After more than 13 years of working as a Civil Engineer in two states and a foreign country, I am still amazed by the diversity of this career field and it continues to humble me. Case in point – conceiving, planning and executing a truck trial in Alaska’s interior for an audience not necessarily as enthusiastic about the idea as we were. Yeah, our confidence level was on shaky ground, not because we didn’t believe in our combined abilities to make the impossible possible, but because we attempted something completely new to us. This is the story of how terms like “ball field chalk” and “no-fly zone” somehow entered the conversation as it relates to the Danby-Wembley Roundabout project.
The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT&PF) released a Request for Proposals (RFP) in the spring of 2015 for two roundabout projects in Fairbanks. One of those projects, named “Fairbanks Danby-Wembley Roundabout,” had a straightforward scope – convert the intersection of Danby Street and Wembley Avenue in Fairbanks from two-way stop controlled to a modern roundabout. No big deal; R&M has great roundabout references and we decided to pursue the opportunity. During the course of our research, we uncovered that the project had a somewhat contentious history with one major stakeholder, the trucking industry. Understandable, since the intersection lies between their terminals and access to the state’s freight routes. No biggie, we thought. Let’s just organize a truck trial so they can drive through a 1:1 mock-up of our roundabout and convince themselves we are the masters of geometry. That one sentence landed in the proposal (albeit using less sarcasm) and we put our name in the hat.
As good fortune would have it, we were awarded the contract and began planning for the signature event, our mighty truck trial. Up until now it was just words and ideas. Now the coach asked us to step up to the plate and deliver what we promised. Fortunately, we had assembled a great team with Kittelson & Associates, Inc. (KAI) and Roundabouts & Traffic Engineering (RTE). Together, we embarked upon this journey.
Step one was to figure out whether the trucking industry was amenable to the idea (no trucks, no truck trial) and what sort of behemoths they shuttle through the intersection. We had a nice chat with them and, to our relief, they embraced the idea and offered their full support.
Step two was multi-faceted. While our team designed the basic layout for the roundabout using the design vehicle information provided by the truckers, we tackled the logistics for the event, most notably the location. This proved to be the first major hurdle. For a state where everything is gargantuan, we assumed (classic mistake) that finding a suitable location would be the least of our worries. Boy, were we wrong. You see, the size of the proposed roundabout, the geometry of the relevant approaches and the staging area required to ensure the realistic alignment of the approaching vehicles necessitated a fairly large space. Ah, and it had to be flat, unobstructed, unencumbered by the traveling public, firm and available. We scoured Google Earth and chased our Fairbanks colleagues all over looking at numerous sites. We were about to give up and move the event to the Palmer Fairgrounds, when another one of Alaska’s attributes came to our rescue and delivered the perfect venue – the City of Fairbanks Snow Disposal Site.
With the site selected, we switched our focus to the finer details. The plan was to enlist the help of our geomatics colleagues to stake the relevant geometry in the field and hire a local contractor to place candlesticks to represent the “curb.” As it turned out, we required about 650 points, 250 of which were “curb” shots. True to their name, the contractor (Great Northwest) was great to work with. They mobilized and demobilized the necessary traffic control devices without a hitch. The rest of the points were intended to be “striping.” Seems simple, but the owner of the Snow Disposal Facility did not want us to use paint to trace the “striping.” After some brainstorming, we decided to use ball field chalk purchased from a local Little League. This material proved extremely easy to apply (with the borrowed applicator) and very resilient to wheel tracking. As with all projects, field conditions warranted minor adjustments as the northernmost candlesticks conflicted with a stand of trees.
Documenting the event was very important and we wanted all angles covered. Having recently used Unmanned Aerial Vehicles ([UAV], aka drones) to document the West Dimond Boulevard construction, I was convinced the truck trial could serve as another test bed for this technology. I mean, why do we plan and design our projects from an aerial perspective only to later rely on the ground perspective for documentation? Never made sense to me. So we hired Aquilo, a UAV startup based in Fairbanks, to document the event from the air. As if “expect the unexpected” isn’t already the theme of this event, the UAV idea almost crashed before it was able to launch. Turns out the Fairbanks Correctional Facility is located adjacent to our venue and the UAV was pre-programmed with a no-fly zone that overlapped the intended flight path. Thankfully Aquilo was able to work with the UAV manufacturer to overwrite this restriction the day before the event.
The Big Day
Spoiler alert: all the planning and fretting over the details was worth it! August 11, 2016 was a wonderful, sunny day and I arrived early to take care of last-minute details. Around noon the trucks started showing up. We briefed the drivers and sent them down the course. Each pass was recorded by the UAV, stationary cameras and enough iPhones to make Apple proud. As if that wasn’t enough, we also recorded the actual wheel paths using Real Time Kinematic (RTK) for later comparison to the simulated turning movements generated by AutoTurn.
The truck drivers were eager to show off their surgical driving skills and patient with us as we flocked around their rigs with measuring instruments, spray paint, cameras and clipboards. Some of them even offered to drive “unsanctioned” movements, meaning routes we did not design the roundabout to accommodate. I am happy to report only one (or maybe two) candlesticks were harmed during this event.
The absolute highlight of the day arrived in the form of a 150’ long tractor/trailer, comprised of an 85 ton capacity Aspen trailer with a steerable rear dolly and something like 46 tires. The owner, Alaska West Express, “happened to be in the neighborhood” and asked if they could play in our sandbox. Needless to say we were happy to oblige. Much to our surprise and delight, the blue monster made it through our course unscathed.
Facilitating this event proved more valuable than expected. For the project, it paid dividends by allowing us to tweak the design based on data gathered during the event. Secondly, it made allies out of the truckers and they went so far as to commend us on the record. Lastly, the footage was used during the public involvement campaign to put to rest any doubts about the roundabout’s ability to handle large and specialized vehicles.
For me personally, it is one of those “feathers in your cap” I will use to debunk anyone’s attempts to call my chosen career “lackluster” or “unchallenging.” This event demonstrated that teamwork, planning, innovation and venturing outside the comfort zone can yield positive results.
Marc Frutiger, PE, PTOE is the Project Engineer for the Danby-Wembley Roundabout project. Marc has 14 years of experience in transportation design, spanning from Alaska to Wyoming, and most recently in his native country of Switzerland. An employee of R&M from 2004 to 2008, Marc returned to the R&M team in February 2013. His experience over the past few years has focused on project management and design for surface transportation, drainage and utility projects, complementing his well-rounded design experience on airport, site and waterfront facilities. Marc takes a Context Sensitive approach to all of his projects, interacting collaboratively with the client and local stakeholders to ensure projects meet contract requirements and community needs.
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