1 year ago

UA’s Alabama Transportation Institute awarded $8 million to improve transportation in west-central Alabama

Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) on Thursday announced that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has awarded $8,034,003 to the University of Alabama’s (UA) Alabama Transportation Institute (ATI) to improve traffic control systems in west-central Alabama with modernized technology through the Advanced Connected Transportation Infrastructure and Operations Network (ACTION) project.

The grant is being made through the federal Advanced Transportation and Congestion Management Technologies Deployment (ATCMTD) Program.

“This nationally competitive award enhances the growing recognition of UA’s research enterprise. The award reflects the combined efforts of several researchers and transportation related centers at UA and our partners who teamed up to address critical transportation system needs in West Central Alabama,” Dr. Shashi Nambisan, executive director of the ATI, said in a statement to Yellowhammer News.

The ATCMTD program, established by the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act in 2015, provides funding for eligible entities across the nation to improve the performance of transportation systems, reduce traffic congestion and improve the safety of the traveling public by providing state-of-the-art technology, including sensor systems and cameras, and the incorporation of new communication platforms.

“It is outstanding news that DOT has awarded UA funding for Alabama’s advanced technology initiative,” Shelby said in a release. “The program will address transportation needs in west-central Alabama that are critical to improved quality of life and economic vitality. I look forward to the lasting impacts the implementation of this initiative will bring to the community.”

ACTION will be deployed on freeways and arterials in and around Tuscaloosa. The project’s core theme is to leverage technological advances to enhance efficiency, capacity and safety. Key components of ACTION include a network of sensors and cameras, communications technologies and traffic signal systems, as well as mobility tools for passenger and freight traffic.

Nambisan advised, “The project will substantially mitigate congestion, improve travel time reliability, and enhance safety for motorists pedestrians and in the region, all of which are critical for the region’s economic vitality and interstate commerce.”

In addition to the $8 million grant from the U.S. DOT, the ACTION project includes matching funding of approximately $8.3 million from various partners in the Yellowhammer State for a total funding of about $16.3 million over a three-year period.

A multi-agency partnership will work collaboratively on ACTION. This partnership includes the ATI, the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT), the Tuscaloosa County Road Improvement Commission, the cities of Tuscaloosa and Northport and other local and regional industry stakeholders, including manufacturing and trucking. In addition to the leadership of ATI on the project, UA is supplying the partnership team with researchers from its Center for Advanced Public Safety, Center for Advanced Vehicle Technologies and the University Transportation Center for Alabama.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

1 hour ago

Alabama automakers adopt COVID-19 safety measures as production ramps up

Alabama automakers have been ramping up production following the COVID-19 outbreak, with strict new protocols in place to prevent the spread of the virus.

Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz all are implementing similar measures as employees return to work, including temperature checks, staggered shifts, frequent sanitizing and additional protective gear.

The restart of operations at the Toyota Motor Manufacturing Alabama engine plant in Huntsville has been smooth since it began in mid-May, officials said.

Employees are having their temperature taken each time they return to work, answering a questionnaire to identify any potential exposure to the virus and practicing social distancing on the job, during all lunch breaks and during shift changes.

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There are also staggered shift patterns; frequent sanitizing in high-traffic areas; reconfigured conference rooms, cafeterias and other meeting spaces; and an increase in the use and availability of personal equipment such as face masks, face shields, gloves and hand sanitizer.

“Our phased approach to resuming operations allows employees and stakeholders at Toyota North American manufacturing plants and administrative facilities to return to a work environment that has implemented a number of policies and procedures to help ensure their health and safety,” the automaker said in a statement.

ELEVATED PRECAUTIONS

Honda Manufacturing of Alabama in Talladega County also gradually began resuming vehicle, engine and transmission production earlier this month.

Prior to resuming production, the automaker trained front-line leaders on new procedures and activities related to COVID-19 prevention, and employees learned about the new safety measures and re-trained on work processes.

Among the new safety efforts are temperature scanning of all Honda employees, suppliers, contractors and visitors. No one with a temperature of 100 degrees or higher is allowed inside Honda facilities.

Masks and cloth face coverings are required at all times inside all buildings unless people are eating or drinking, and Honda plants and offices are providing one new mask per day for every employee. Face shields also are required in certain areas, and cleaning and disinfecting activities have increased.

The plant has also staggered shift start times to reduce the number of people entering and leaving at one time; staggered lunch and break times, with reconfigured seating in those areas; limited capacity in restrooms and locker rooms; adjusted processes and workstations to achieve social distancing on the production line as much as possible; and increased signage to remind employees of social distancing, good hygiene and other safety measures.

“Honda will continue to maximize opportunities for associates to work remotely, while practicing social distancing for associates performing essential roles that require them to work at Honda facilities,” the company said in a statement.

SAFETY PROTOCOLS

Hyundai Motor Manufacturing of Alabama in Montgomery has been running a one-shift operation of its vehicle assembly processes since May 4, said company spokesman Robert Burns.

“Our engine machining and assembly operations are on a modified schedule to complement the needs of the automotive assembly processes,” he said.

HMMA benchmarked safety protocols implemented in Hyundai’s auto plants in South Korea, Burns added. The company also participated in idea-sharing conference calls, coordinated by the Original Equipment and Suppliers Association, to determine measures it would take to protect employees’ health.

Safety practices include: thermal temperature scanning and mask distribution upon arrival; requiring face masks to be worn at all time unless eating or drinking; staggering lunch breaks and shifts to reduce congestion in high-traffic areas; installing barriers in workstations and partitions on break tables; continuous cleaning of high-contact and high-touch surfaces; and promoting social distancing where possible.

At Mercedes-Benz U.S. International in Tuscaloosa County, production restarted in late April. The automaker said it had monitored and learned from other Mercedes plants around the world as Alabama workers returned, and the facility also implemented safety practices gleaned from groups like the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce, Alabama Automotive Manufacturers Association and the Alliance for Automotive Innovation.

Measures adopted include the mandatory wearing of face masks, temperature checks at entry and separation of workers in break rooms, cafes and common areas.

Production at the plant was suspended this past week due to supplier delays in Mexico, but it is expected to resume this week. MBUSI will also produce during the planned summer shutdown.

“We will continue to monitor federal and state guidance and regulations throughout this ramp up period, and will make whatever changes as may become necessary to ensure our team members’ safety and to ensure the required production capacities of the highly demanded SUV models coming out of Alabama,” the automaker said in a statement.

(Courtesy of Made in Alabama)

2 hours ago

Did the lockdown save lives?

In March, states undertook dramatic and unprecedented measures to stem the spread of the SARS2-COV virus. And yet COVID-19 has claimed 100,000 lives in the United States. Was the lockdown effective? Economists frequently address such questions in our research.

Seeing the unseen, or the path that we did not choose, is the key here. It is the fundamental challenge of economics, as illustrated by Frederic Bastiat’s parable of the broken window. A shopkeeper must replace a broken window. A neighbor, perhaps offering solace, points out that if windows never got broken, the town glazier would starve. To avoid believing that broken windows boost the economy, we must recognize what the shopkeeper did not buy due to replacing the window.

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Economists visualize the alternative paths we could choose. What would have happened if we didn’t pass NAFTA, or hadn’t bailed out banks during the financial crisis, or if we raised the minimum wage to $15 per hour? The term counterfactual refers to the unchosen path.

Economists devise principles for constructing counterfactuals. Scenarios must be logically coherent and consistent with the available evidence. We must avoid overly optimistic or pessimistic alternatives.

I have never estimated potential deaths in an outbreak of a disease but have researched tornado warnings and “worst case” tornadoes. Like most economists, I recognize the challenges in evaluating the lockdown.

Here’s a first challenge. WalletHub has scored the strictness of states’ COVID protection measures. The average COVID fatality rate for the 10 states with the strictest lockdown policies is 686 per million residents, versus a fatality rate of 68 for the 10 least strict states, or one-tenth as much. The three highest fatality rate states are among the ten strictest states.

Does this show that lockdowns cause COVID-19 deaths? No. The states suffering the worst outbreaks will impose the strictest measures. This is the endogeneity of policy problem. Ignoring this issue would lead us to conclude that hospitals cause death because many people die there. Controlling for policy endogeneity is a major research focus.

Another problem arises because states imposed policies and Americans realized that COVID-19 was a serious health threat at about the same time. The NBA suspended its season March 11, people sharply reduced travel around March 15, and the first state stay-at-home order took effect March 19. We have very few data points to tease out the effect of various policies from behavioral changes.

The United States was slow in rolling out testing for COVID-19, creating another challenge. If we compared the number of COVID-19 cases in the month before and after lockdowns to test effectiveness, the total would rise simply because many more people were tested. Can we detect a decline in infections during a period of expanding testing?

Even if March’s lockdown was effective, the policies may not be effective in another time or place. Policy effects may not transfer for several reasons. For the COVID lockdown, an important factor is peoples’ willingness to comply. If Americans do not favor shutting down the economy for a second wave of the virus, stay-at-home orders may prove ineffective when reimplemented.

Researchers at Columbia University have evaluated the lockdown, based on computer simulations with travel data between cities and reported cases and deaths. The policies appear to have stemmed the illness; indeed implementation of the same policies two weeks earlier could have avoided 83% of U.S. deaths through May 3.

The sophisticated technical analysis here, I think, obscures a bigger point. “Nonpharmaceutical interventions,” as epidemiologists call such policies, do not prevent COVID-19 deaths. Americans who did not get COVID this spring can still get sick next fall. Only a vaccine or effective treatment will truly prevent deaths.

Whether school closings and stay-at-home orders slow an outbreak is an important and really challenging research question. This question must be answered before we compare economic costs and health benefits. Ultimately a lockdown is merely a delaying action. Delaying actions are only worth fighting as part of a larger strategy.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.

2 hours ago

Alabamians support NASA mission returning astronauts to space from American soil

As soon as NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley lifted off atop a SpaceX rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, reaction from all corners of Alabama was swift.

Saturday afternoon’s launch set forth the commercial crew era of U.S. human spaceflight, and significant support for the mission is taking place at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.

“What a great day for NASA, what a great day for SpaceX, and what a great day for the United States of America,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at a Saturday evening press conference. “It’s been nine years since we’ve launched American astronauts on American rockets from American soil, and now we have done it again.”

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After the launch was scrubbed earlier in the week due to inclement weather, the NASA Marshall team prepared for the next launch window during the days in between.

Following the successful launch, Congressman Robert Aderholt (AL-04) congratulated Behnken and Hurley through a series of tweets, adding, “Success in space has always required close work between the private sector and NASA. I look forward to a regular tempo of crewed flights to the Space Station followed soon by flights of the Space Launch System program.”

Congressman Bradley Byrne (AL-01) sought to convey the historic nature of the launch.

“FANTASTIC for America!” were the words of Congressman Mo Brooks (AL-05).

The spacecraft arrived to orbit and separation occurred about 12 minutes into the flight. The crew has spent several hours performing maneuvers to prepare for docking at the International Space Station on Sunday morning. Hatches should open and the crew will board the station sometime around 11:45 a.m. CST.

At the conclusion of their time on the International Space Station, Behnken and Hurley will depart aboard the spacecraft on their way to reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Targeted splashdown is off of Florida’s Atlantic coast.

Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer Multimedia

2 hours ago

Alabama doctor treats, then beats COVID-19

Dr. Brandon White has never drowned before. But after fighting the battle of his life with COVID-19, he has experienced the closest thing to it.

“Just sitting on the bed, I felt like I couldn’t get my breath. While I have never drowned, that would be the best way I could describe the sensation,” White said. “I was on oxygen, and I still wasn’t getting any better. That was the most concerning part of it.”

White, a doctor at UAB Medical West in Bessemer, was working long hours in the hospital’s intensive care and isolation units treating some of the worse coronavirus cases when the unthinkable happened: He was knocked down by the disease. Now, nearly a month later, with much of that time in the ICU, he is back on his feet and has returned to his job on the front lines of the pandemic.

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“I’m a pretty young person,” the 42-year-old said. “I don’t have any underlying medical conditions, and I have never been a smoker. I would never in my wildest dreams have expected to be one of the folks who ended up that sick.”

Alabama doctor talks about surviving COVID-19 from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

After the pandemic began, White’s schedule became more hectic than ever.

Along with working 12-hour shifts for seven days every other week, White was on call around the clock as a hospice doctor and had a telemedicine practice. In addition, he launched BHMCares, which he was overseeing almost single-handedly until his illness forced him to pass the reins to his friends. BHMCares is a coordinated effort to provide meals from local restaurants to health care workers at Birmingham-area hospitals, cancer centers, COVID-19 drive-thru testing sites and labs.

It was in late April during one of his weeks away from the hospital when White started feeling tired and a bit lightheaded – symptoms that were short-lived.

“If nothing else had developed, I wouldn’t have thought of myself as being sick,” he said. “I live by myself, and I hadn’t been anywhere since I had left work on Sunday. I would have just chalked it up to being tired and underrested.”

By the next night, White, who had been experiencing body aches and a lack of energy earlier that day, began running a fever of about 104 degrees F. He woke up, with his sheets and clothes soaked with sweat. That happened again and again. From that point, it was a “rapid downhill decline,” White noted.

Two days later, White tested positive for the virus at a nearby COVID-19 drive-thru facility. He then began experiencing a shortness of breath and was extremely fatigued.

“I couldn’t eat or drink, and I lost my sense of taste and smell,” White said. “I felt so bad I didn’t even want to get out of bed. It was a struggle to walk from one end of my small apartment to the other.”

That’s when White drove himself to his hospital in Bessemer, thinking that some intravenous fluids and oxygen would put him on the road to recovery. When nothing seemed to work, he was moved downtown to UAB Hospital’s ICU for more aggressive treatment.

As the days passed, White continued to grow worse.

“I’m not an excitable person,” he said. “But as a doctor who works in ICU every day, I knew what my chances were. It was also alarming to see the doctors, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and nurses hovering outside my door, and cautiously looking in at me. I knew exactly what that meant. They’re just waiting for the bad thing to happen.”

White said the turning point was when the doctors decided to treat him with “convalescent plasma” that has been taken from patients who have recovered from the disease. The hope is that the plasma is filled with antibodies that will fight the infection.

The plasma was not an instant fix, White said.

“For a couple of days, I continued to get worse,” White said. “The fevers were worse, the body aches were persistent, and I could feel myself being more short of breath, just lying in bed – not speaking, not moving, not doing anything. Then, a couple of days after I received the plasma, I felt myself plateau.”

White said that’s when his stamina and energy began to increase slowly, day by day. He has lost 15 pounds and has not yet regained his sense of taste and smell.

“I get hungry and so I eat,” said White. “But I don’t taste it, so I eat until I’m not hungry and go on to something else.”

Although White took a lighter patient load when he returned to work last week, it was business as usual. His first stop was to treat a patient who was in the worst throes of COVID-19.

White said as an added precaution, he now wears a full-face respirator, instead of an N95 mask, while treating patients.

“I wear a mask everywhere except at home,” he said. “The thing that bothers me the most is the number of people walking around who don’t have a mask on and are not social distancing. Take it seriously. Just because the restrictions are being lifted, it doesn’t mean the disease has gone away by any stretch of the imagination.”

White said no one is immune.

“If you don’t work in health care and don’t see it, most of us don’t think it will happen to us,” he said. “I’m proof that somebody relatively young and healthy can get severely sick. You can die from it.”

White has also returned to lending a hand with BHMCares, which has now delivered more than 4,800 meals to area health care workers.

“It’s probably the most fun thing I’ve done in my life,” he said. “I never thought it would be as big as it is, and I never thought it would be as rewarding as it is. It has been really fun.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 hours ago

Cameras (AKA the government) on every corner — A Crisco sorta slope

I remember the collective groan that went up from motorists when “red light cameras” became a thing. Suddenly, it didn’t matter if the police were around to see you push your luck with a changing traffic light.

Big Brother always would.

The heightened accountability at busy intersections felt a bit creepy and oppressive, but most drivers shrugged it off as the price we must pay for safer roadways.

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Now the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) is considering the requests of multiple public and private entities to use rights-of-way to install more surveillance equipment. In 2020, we’re way past red-light cameras and license plate readers; on the table now are other technologies such as legacy surveillance cameras and gunshot detection arrays.

Some will argue that more information in the hands of law enforcement is always a good thing and increases our collective safety. There are indeed legitimate reasons to equip law enforcement with the tools they need to do their jobs well.

But when it comes to increased surveillance and the privacy of law-abiding citizens, we are standing on a slope covered in Crisco.

Data and surveillance information are only as noble as the hands that hold them, and the laws that govern their use.

It’s one thing to allow the collection of license plate numbers when a red-light infraction is detected. (And even this is an imperfect law enforcement mechanism; it tells you to whom the offending car is registered, but not who was driving.) But legacy surveillance cameras are another level altogether.

Cameras set up to allow the government to monitor our daily lives remotely should alarm those who value individual liberty and who want to restrain government. As much as we respect our friends in law enforcement, and acknowledge the challenges of their task, the fact remains that they are an arm of the government.

In its April 2 public notice detailing the permitting process for the installation of such equipment, ALDOT acknowledged the privacy concerns at stake and demonstrated a willingness to restrict permits to local governments and law enforcement agencies. Additionally, the agency says that “the use of accommodated sensors and all collected data shall be strictly limited to law enforcement or public safety purposes, whether maintained or stored by the governmental entity or any private service provider.”

The question then becomes: who gets to decide what is and is not a legitimate law enforcement and public safety purpose? The former is a broad category, the latter even more so.

This is a question with profound implications for personal privacy and should be governed by carefully structured law.

It is too important to leave to the interpretation of departmental regulation and scant oversight. Surveillance and data collection technology advance so rapidly that leaving these permits available to any device or technology that may be deemed useful to law enforcement and public safety is far too broad.

Why?

Because we evaluate these questions and calculate risks in practical terms based on the technology known to us today. But what about technology that will emerge tomorrow? Are we willing to write a blank check and leave it in the hands of ALDOT and law enforcement agencies?

Admittedly, our engagement with the internet and cellular networks has made the concept of personal privacy all but a joke in modern life. Heck, I’ve traded some privacy away so that Chick-fil-A can have the sandwich I ordered on their app ready at the precise moment I roll into their parking lot.

But at least when it comes to my phone or computer, I reserve the right to throw it off a bridge one day and retreat from digital view. Government-installed cameras in public spaces and on roadways strip us of that option entirely.

I’m not sure allowing the government to know our every move even yields the promised safety, but I do know that it costs each of us something.

Our lawmakers should get to work capping that cost and keeping Big Brother on a leash.

Dana Hall McCain, a widely published writer on faith, culture, and politics, is Resident Fellow of the Alabama Policy Institute; reach her on Twitter at @dhmccain.

API is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit research and educational organization dedicated to free markets, limited government, and strong families; learn more at alabamapolicy.org.