Michigan DOT Innovates to Better Prepare for Winter Weather
While Michigan enjoyed summer-like weather into October, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) prepared for the worst Mother Nature could send the state's way.
"Our goal is to keep the roads as free of snow and ice as possible," says Mark Geib, Administrator of Operations Field Services for MDOT, which is responsible for road maintenance.
Michigan has about 120,000 miles of road, with MDOT tending to 9,700 of those miles. But those 9,700 miles carry 54 percent of the state's overall traffic and a much higher percentage of commercial vehicles.
The annual plan divides the roads MDOT is responsible for into two categories: those with higher volume and greater economic effect on the state, which receive significant plowing, and secondary roads that receive a slightly lower level of service, according to Geib. Of the $310 million annual maintenance budget, winter road clearing amounts to about $100,000, with $30 million spent on salt.
MDOT performs about 25 percent of the snowplowing with department employees and 300 snowplows, and it contracts the rest to county road commissions and to some of the bigger cities. MDOT has contracts with 64 of the road commissions.
"We work with them in a partnership to make sure it is getting done in the way that is safest, thorough and most efficient," Geib says.
Although MDOT tries to keep overtime to a minimum, it is often needed. During a long snow event, department personnel typically work eight-hour shifts with four hours of overtime if required. Then a new team comes in for eight hours and four hours of overtime, rotating until the storm event is over.
"Snow comes at any time of day or night, so we use overtime as needed to clear the roads," Geib says.
From time to time, MDOT hires temporary seasonal workers to help with plowing. Often, those are people who had worked for the department in the past and are experienced in handling winter weather. "We staff up in areas just for winter," Geib says.
The department trains all snow removal personnel, so they all understand the methods used and in what conditions each is most effective. Supervisors and lead workers mentor and manage newer employees, who will shadow experienced drivers at first. Training takes place year round in the latest technologies and innovations.
"We know winter is coming, so we prepare," Geib says. "We have structured this and built it into the culture of the department."
The MDOT snowplows run specific routes, which take about 45 minutes to an hour to complete. Occasional issues brought to the department's attention by law enforcement may require a detour, but the routes are well thought out, making alterations rarely needed.
"We will get to it as quickly as we can," Geib says. "The trucks are working full time and they go until the snow event is clear."
Reducing Salt Use
MDOT has reduced its use of salt through various technologies and advancements. It only adds salt when the road surface is slick, which is about half of the time. "We have many methods we use to place the salt more efficiently than in the past," Geib says.
One of those ways is equipment on the truck that prevents the salt from bouncing off the road. It disperses the salt in a way that keeps it on the roadway. Additionally, the trucks slow down, so more salt stays in the intended place. The device pushes more salt out if the vehicle is going faster and less when traveling slower. Dual velocity spreaders shoot the salt down at the same speed as the truck but in the opposite direction.
"When the salt hits the ground, it stops where it hits," Geib explains. "You don't have the salt bounce off the road where it is not going to do any good."
MDOT adds brine in some cases, applying it where the salt is stored. In other cases, the truck sprays the brine as it disperses the salt, which helps the salt stay in place on the roadway.
"It also activates the salt and gets it working faster," Geib says.
The department also uses sand to a limited degree, during extreme cold, when salt is not effective. While sand can help with traction when temperatures fall below 15 degrees Fahrenheit, sand does not melt the snow. In city and urban areas, sand washes into drainage basins when the snow melts. MDOT then has to go in and clean out the drainage basins. "It becomes expensive to do that," Geib explains.
Introducing New Safety Features
New legislation, changing the motor vehicle code, now allows snowplows to have flashing green and yellow lights on the back of the trucks. Formerly, the trucks had only yellow and white lights.
"The green color can be seen by the human eye at a further distance," Geib says. "And there is more contrast in snow and white-out conditions."
The green lenses were installed when older lights needed replacement. The cost was about $450 per truck.
"By installing green lights on the winter maintenance trucks, we are demonstrating our commitment to safety and mobility," adds MDOT Southwest Region Associate Engineer of Operations Janine Cooper, in a statement.
"Although every winter is different, we continue to incorporate new tools to improve safety and efficiency," says MDOT Southwest Region Maintenance Superintendent Lisa Marsh-McCarty, in a written statement about the lights.
The department has 14 tow plows, allowing one truck doing the work of two on two or three lane roads. The plow goes out at an angle. The tow plows are about 6-feet-high, 16-feet-long and have all of the same lights as the truck.
"You get the road cleared faster," Geib says. "Operators are trained to watch traffic carefully and not deploy the tow plow if anyone is near."
MDOT state-owned vehicles are equipped with AVL GPS devices to track where the trucks are on a map and how much salt they are dispensing. People can check the MDOT website to see where the trucks are working. "We can evaluate how efficiently we are doing things," Geib says.
The department also uses a maintenance decision support system (MDSS), a computerized system that provides data to help the department and the drivers. Information comes from weather services and sensors along the roads that measure temperature and other conditions and sensors on the trucks. "We feed that to drivers, so they can make better decisions," Geib says.
MDSS also informs officials about when the storm is coming and when the snow is expected to stop, give or take 15 minutes. This helps supervisors know the ideal time to call in staff.
"In the past, we may have called them in early," Geib says. "Now we are more efficient in using the labor."
MDOT has added cameras to the cabs of about 60 percent of its fleet, so supervisors in the office can see what is happening on the road, allowing for alterations to the plan. "It helps give you a picture of what is going on," Geib says.
For some extreme storms, the department will warn drivers with electronic signboards and through the media to use caution when driving or to stay inside until the storm passes, but MDOT crews continue working to keep traffic moving.
"We bend over backwards to keep our roads open, and to keep them safe," Geib says.