As a Pennsylvania State University professor of transportation engineering in the department of civil and environmental engineering, Dr. Eric Donnell has published more than 50 referred journal articles, 29 research reports, and three book chapters on traffic safety, geometric design of highways and streets, and speed management. Additional accolades include three best paper awards from the Transportation Research Board (TRB) Committee on Geometric Design, a TRB Blue Ribbon Award for Advancing Research, and a leadership fellowship at the Eno Center for Transportation in Washington D.C. In August 2016, he was named director of the Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute. Under his leadership, he has worked collaboratively with PennDOT, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, and other transportation stakeholders throughout Pennsylvania to launch the PennSTART initiative, a state-of-the-art training and testing facility to support transportation safety, operations, traffic incident management, education, and research initiatives.
Flagger Force: How did you come to your current position with Penn State and the Larson Institute?
Eric Donnell: Most of my career has been spent in academia with a brief tenure in the private sector. After working as a graduate research assistant at the Larson Institute from 1997 to 2003, I received my doctorate in civil engineering from Penn State. Shortly thereafter, I became a faculty member in the department of civil and environmental engineering at Penn State and have been here for close to fifteen years. When the position of director for the Larson Institute became available, I applied and was honored to be awarded the title.
Flagger Force: What is the history of the Larson Institute?
Eric Donnell: It was founded by Tom Larson, professor of civil engineering; Wolfgang Meyer, professor of mechanical engineering; and Bob Pashek, professor of business logistics in 1968. They developed the concept after working with other professionals on a Transportation Studies committee. Mr. Larson, the first director of the center, led with the clear vision of “…an organization and method of operation compatible with the academic goals of this University and still comparable in terms of efficiency and creativeness with commercial research groups…” We continue to conduct thoughtful studies with the mission of research, education, and service. Currently, there are four centers and several large research facilities within the Larson Institute, all of which work together to address problems in three major areas of transportation research: infrastructure, system performance, and vehicle systems and safety.
Flagger Force: What are some examples of current research and educational activities being done at the Larson Institute that fit within the mission of the university?
Eric Donnell: Our four centers conduct a large number of research, education, and outreach activities for a variety of federal, state, and industry sponsors. For example, our Bus Research and Testing Center tests new model buses for maintainability, reliability, safety, performance, structural integrity and durability, fuel/energy economy, noise, and emissions. The Northeast Center of Excellence for Pavement Technology includes a state-of-the-art binder and mixtures laboratory to undertake a variety of binder and mixture, sub-base and sub-grade, and other pavement material characterization tests. The Center for Dirt and Gravel Road Studies provides educational and outreach activities to promote environmentally-sensitive road maintenance principles for unpaved and low-volume paved roads. The Center for Integrated Asset Management for Multi-modal Transportation Infrastructure Systems performs a variety of research, education, and technology transfer activities in relation to innovative materials and technology, condition assessment and health monitoring, and infrastructure management and innovative financing. Faculty affiliated with the Larson Institute also perform a variety of sponsored research projects, focused on topics related to the safety and operational performance of the transportation network, transportation infrastructure, and advanced vehicle technologies. We often involve graduate and undergraduate students in our activities and seek opportunities to disseminate our research to stakeholders in the Commonwealth and beyond.
Flagger Force: What is PennSTART and how was this concept developed?
Eric Donnell: PennSTART has been designed to develop a new state-of-the art facility to support transportation safety and operations, traffic incident management, and more. The facility will target private and public sector end-users for training, testing, and research. It will feature a 1.5-mile high-speed oval, unsignalized and signalized intersections, highway-rail grade crossings, interchange merge and diverge areas, high-speed tolling facilities, and parking and staging areas. PennSTART is a collaboration of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (PTC), Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), and Penn State University. The collaboration among the partners began about 18 months ago, when representatives from the PTC and Larson Institute were discussing opportunities to use the University’s existing test track to conduct traffic incident management training. After thinking about the variety of scenarios encountered by incident responders, as well as the research, education, and training opportunities that could be developed for transportation stakeholders, PennDOT, the PTC, and Penn State worked together to develop the PennSTART concept. After reviewing facilities throughout the nation, we thought it would be great to have something like this in Pennsylvania. The conceptual design can support training, testing, and research and development activities.
Flagger Force: With the announcement of PennSTART, how do you see this evolving the Larson Institute?
Eric Donnell: The Larson Institute is known for our research in the areas of transportation infrastructure, transportation system performance, and advanced vehicle technologies. Our Centers are also well-known for bus testing, as well as infrastructure-related educational and outreach activities. When we began our initial discussions with PennDOT and the PTC about PennSTART, we determined that having the facility connected to the Institute offered Penn State with an opportunity to support hands-on training in the traffic incident management area. As our discussions evolved, additional opportunities became apparent, which could benefit many stakeholders throughout the Commonwealth and the Mid-Atlantic region. New transportation technologies can be tested at a facility of this size, such as autonomous vehicles and technology for work zones. Providing a closed-loop environment will enable us to test these technologies before deployment on public roads.
Flagger Force: What are some of the short-term and long-term focuses for PennSTART?
Eric Donnell: Our vision for the facility ranges across six key areas: traffic incident management, connected and autonomous vehicles, tolling, intelligent transportation systems and traffic signals, work zones, and commercial and transit vehicles. Traffic incident management training is the first immediate short-term opportunity as a focus for the facility. PennSTART will provide an opportunity to deliver hands-on training to emergency responders in order to help them safely respond to incidents. PennSTART will provide other educational and outreach, as well as research and development opportunities, in the future. For example, how vehicles are communicating with the infrastructure and with other vehicles when driving through work zones can be tested at PennSTART. We are in an era where transportation technologies are changing quickly, so we need to be at the forefront of new developments. PennSTART will enable us to work with stakeholders to understand changes that we foresee related to traffic control devices, tolling systems, connectivity and automation in commercial vehicle fleets, and technology enhancement in transit vehicles.