Technological Advances Help Northeastern DOTs Combat Winter Weather
Much of the area from Florida to Maine is condensed and congested, particularly in the mid-Atlantic and northeast. While some states are large (New York at 54,556 square miles) and others are not (Delaware at 1,982 square miles), when it comes to keeping roads safe and clear, the resources, people and technology are all key. Each state has its own dedicated staff and annual plan for successful snow removal from interstates to thruways to rural county roads, all a result of coordinated efforts within and between most states.
Here's a look at what goes into keeping wintertime roads safe for travelers in the mid-Atlantic, from Delaware to New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania:
Delaware Allows Citizens to Track Plows
In December 2015, Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) officials unveiled an innovative web-based program that allows residents to see locations of snowplows during storms. "Any resident with a computer or a smart phone will be able to track the real-time positions of DelDOT's plows during snow storms this year thanks to an innovative, web-based program," said Jim Westhoff, DelDOT Community Relations Officer. Delaware's Snow Plow Tracker uses Global Positioning System (GPS) sensors in each of their over 300 plows to transmit their locations to a program that will display each plow's position on any resident's smart phone or computer.
"The Snow Plow Tracker will be activated during snow events and the public will only see the trucks that are in motion whether they are actively plowing or salting - or perhaps in transit to an assigned location so they can begin plowing and salting elsewhere," said Gene Donaldson, Director of DelDOT's Transportation Management Center.
While the DelDOT app does not have the ability to show whether a truck is plowing, salting or driving to another location at this time, plans include this upgrade in the next year or two, depending on testing results. DelDOT's interactive map may be found at deldot.gov. The free DelDOT Snow Plow Tracker App is available on the Google Play and Apple App stores.
New Jersey Partners with Neighboring States
Even though it's one of the smaller states geographically, New Jersey is still viewed as an important regional player with a well-defined winter road plan. "We work with neighboring states when it comes to ice and snow removal," said New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) Assistant Commissioner of Operations Andrew Tunnard. "Keep in mind, none of the roads in our jurisdiction include the New Jersey Turnpike, Garden State Parkway or Atlantic City Expressway. These are toll roads under the authority of their own individual commissions."
NJDOT's official winter season is October 1 to April 30. With 500 full time dedicated DOT operations staff, another 700 are contracted state employees who supplement and fill needs. "Known as our reserve force, these contracted employees come from other parts of DOT and state agencies such as the Department of Corrections, State Police and Environmental Protection," noted Tunnard. An additional 80 to 90 DOT retirees also help as needed. All operators are required to have active CDL licenses. Beyond that, outside contracts are in place with construction companies for snow removal and salt spreading. These contracted forces own their equipment and operate up to 2,000 snowplows and 350 salt spreaders.
NJDOT mixes salt with water to create a 22 percent saltwater solution known as brine. Two or three days before predicted storms, operators apply the solution to the roadway. This helps when the snow hits the brined surface because it melts instead of accumulating, explained Tunnard. It also helps prevent bonding or snow pack that typically happens on a road. "We have doubled our brining capability in the last two years," he said. This includes more brining stations and more dedicated equipment such as brining tanks, which are towed on trailers for application. "It's a very economical way to apply anti-icing material on the roadway prior to an event. It doesn't require too much material and the salt stays but water evaporates," he commented. "We don't have to use as much salt by the end of a snow event because we've prevented bonding up front.
NJDOT subscribes to Schneider for weather forecasting, receiving twice a day email reports. NJDOT divides the state into 11 snow sub-regions, based on geography - North, Central and South Regions. They are labeled as N1, N2, N3 and N4 for the North, with the same system for the Central and three regions for the South. The forecasting service provides weather predictions for each individual sub-region. For adverse weather, the notices will increase from "special advisory" to "alert" to "warning". "As we receive those, we look at a number of things including the confidence level of the forecaster and the predicted start times and rate of precipitation," said Tunnard. For example, if the snowfall rate is 1/4-inch every four hours, the concern is minimal. However, if 2 inches is predicted every hour, that's a snowfall which translates to a plowing event. "We can flex efforts based on specific needs," he commented. "It's very scalable and we are built for that. Last year, we had 12 snowstorms but handled 50 winter weather events statewide. This program is specifically tailored for what we need to put on the road."
All crews are assigned to specific areas. For example, plow trucks work at least every two hours for areas they are assigned, with a goal of no more than 2 inches of snow on the ground. Another important tool for NJDOT is the Roadway Weather Information System or RWIS. NJDOT has 41 RWIS stations installed in specific places along roadways that provide information about air temperature, dew point, road surface temperature and type of precipitation. Schneider also has access to this system.
With the help of RWIS, conditions are monitored for change (rain to ice or snow), with NJDOT ready to put equipment on the road. An overall command and control center in the middle of the state and three regionally based centers maintain constant communication. "Here is where NJDOT connects with outside organizations responsible for roadways and transportation. We call it a fusion center," said Tunnard. It includes the NJ TRANSIT (for rail and buses), New Jersey Turnpike and Atlantic City Expressway. In the regional centers, NJDOT staff remains in ongoing contact with field supervisors, using a Marvlis GPS system from Motorola to monitor conditions.
Additionally, a handheld radio/GPS is provided for plow operators. Regional command centers track truck locations and drivers communicate with field supervisors to make necessary adjustments. "During an event, we are in constant communication with our weather service. They predict when events will end, which helps us plan accordingly. Also the information we receive about traffic from RWIS roadway cameras helps us to know when it's time to wind down and button things up," shared Tunnard. "Of course, we are always in communication with the New Jersey State Police." It's not all about accumulation - it's much more complex than that. Many other things are equally important to preparation, such as the rate of snowfall and start times for rush hour traffic. A tenth of an inch of ice is worse than a foot of snow, he explained.
When forecasters don't see any further precipitation, an "all clear" is issued. "We use that as the beginning of the end," Tunnard said. "We send contractors home with a controlled draw down of efforts. Usually the day after an event, we take an inventory of salt, assess the equipment and need for repair, and then get ready for the next event. This could be in a couple of days or a couple of weeks."
New York Strengthens Its Emergency Response
Thanks to Governor Andrew Cuomo's recent "New York Responds" initiative, the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) received $50 million to strengthen its winter emergency response program. According to NYSDOT Director of Communications Gary Holmes, "The commitment enhances our already robust asset program and allows the equipment to be dispatched to where it's needed most." Since New York is an unusually large state with two of the Great Lakes on its northern border, this creates more activity and more need.
Part of New York State's commitment to NYSDOT is a GPS tracking system. For proper statewide and multi-state coordination, the NYSDOT, National Weather Service (NWS) and New York Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services regularly participate in joint agency calls. "We have multiple briefing calls during winter events, so working collaboratively with other state agencies is part of our culture," said Holmes. "Knowing where our equipment is helps determine the most efficient use of our assets and provides an opportunity to assist municipalities where needed."
In addition to the GPS tracker, NYSDOT also has 62 Snow Tow plows. These are traditional plow dump trucks that have been retrofitted with an additional tow plow. A standard plow is 12-feet-wide and the tow plow attaches to the truck to provide another 12 feet of plow blade. Two cameras (front and rear) assist operators in providing good views of the entire truck area. "We've received good feedback from operators thus far," commented Holmes. "This positions us well to respond to Mother Nature this winter."
NYSDOT also communicates with bordering states as needed. "We have a strong public awareness program and constantly track the winter weather," stated Holmes. "We rely on the NWS experts to tell us what's going on and they do an excellent job helping us respond. This in turn helps us focus on snow and ice removal in order to make our roads and bridges safe."
Pennsylvania Relies on a Massive Crew
In Pennsylvania, the Department of Transportation (PennDOT) is responsible for snow removal on 40,000 miles of roads in 67 counties. Operations include 11 engineering office statewide with 5,000 operators and 2,200 dump trucks. An additional 800 temporary workers supplement efforts as needed, with 400 contracted rentals carrying salt and removing snow/ice.
Each of the past two winters, Pennsylvania put down about 1 million tons of salt, just over the winter average of 900,000 tons. "The type of precipitation that falls dictates how much salt we lay down," said Rich Roman, Director of Bureau of Maintenance and Operations for PennDOT. "We have a staff of five people who focus on winter year round, always thinking about it and planning for it." Other materials include a blend of salt with a material called anti-skid, a pebble-sized stone. "The salt melts the ice and the anti-skid provides traction," noted Roman. "This helps us provide a high level of service but is also cost effective. We use the salt and anti-skid on hills and intersections, on lower volume roads where there's less traffic, and especially on back roads where there are curves and hills." On busy, well-traveled interstates, 100 percent salt is used.
Similar to Delaware's Snow Plow Tracker, PennDOT is piloting an automatic vehicle locator system (AVL) on some trucks this winter. The web-based AVL system is installed in the trucks to provide location in time and space, speed and how much material is used. "While we've used AVL previously, our new AVL system piloted 119 trucks statewide last year." According to Roman, it was very effective. "So, we are putting it on all interstate and expressways trucks, including 500 PennDOT and 200 contracted vehicles."
AVL benefits are two fold. First, the system marks the locations of the trucks, tracking where they've been. As part of post-storm evaluation, this gives PennDOT the ability to maximize their fleet. Each truck has a defined, distinct route, i.e. 10 trucks have 10 different snow routes. "The AVL system allows us to analyze the snow routes and generate maps to monitor the route and cover more roads. It allows us to better manage our fleet and provide the best possible service," Roman stated.
AVL's second benefit is accurate tracking of material applied to the road. "We pay about $72 per ton on salt, so last year we spent about $72 million," said Roman. To accurately track how PennDOT uses the salt, operators are trained to use certain thresholds, depending on the conditions of the weather, temperatures and the roads. "AVL helps us determine if we are providing an effective level of service. We want to make sure that each of our trucks is using just the right amount of material," he commented. While AVL allows all PennDOT managers and staff to review operations and maximize their effectiveness, there is also an external benefit to travelers. Truck locations may be found at 511PA.com. During a storm, travelers can see where the trucks are doing their jobs.
Their new WebTech Wireless AVL system was rolled out in a series of web-ex conferences for PennDOT staff during the fall of 2015, giving them an opportunity to get familiar with the system and navigate through features such as mapping and data compilation for key reports. While AVL has been used for 15 or 20 years, it was initially radio based and is now cellular.
"We are always looking to improve the trucks, especially for safety and lighting," Roman said. Beyond AVL, PennDOT has used a tow plow for the past five to six seasons. PennDOT has about a dozen tow plows and currently is studying effectiveness for future improvements.