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Transportation lab dreams BIG


Ruey Long Cheu, director, and Manuel Hernandez, senior civil engineering major, work on a project that calculates traffic flow on the bridges
Photo courtesy of Mauricio Lara
Ruey Long Cheu, director, and Manuel
Hernandez, senior civil engineering
major, work on a project that calculates
traffic flow on the bridges
 
The BIG Transportation Lab is not necessarily the biggest among UTEP's many research labs, but the projects taking place there have significant meaning to local commuters and people who frequently cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

BIG stands for Border Intermodal Gateway, which was established in 2006 under the Department of Civil Engineering to conduct research related to transportation on the border, including planning, traffic simulation, traffic operations and management and intelligent systems.

The lab is directed by Ruey Long Cheu, associate professor of civil engineering.

"I particularly enjoy teaching students and watching them grow from fresh students, who know nothing about transportation, to the master and Ph.D. level," Cheu said. "UTEP offers a good environment encouraging students."

When Cheu was a high school student, he crossed the Malaysia-Singapore border every day to go to school.

"I have been very familiar with border crossing since my high school years," Cheu said. "The problems that I encountered in border crossing prompted me to pursue a career in transportation. UTEP is just the right place to do research on border crossing."

According to Cheu, traffic in the city and at border crossings present different problems and challenges.

"For traffic in the city, you work with the Department of Transportation, which is in charge of freeways and major routes and you also work with the city, which is in charge of small routes," Cheu said.

The agency that oversees border crossings is the Department of Homeland Security.

"In the city, if certain routes are congested, there are always many alternatives, but in border crossing, there are limited choices," Cheu said.

Cheu hopes the transportation program will become the number one program for Hispanics. He expects to educate more students achieving master's and doctoral degrees to serve the needs of the border community.

Right now there are three Ph.D. students, three master-level students and five undergraduate students working on different projects in the lab.

Jorge Martinez, senior civil engineering major, is developing a microscopic traffic simulation model for the U.S.-Mexico border crossings between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. In this project, he considered additional lanes, more custom border inspection units, nearby road improvements, additional or relocation of commercial truck inspection stations and signal timing, and then suggested an optimum traffic design for the Ysleta-Zaragoza port of entry.

"It is hard to simulate it (the traffic situation) because every day is a different case," Martinez said.

Martinez crossed the Zaragoza Bridge every day from Cd. Juárez to El Paso to gather traffic information.

"From my experience of border crossing, I see what factors are making the lines longer there (at the port of entry)," Martinez said. "It pretty much depends on the inspectors."

Martinez presented his project at the 87th annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board last January in Washington D.C. He was a recipient of the Eisenhower Transportation Fellowship last year, and also won the academic achievement award for the civil engineering class of May 2008.

Luis David Galicia, a Ph.D. student in civil engineering, has been doing Texas Department of Transportation-funded research in the area of bus rapid transit planning since spring 2007.

"BRT is like a metro system using buses, but is much cheaper to build," Galicia said. "The advantage of this system is that it has higher frequency, so you don't need to wait that long and your travel time is shorter."

Galicia is working with the faculty and students in the transportation labs of UT at Austin and Texas Tech University.

"Our job is to help decision-makers in public transportation with all the steps to plan a BRT route," Galicia said.

Galicia and his fellow researchers are at the stage of trying to implement the BRT route on Mesa Street in El Paso. If it is approved, there will be a BRT from downtown to Doniphan Drive in the Upper Valley using the existing lanes.

"The whole idea of this project is to have a better choice in public transportation with a system that is more reliable, more secure, more comfortable and faster," Galicia said. "People could change their minds and take public transportation, save a lot of money in gas, avoid the congestion and reduce the environmental impact."

Under the guidance of Cheu, students working in the BIG Transportation Lab won the Best Senior Design Award from the Department of Civil Engineering in December 2007 and May 2008.

For more information about the lab visit www.utep.edu/biglab.

– Yixin Chen

The Prospector. Citing Internet Resources. [Online], July 23, 2008.