Larson Transportation Institute marks 50 years of research

Danica Laub
February 23, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — To a historian, 50 years may seem like a small fraction of time. To a young child, it seems like a lifetime. For someone who first learned how to drive on a Ford Model-T, the half-century mark is simply middle age. Yet, for one of Penn State’s oldest research institutes, 50 years feels like a lifetime, but is also just the beginning.

On Feb. 23, 1968, the Pennsylvania Transportation and Traffic Safety Center was born. The brainchild of three esteemed Penn State professors — Thomas Larson, professor of civil engineering; Wolfgang Meyer, professor of mechanical engineering; and Bob Pashek, professor of business logistics — the center (as it was originally formed) has grown to be one of Penn State’s greatest multidisciplinary research institutes.

First identified as an institute in 1974, when it was renamed the Pennsylvania Transportation Institute, the institute acquired its current official name, the Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute (LTI), in 2008.

According to Walter Kilareski, professor emeritus of civil engineering at Penn State, who was working on his master’s degree at the institute in the early 1970s, the creation of the institute was pivotal in the advancement of transportation research at Penn State.

“At that time, it was difficult to do interdisciplinary research, because it was college to college,” said Kilareski. “The institute made it much easier to do research with colleagues from other colleges. Larson, Meyer and Pashek made that happen. Sometimes the stars and moon line up together with the right people, doing the right projects to get it started.”

Kilareski stayed on at LTI as a research assistant until 1979, prior to earning his doctorate in civil engineering. He was closely involved during the construction of the test track in 1972, when pavement and materials research was a major area of research.

“The test track project was very significant for pavement and materials research. It was a large project for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) at the time, because they were building the interstate system,” said Kilareski. “Then, we were dealing with new pavement construction, but today, LTI researchers are studying ways to rehabilitate pavements.”

Over the past 50 years, the institute has seen a number of changes, but the original mission has remained.

“We are still pursuing the institute’s original mission of disseminating research results, providing technical assistance and outreach to local communities, offering interdisciplinary research and educational opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students and providing continuing education opportunities for transportation professionals,” said Eric Donnell, the director of the institute. “But, as the transportation industry has changed, so has the focus of the institute.”

When the Larson Transportation Institute, as it is better known today, was founded, much of the research, education and outreach concentrated on building new roads and bridges, according to Donnell. He said, “Today, the current focus of LTI’s portfolio is on infrastructure asset management, vehicle technologies and transportation system performance.”

“Transportation system users and needs are very different than they were 50 years ago,” said Donnell. “So, naturally, things like mobility and safety, improving existing bridges and roadways, and vehicle automation, connectivity and electrification are some of our top priorities.”

To help support research in one of today’s most challenging and fastest growing transportation areas ­— vehicle automation — since Donnell was named director in 2017, one of his primary focuses of the institute has been the test track. Designated by the United States Department of Transportation as one of 10 automated vehicle proving grounds in the country, the test track is not only heavily used by Penn State’s autonomous vehicles research faculty, but also by transportation industry companies and government agencies, which test new vehicle automation and safety technologies.

As the institute continues to adapt to the transportation needs of an ever-changing society, Donnell said the institute is and will be studying how transportation is linked to public health, sustainable energy solutions for transportation, and multi-modalism. To do so, Donnell is always looking for ways to tap into the invaluable resources of Penn State’s multidisciplinary researchers. 

“Our faculty affiliates work collaboratively to solve transportation-related challenges through research,” said Donnell. Giving a nod to the more than 50 affiliated academic and research faculty representing colleges, departments, institutes and campuses from across the University system, Donnell continued, “We’ve identified experts in fields beyond traditional transportation-related disciplines, including electrical engineering, computer science, and health and human development, to develop solutions to transportation-related challenges.”

Over the years, LTI has touched practically every area of the transportation industry, whether through research projects that have been funded through agencies like PennDOT, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), U.S. Department of State, Pennsylvania State Conservation Commission (SCC), Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and Federal Transit Administration (FTA), or by collaborating with private sector companies like Volvo Technology North America and Norfolk Southern Corporation. It has been through these partnerships that LTI has been able to put its stamp on a vast array of projects, including anti-terrorism barrier design and testing, federal bus testing and connected vehicle research with the commercial trucking industry.

In addition to research projects, the institute is active in countless education, networking and outreach efforts. Each December, LTI hosts the Transportation Engineering and Safety Conference (TESC), which is one of the largest transportation conferences of its kind in the region. Through its Northeast Center for Excellence in Pavement Technology (NECEPT), LTI provides training to thousands of pavement and materials technicians. And, for more than 20 years, the institute has been delivering outreach and technical assistance to municipalities throughout the Commonwealth, via the Center for Dirt and Gravel Road Studies (CDGRS).

Martin Pietrucha, former LTI director and current faculty research associate with the institute, acknowledged another, perhaps less obvious, contribution of the institute: the high-quality master’s and graduate students that have gone on to successful careers in both industry and academia.

“Penn State is pretty prolific in terms of producing engineers. If you go to D.C., New York or other places, people say, ‘I went to Penn State. My brother went to Penn State. My kid goes to Penn State and is in engineering.’ And, a lot of these people have come through these halls [LTI] as well,” said Pietrucha. “That, I think, is probably the main contribution of this institute. It’s putting people in the industry who are well versed in the technology, but can go beyond that into leadership positions. LTI encourages that.”

As LTI continues to celebrate 50 years of research throughout 2018, alumni, friends and industry partners who are interested in receiving information about LTI news and events are encouraged to send their name and contact information to Steve Williams at smw5@engr.psu.edu.

For more information about LTI, visit larson.psu.edu.

  • Professor and students discussing a project

    Martin Pietrucha and a group of research students (left to right: Brian Hanover, Marlon Smoker, Beverly Kuhn and John McFadden) look at blueprints of a student design project in 1997.

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • Larson Transportation Institute test track

    An undated aerial photo of the Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute test track, captured during the early years.

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • Aerial image of Larson Transportation Institute test track in color

    An undated aerial photo of the LTI test track shows a more developed site.

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • four men standing, kneeling and lying on a road surface

    (Left to right): LTI Test Track Manager Dick Carpenter, Bassam Anani (kneeling), Walter Kilareski (center) and Scott Kutz doing a “Benkelman Beam” test at the test track in the mid- to late-1970s.

    IMAGE: Walter Kilareski/Penn State
  • Martin Pietrucha takes Volvo representatives on a tour of the Bus Research and Testing Center in 2013

    Martin Pietrucha takes Volvo representatives on a tour of the Bus Research and Testing Center in 2013.

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • Crash test results at LTI test track

    Sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, the Larson Transportation Institute was awarded money in 2010 for a multi-year project to conceptualize, research, simulate, build and test safety barriers. This photos is from a June 1, 2016, crash test. The barrier effectively stopped the truck, which was traveling at 50 mph.

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • Man sitting in front of large TV screens driving an augmented reality vehicle

    An attendee test drives Penn State's highway driving simulator during the 2017 Pennsylvania Automated Vehicle Summit at The Larson Transportation Institute test track.

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • Volvo commercial truck

    Attendees at the 2017 Pennsylvania Automated Vehicle Summit took test rides in LTI’s automated Volvo truck. The LTI test track is one of 10 federally designated autonomous proving grounds in the country.

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • LTI research with work zone signage locations

    During the Institute’s early years, investigators helped develop models that prescribed the proper nature and location of information in work zones to reduce the potential for accidents.

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • Eric Donnell speaking about the LTI automated vehicle proving grounds

    Eric Donnell, professor of civil engineering and director of the Larson Transportation Institute, discusses "PA Automated Vehicle Proving Grounds" during a session on connected vehicles at the 2017 Transportation Engineering & Safety Conference.

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • Dr. Richard A. Olsen

    In an undated photo, Richard A. Olsen, director of the Human Factors Research Program and assistant professor of human factors in engineering, displays some of the route guidance symbols that were being evaluated under the project “Color of Shape Coding for Freeway Route Guidance.”

    IMAGE: Penn State
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Last Updated March 15, 2018