and weatherproof and can be activated to record based on movement.
The St. Louis County Public Works Department’s solution was implementation of inexpensive solar powered remote cameras. They include a user-friendly operating system capable of capturing still images day and night and can provide short video clips. The cameras are battery operated but the County chose the solar panel option with a rechargeable internal battery that would require less maintenance. According to Brian, “The game cameras have exceeded expectations in how they function. The most difficult part was finding the proper locations or infrastructure to mount the cameras. Some places had low light areas.” Initially, there was a concern that the solar cameras may not function well in pretty remote areas of the county, but that proved to not be the case.
St. Louis County purchased 51 game camera units at $374 per unit. Total cost to implement was $27,612. Brian says the camera system has the potential to assist any agency or municipality with the decision-making process regarding level of response and deployment timing to winter storm events. Aside from purchasing the equipment, an agency must be able to identify areas where weather conditions seem to change frequently, remote locations that are difficult to access, existing infrastructure for camera mounting and the ability to access it in a timely manner and identify any new infrastructure necessary to accommodate camera placements.
Brian’s advice to other agencies, “You never learn anything from the status quo. Fortunately, for St. Louis County, we have a group of individuals who are continuously thinking outside the box and willing to try something new.”
Congratulations to the St. Louis County Public Works Department in Minnesota for your innovative solution to install solar-powered remote cameras for improving emergency response. They are the Build a Better Mousetrap 2023 Smart Transformation Award Winner.
The Smart Transformation Award recognizes a locally relevant significant change in any transportation activity or process that is SMART “Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound” in nature that results in improved efficiencies.
For more information contact Brian Boder, P.E. at email@example.com or 218-625-3859.
Build a Better Mousetrap: Pioneer Winner
City of Walnut Creek, CA
Caption: Unobstructed Traffic Lights in City of Walnut Creek, CA.
Photo Credit: City of Walnut Creek, CA
Traffic signals are crucial to helping drivers properly and safely navigate the roadway system. They provide visual cues for when to stop, go, yield, giving the driver sufficient time to make informed decisions. When these traffic signals are obstructed in anyway, this can create major safety hazards for everyone on the roadway including pedestrians and cyclists. The City of Walnut Creek in California would often conduct regular inspections to ensure their traffic signals are clearly visible to drivers, but this process was often labor intensive and involved trained personnel to verify visibility for traffic signal lights. City officials wanted to improve the process to be safer for the workers and more proactive.
Their solution was the Safe Sightings of Signs and Signals (SSOSS) Software. The innovation added an automated process to assessing traffic signal visibility using readily available, off-the-shelf hardware components such as a cell phone with built-in camera and lots of storage, GPS receiver, a cell phone mount for windshield, and a laptop computer. After setting up smartphone on vehicle dash to record GPS points and video, the vehicle is driven through as many intersection approaches as desired, ensuring data is being recorded the entire time. Once the route is completed, the collected data/video is transferred to a computer and processed using the SSOSS program to save images of each of the driven intersection approaches. Matt Redmond, Associate Transportation Engineer with the City of Walnut Creek says, “I was very surprised at the accuracy of the data. It (the SSOSS) just gives you clear insight about whether a signal is blocked or not. With this software-based system, all of our agency’s intersection, about 350 approaches, can be checked for sight distance in a single day without anyone getting out of their car. Moreover, this solution has promoted a proactive approach to ensure traffic signals are visible to drivers, rather than a reactive approach that may leave traffic signals obstructed for longer than necessary.”
The innovative solution has resulted in significant time-savings and increased productivity for the city’s staff. According to Matt, conducting sight distance checks could take 15 to 45 minutes per intersection, depending on location, which includes parking and measuring the required sight distance for each of the four approaches. “Implementing the software-based system required a lot of driving and recording data, but once you have the information, you don’t have to do it again,” says Matt. “There were so many times, I didn’t think I could do it. It required me to learn to program and then I had to keep wracking my brain about how to get this angle or that angle.”
Matt’s advice to anyone on using innovative solutions is three-fold, 1) Innovation takes time and that this was not an overnight solution. 2) Explore the potential for an innovation by asking the questions, “what if we could do this” or “what if this is a possibility”. And 3) Collaboration is important, “I spent a lot of time talking to other professionals about this innovation, making sure the solution makes sense to them,” says Matt.
Congratulations to the City of Walnut Creek, CA for the innovative SSOSS software-based system. They are the Build a Better Mousetrap 2023 Pioneer Award Winner.
The Pioneer Award recognizes a locally relevant product or tool that is among the first to solve a maintenance problem with a home-grown solution.
This is disseminated under the sponsorship of the U.S. Department of Transportation in the interest of information exchange. The U.S. Government assumes no liability for the use of the information. The U.S. Government does not endorse products or manufacturers. Trademarks or manufacturers’ names appear in this report only because they are considered essential to the objective of the information provided.