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New technology finding best route along U.S. 49

The use of high-resolution satellite and aerial imagery in highway planning along U.S. 49 south of Jackson could move along a project that will eventually link the Capital City to the Gulf Coast with an interstate.

Southern District Transportation Commissioner Wayne Brown said recent use of this technology by Mississippi State University (MSU) scientists and the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) plays a role in necessary planning for that project and future highway projects.

“We’re planning for that project as to improvements, best routes and utilities, and this aerial imagery allows us to do early planning for a prospective route and cost estimating,” he said. “We will be able to select the most economical and efficient route, lessening the impact to private homes, schools and businesses.”

Brown said economy and efficiency for a route are interwoven and the selected route must meet both standards.

“It’s good technology and I commend MDOT for using the latest, cutting-edge methods,” he said. “I’m impressed with it. It will be used along other routes of any magnitude.”
MSU’s GeoResources Institute (GRI) is using remote sensing and spatial information to analyze environmental conditions along a 100-mile segment of the busy corridor from Florence to Wiggins.

“This project will demonstrate that economic development, land use and sustainability planning may be enhanced by these technologies utilized in integrated approaches to planning transportation corridors,” said Chuck O’Hara, a GRI researcher and principal investigator on the project. “The effort will also demonstrate the value of collecting high-quality data early in a transportation project life cycle to streamline tasks throughout the project.”

“I’m excited about the potential with this technology,” said MDOT’s environmental engineer Claiborne Barnwell. “The satellites are in the air all the time unlike regular aerial photography, and the data can be manipulated through digitization to mold into a true distance between each point. It’s far superior to using airplanes for photos.”

At public hearings — required for all MDOT projects — Barnwell said this type of photography will give a much better picture of the area, thus giving the highway planners greater credibility.

Commissioner Brown agreed. “I’ve been at hearings and heard people say our pictures are old because houses and other things have been added when our pictures may not be but six months old,” he said. “With remote sensing we will be able to stay much more current.”

Barnwell said MSU approached MDOT to see if remote sensing could apply to location studies. “It’s a research feasibility project but we will gain a lot of socio-economic information too,” he said. “Speaking from the advantage of someone who looks at impacts — the natural environment, economics, people — if you can stay in the same location with a new route, the impacts are best served.”

He said the photography and man hours will blend into MDOT’s normal workday and will be money the department doesn’t have to spend later on collecting data.

“This is an interesting, challenging and far-reaching approach to a transportation solution where creative and innovative ideas can contribute to the decision-making process,” Barnwell said. “This corridor is vital to the economics of South-central Mississippi and if the capacity and safety can be improved without harming the existing and potential economic prosperity, then this becomes a true win-win situation.”

O’Hara said the MSU team will work closely with MDOT’s planning, environmental, roadway design and photogrammetry divisions to deploy and integrate technologies that provide a common base map for all groups involved. It will allow MDOT to share data and exchange products seamlessly between divisions. He is coordinating with MDOT, acquiring needed data, bringing in technology resources and processing data to create products useful for corridor planning.

“The data and products that can be created from new high-resolution satellite image data and aerial image data provide unprecedented opportunities to map land use,” he said. “Also, they allow us to compare transportation corridor alternatives and model impacts and consequences of each alternative in ways that have been impossible without the use of these new data sources and integration technologies.”

O’Hara added that these technologies will enable planners, managers, engineers, researchers and public stakeholders to consider different design scenarios and engage in improved consensus building.

“It is the selection of a preferred alternative that is typically the most challenging task in corridor planning,” he said. “A significant outcome of this project is that it will allow MDOT to consider, explore and evaluate the relative benefits among alignment alternatives to arrive at solutions that maximize community benefits, encourage economic development, improve the aesthetic quality of the routes and allow planners to implement improvements that embrace smart growth, sustainable practices and environmentally-friendly design aspects.”

Developing timely, cost-effective transportation projects is a major goal of U.S. and state transportation departments and metropolitan planning organizations. GRI, with funding of about $3.5 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation over the past five years, is using its unique technology to assist that effort.

The MSU institute is also part of a national consortium exploring ways remote sensing and spatial information technologies can be sued to assist corridor planning in the southeastern United States. MSU is directing the environmental assessments part of that effort.

“We have to look at a lot of overlapping issues such as maritime interests on the coast, wildlife and fisheries and state archaeology,” said Roger King, director of GRI’s Computational Geospatial Technologies Center. “We have to assess each possible environmental impact fairly, get public input and determine what appears to be the best alternative.”

The GRI brings together faculty from 22 departments within six colleges or units of the university. It conducts and coordinates research and educational activities in geospatial technologies and resource management.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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