$16 million grant received for new transportation center at PSU

Portland State is receiving $16 million in federal money to establish a center for Transportation Studies that will stimulate university research affecting the entire state, thanks to the efforts of Fourth District U.S. Congressman Peter DeFazio.

The federal money is expected to add new prestige and resources to what is currently known as the PSU Intelligent Transportation Systems Laboratory. The ITS lab is housed in Science Building 2 but will soon move to the new building of the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science.

“We will be expanding and hiring new staff,” said Robert Bertini, director of the lab and associate professor in both engineering and urban studies. Some of the new staff will be student jobs, Bertini said.

Currently, 27 students work at the PSU lab. The expansion will open the opportunity for even more graduate research assistant positions, plus transportation fellowships for other grad students.

The lab focuses on improvement of all modes of transportation, including “highway, transit, bicycle, pedestrian and freight.”

The present ITS lab will operate in the new configuration as an expanded version of its longtime philosophy. The ITS sees transportation as the backbone of our society but recognizes that society needs a transportation system both economically sound and environmentally efficient.

“The strategy of adding more and more highway capacity neither solves our transportation problems, nor meets the broad national vision of an efficient, integrated transportation system,” said a statement issued by the lab.

Much of the activity at the lab involves data collection and analysis. As one visible feature, a screen in the lab shows an Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) map of current traffic on I-5. Every 20 seconds, pavement sensors record the number of vehicles passing through the system and at what speed. When a visual loop on the screen flashes green, things are going okay. A yellow section means traffic is slowing down and a red section warns of traffic tie-up. The system flashes new data every 20 seconds.

Formal announcement of the $16 million came in a ceremony on campus last week. DeFazio emphasized that Oregon needs to confront a broad range of transportation problems that look for solutions from centers like this. The new configuration charges the PSU center to partner with research faculty at Oregon State University, University of Oregon and Oregon Institute of Technology. Representatives of the three other universities joined the ceremony in enthusiastic endorsement of the idea of statewide research cooperation.

The ITS lab has drawn grants and assistance from research partners and sponsors ranging from the City of Portland to Technical University in Dresden, Germany.

The lab has been on campus for a half century. It was founded in 1966 by a professor in the School of Business Administration, Walter Kramer, moving to the College of Urban and Public affairs when Kramer retired.

The lab currently connects with five PSU graduate degree programs, ranging up to doctorates in urban studies and in civil and environmental engineering. A graduate certificate in transportation is pending and a transportation doctorate may potentially be offered in the future.

But it is not all about counting cars. One of the faculty members, Jennifer Dill, assistant professor of urban studies, had global positioning systems installed on bicycles to generate a study in understanding and measuring bicycling behavior. On a recent day, two graduate students were manipulating data on divergent projects. Steve Boice, a graduate student in civil engineering, was working on an inductive loop detector study for the German Autobahn, funded by a $60,000 grant from BMW. A loop detector is one of those sensors under the pavement.

Andy Decambre, a senior in computer science, was analyzing similar data on Oregon freeways.

Over the past five years, the ITS has drawn $1.2 million in research funding, much of which supports students with stipends and tuition.