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High-tech tools help clear roads

A snowplow cleared snow and slush in Ambler, Pa., in October 2011.
A snowplow cleared snow and slush in Ambler, Pa., in October 2011. Philadelphia Inquirer

As state transportation officials prepare for this season’s onslaught of winter blizzards and ice storms, many of them will be using technology in new ways to help clear the roads and make them safer for drivers.

From Pennsylvania to Nevada, states will battle the elements by using road sensors, tracking gear on snowplows, and onboard cameras that upload photos of current conditions.

“Technology has changed winter services across the board,” said Rich Roman, maintenance and operations director for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. “Look inside a plow truck: It almost looks like the cockpit of an airplane, with knobs and controls and radio communication.”

Rick Nelson, who coordinates the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials winter maintenance program, said states are increasingly devoting time and money to research and technology to ensure that people can get where they need to go.

“So many people think there isn’t anything you can do about the winter — it snows, and you just accept it,” Nelson said. “But as a country, we are so dependent on our mobility. There’s a lot of pressure on states to maintain mobility 24/7, 365 days a year, regardless of what the weather throws their way.”

State transportation departments are usually responsible for maintaining highways, state roads and bridges. In many states, that costs millions of dollars in trucks, salt and staff time.

His association’s survey of 23 states showed that they spent about $1.13 billion between October 2014 and April 2015 to treat and plow roads. For many states, that was a large chunk of their annual maintenance budget. Maryland spent nearly a third of its budget. New Hampshire spent 55 percent.

Last winter, Massachusetts was struck by 31 storms, two of which brought among the heaviest snowfalls on record. The state shelled out more than $153 million to treat and plow roads.

In northern states, transportation officials say that clearing snow and ice efficiently is a majorchallenge.

Nelson said the National Weather Service and meteorologists do a good job forecasting the weather, but a winter storm can be very different once it hits the ground. That’s why states are turning to snow-fighting technology.

Many agencies have installed weather stations that use sensors in the pavement to indicate the road’s temperature, whether it’s wet or dry, even if it has been treated with de-icer. That helps them determine when to apply more chemicals — or less.

Nelson said states are more proactive than they used to be, when they would say, “It started snowing, I plowed and put my salt on the road.”

Some states use tracking gear on plow trucks to instantly feed headquarters data on each vehicle’s location. A few also use the gear to track weather, road conditions and how much salt is used. This alerts transportation supervisors to changing conditions and helps them get a better handle on the use of materials, trucks and overtime.

Roman, of Pennsylvania’s Transportation Department, said the 728 or so trucks that cover the state’s interstates and expressways will carry sophisticated tracking gear this winter, as part of a $1 million pilot project. “We’re hopeful this will make our truck routes more efficient and help us manage our materials a lot better, such as figuring out that we used this much salt, but it turned out to be 34 degrees and sunny so we didn’t need to use so much,” he said.

Roman said the state spent nearly $74 million on salt last year, and he estimated that the pilot project would result in at least $700,000 in savings this winter.

Saving on salt means states can spend more on routine maintenance the rest of the year: filling potholes, paving and mowing.

Some state transportation officials are using technology to analyze their performance during particular storms: how quickly they returned roads to bare pavement and motorists were able to drive at normal speeds. They’re also trying to determine whether crashes were reduced.

About 1,500 people a year, on average, are killed in crashes involving snow, sleet or ice, said Paul Pisano, acting director of the Federal Highway Administration’s research and development office.

“I absolutely believe that these technologies are helping states better manage the roads, and provide a safer driving environment and a more effective and efficient system,” Pisano said.

Iowa has been out front in using snow-fighting technology and in sharing information with the public.

Craig Bargfrede, who runs Iowa Department of Transportation’s winter operations, said about half the state’s 900 snowplows are equipped with forward-facing iPhones, which are mounted inside the trucks and take photos of the road every five to 10 minutes. The photos are posted on an in-house website so supervisors can see the actual conditions, along with the truck’s GPS coordinates.

“During a major event, our supervisors would have to go out and check on the roads in person, riding around in their trucks, seeing how the treatment was working,” Bargfrede said. “Now they can sit in their office or at home and pull up the internal website and quickly see what’s going on. It saves money and time.”

Bargfrede’s agency also developed a website, Track-A-Plow, where the public can view, on a statewide map, photos taken from the snowplows, and icons showing where the plows are, which direction they’re traveling, and whether they’re applying salt or chemicals.

“The public just loves this,” Bargfrede said. It’s a public safety tool. It’s going to help them determine which roads have been plowed and whether to travel.”