AASHTO Journal, 30 October 2015
Every autumn, state departments of transportation prepare for the coming winter by topping off stocks of road salt and de-icing chemicals, getting plow trucks ready for action or lining up snow fences.
But after many faced severe conditions in a particularly harsh winter of 2014-15 that hit some with millions of dollars in unexpected costs, more state DOTs are getting ready for winter or taking special steps that increasingly include using technology to fight the weather.
For instance, the Pennsylvania DOT is putting tracking gear on hundreds of its snow plows in a pilot program to help save costs and more effectively fight storms through real-time data on how its plow fleets are operating.
Others are making sure they have plenty of road salt after last year’s shortage and skyrocketing prices, and like last winter some are importing shiploads to augment North American supplies.
In Washington, D.C., where a series of storms shut down government and business offices repeatedly during January and February, Mayor Muriel Bowser, District Department of Transportation Director Leif Dormsjo and other officials oversaw an Oct. 23 “dry run” to test snow response preparations.
The city also added to its own fleet of snow plows and rented more than in the past, built a salt reserve above its normal stockpile and is pairing plow-tracking technology with traffic cameras to monitor progress when time comes to push the snow off D.C. streets.
And in a biennial conference held Sept. 23-25 in Bloomington, Minn., near Minneapolis, 143 specialists from nearly 40 state and foreign-country DOTs gathered for briefings on the latest winter strategies at the “National Winter Maintenance Peer Exchange.”
Rick Nelson, coordinator of the “Snow and Ice Pooled Fund Cooperative Program” under the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, told AASHTO Journal that after the 2014-15 winter at times halted traffic even in the deep South, the meeting drew highway maintenance officials from Georgia and Mississippi as well as areas where snow and ice are normal aspects of winter operations.
Besides Nelson’s SICOP program, the exchange is presented by two other pooled fund organizations – Clear Roads that studies winter operational issues, and Aurora that focuses on roadway weather conditions. Nelson said 19 vendors displayed their products, and officials attended from Canada’s Ontario Ministry of Transportation and from Sweden.
One Canadian representative, Max Perchanok, also chairs the Transportation Research Board’s winter maintenance committee.
Nelson said the forum every two years serves as “an incubator of ideas to advance winter maintenance.”
Sue Mulvihill, deputy commissioner and chief engineer of the Minnesota DOT, told participants that “the best thing we can do for the public is to share information to make us better.”
For instance, this year’s meeting had numerous presentations in which agency officials gave examples of new technologies they are using to sharpen their snowstorm response.
Alaska’s agency talked about using not only snow plow tracking but also heads-up displays in those vehicles that use satellite-linked navigation to guide drivers even in whiteout conditions.
The Missouri DOT showed how it was using real-time information from traffic cameras and mobile applications, while the Wyoming DOT reported on using electronic tablets to update their information on road conditions.
An Ontario MOT presentation on using tow plows to effectively plow much wider swaths of road surface was an example of equipment that is gaining acceptance.
Said one longtime SICOP steering committee member, Wilfrid Nixon from the University of Iowa’s College of Engineering: “If, 20 years ago, we were to bring up the things being discussed at this year’s peer exchange, we would have been laughed out of the room.”