The Mid American Transportation Center (MATC), a consortium of academic institutions including the University of Iowa Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and led by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has been awarded a five-year, $13.75 million federally funded research center to improve transportation safety in Iowa and neighboring states, with an emphasis on challenges facing rural areas and underserved communities.

The University Transportation Center (UTC) covers a four-state region funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation through the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act. The FAST Act, passed by Congress and approved by President Obama in 2015, increased funding for 35 university transportation centers and was the first federal law in over a decade to provide long-term funding to improve the nation's transportation infrastructure.

The funding enables the consortium to leverage its track record of success in transportation research and education to improve safety in the four Region 7 states: Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri.

"With the awarding of the UTC to our consortium, we will continue to support transportation research and student support that will add to the more than $2 million that we have secured for the University of Iowa since 2006," Paul Hanley, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and an associate director of MATC, said.

The states in Region 7 sit at the crossroads of the nation's roadway, railway and waterway systems and consistently rank among the top 10 states nationally in total freight movements. Additionally, the states have challenges related to climate, stressed infrastructure and demographics. The effect of extreme weather, especially flooding, is one. Increased freight traffic in rural areas, especially from trucks carrying large volumes of hazardous waste materials, is another. Rural roads bear the brunt of wear and tear from heavy vehicles, yet local governments have fewer financial resources to keep up with repairs.

"The conditions create a 'perfect storm' for public safety when the unexpected happens, as when flooding causes a bridge collapse or when a tanker crash causes the release of hazardous materials such as chlorine gas or anhydrous ammonia," Hanley added.  "The University of Iowa research community in the College of Engineering and other units bring unique knowledge and skills for building and operating robust, resilient and sustainable transportation systems as we face increasing frequency and severity of disasters."

For example, research-based solutions for floods could include a real-time flood forecast mapping system to warn drivers which roads to avoid. Additional monitoring tools could provide critical data on bridges' load capacity after waters recede. The interactive forecasting will allow infrastructure alignment designs to be tested with flooding scenarios in a virtual world.

The consortium will develop tools for reducing the number of crashes and mitigating the impact of natural and human-caused disasters. The goal is to make significant improvements in safety for users of the transportation system, transportation workers and the public.

The research team also will address the needs of historically underserved populations – Native American tribal areas and urban minority communities – that are at greatest risk in human-caused or natural disasters. esearchers will collaborate on a number of initiatives aimed at measuring the cognitive and visual fitness of transportation workers, especially those who handle hazardous materials; improving real-time networks for communicating about hazardous material incidents; developing a crash barrier for freight trucks; creating disaster relief protocols for at-risk communities; reducing the risk of transporting hazardous materials; improving bridge design guidelines; and creating smart tools for measuring bridges’ structural capacity after catastrophic incidents.

"At the end of the five-year project, the goal is to have a suite of products that promote safety and lead to measurable safety improvements in these communities," Hanley said.