States Use Technology, Lessons to Efficiently Tackle Snow

With the melting of the last remnants of snow from Winter Storm Jonas and another major winter storm set to impact millions of Americans in the southern Rockies, central plains and western Great Lakes this week, it seems as good a time as any to check in on how states are dealing with winter weather transportation concerns so far this season. There are numerous examples of states turning to technology, investing in equipment and trying to improve on past performance. Here’s a roundup.

Using Technology to Enhance Safety, Target Resources

Winter can be an expensive proposition for those states and communities impacted by the season. In a Winter Maintenance Operations Survey conducted by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials last year, 23 states reported spending approximately $1.131 billion between October 2014 and mid-April 2015 to pre-treat, plow roads or spread chemicals and other materials on roadways. New York City spent more than $130 million in 2014 to clear snow. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation went nearly $100 million over their $189.2 million budget during the particularly harsh winter of 2013-14. My June 2014 Capitol Research brief on the High Costs of Winter Road Maintenance has many other examples. As states seek to limit costs and make salt and other materials go farther, some are turning to technology to help them target where limited resources most need to go, to get equipment to the most impacted areas and to help the public gauge road conditions. Some examples:

  • Ohio: The Ohio Department of Transportation is using weather stations, sensors embedded in roadways and snow plows equipped with in-cab touch screen interfaces to help their crews improve the efficiency of snow removal, The Dayton Daily News reported last month. The department has invested an estimated $100 million in new technology over the last five years including new plow and salt trucks. As part of a pilot program with the University of Akron, the department is also testing plow trucks equipped with GPS and live video feeds to see if they might further improve efficiency.
  • Iowa: Iowa travelers can use the Iowa Department of Transportation’s Track a Plow website to see in near real time the location and direction of snow plows, information on road conditions and road closures and whether trucks are applying liquid or solid materials to the roads, GCN reported.
  • Pennsylvania: Equipment World’s Better Roads reported last fall that the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation was equipping 728 plow trucks this winter with an Automated Vehicle Location system to track their real-time movements and the materials they use. The public can now keep tabs on the trucks via a website.  It’s a pilot program that is part of Gov. Tom Wolf’s inter-agency GO-TIME initiative to maximize efficiency and modernize state government operations. PennDOT is expected to see savings of $1.4 million over a four- to six-year period under the program.
  • Nevada: The Nevada Department of Transportation has installed an anti-icing spray system on four bridges in the state, Stateline reported late last year. If sensors detect a freeze coming on, nozzles built into the pavement spray chemicals onto the roadway. The department spent $1.5 million to build the system and budgets $300,000 a year for the liquid spray.

Learning the Lessons of Winters Past

There are also notable examples this year of states learning the lessons of transportation challenges faced in recent past winters. Among them:

  • Florida: The Sunshine State doesn’t see a lot of snow and ice most winters but when the state experienced icing on some bridges a couple of years ago, it presented challenges both for those trying to drive on them as well as for Florida Department of Transportation personnel, who lacked the equipment and training necessary to quickly improve bridge conditions. WJHG-TV reported last month that the department has conducted a winter weather exercise this year to test out equipment. The department also purchased five snow plows, 42 tons of salt and 44 gallons of chemicals. The Florida DOT was able to get some additional hands on training when it deployed 15 trucks to Washington, D.C. to assist with cleanup after the recent blizzard.
  • Massachusetts: reported on the efforts of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, Boston’s public transportation system, to avoid a repeat of last winter when record-breaking snowfalls forced a shutdown of the city’s railways. For this winter, the MBTA invested $8.6 million in 50 new snow removal machines. The investment is part of an $83.7 million winter preparation plan announced by Gov. Charlie Baker last year that put $23 million toward commuter rail preparation. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation also used a news conference last year to show off a fleet of snow removal equipment for the commonwealth’s roads, Equipment World’s Better Roads reported. MassDOT officials said their special snow melting equipment can get rid of 120 tons of snow and ice in an hour.