Rocky Mountain States Prepare for Winter Season
State Departments of Transportation in the Rocky Mountain states are preparing for a busy season ahead. With some forecasts calling for a substantially greater snowfall than last year, the departments are looking to keep roads clear for use with an improved mix of tried and tested methods, along with some new technologies and equipment. For example, Utah is upgrading its weather information systems in a number of ways and Colorado is making its fleet of trucks smarter, and installing a major new anti-avalanche system.
Utah Utilizes Citizens Reports
Lisa Miller, of the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) Traffic Management Division, said Utah spends about $24 million a season on snow and ice removal including labor, materials and equipment. It is estimated that winter operations costs an average of $1 million per storm. They rely heavily on information systems, such as Meridian Environmental Technology's transportation-focused suite of Maintenance Decision Support System (MDSS) management tools. UDOT employs an in-house meteorologist to track and interpret data from weather information and forecasting tools.
Anytime there is a storm the department holds a stand up meeting with representatives from every division for information and planning purposes. The meteorologist provides insights such as whether to expect Midwestern style wet and heavy snow, or the easier to clear light and fluffy precipitation that makes skiing so good in Utah, but creates problems with drifts. Numbers coming from the department's 90 road weather information system (RWIS) installations are combined into a Winter Road Weather Index calculation that is used to estimate workload and efficiently dispatch crews.
Utah is moving away from embedded RWIS units toward non-invasive pole-mounted sensors.
"The problem with the pucks is that when we have roto-milling or any type of repair on the road, the contractor won't see them and we end up with error messages and blank screens," said Miller.
Regardless of the number of traffic cameras and RWIS sensors, there will always be gaps in the available information. To help remedy this situation, Utah took the step in 2012 of recruiting volunteer citizen reporters. Citizen volunteers can register online and go through a training and certification process, then can report conditions where they are through a "Citizen Reporter" Android or Apple app.
"The long term goal of adding Citizen Reporters to UDOT's weather operations road reporting is to supplement current condition reporting on segments where drivers are already traveling. The Citizen Reporter Program provides the traveling public with a conduit to report their observations directly to UDOT, saving time and money," said Miller.
In the first year, the program, which officially launched in November 2013, generated over 1,800 road condition reports on critical routes throughout the state. The accuracy rate of the reports was found to be very high, with only 0.03 percent of incoming reports determined to be inaccurate. Miller reports there are now about 600 active reporters. The initiative last year was awarded the Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) "Best of ITS" award for best new innovative practice at the ITS World Congress.
Utah runs 503 snowplows and employs 481 full-time drivers, with 80 seasonal staff also available. Also included in their fleet are 11 self-propelled snow blowers, eight tow plows, a 5,500-gallon anti-icing tractor and stainless steel spreaders. UDOT uses about 1.8 million gallons of brine product and 236,000 tons of salt (including regular white salt and three types of high-performance salt), as well as utilizing about 24,000 tons of de-slicking grit and volcanic cinders throughout most of the state. To prevent ice accumulation on some sections with higher ice concerns, the department uses a spray of potassium acetate. Department workers also apply liquid anti-icing agent ahead of a storm if the meteorologist predicts no rain ahead of time.
Placement and management of plowed snow is less of an issue in Utah than in other areas. With relatively high winter road temperatures and 300 days of sunshine each year, snow does not tend to linger after the storm.
Colorado Expands Communications Network
In Colorado, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) spends about $60 million on winter road maintenance, more or less, depending on the weather. According to CDOT Spokesperson Amy Ford, forecasts for the coming season are calling for significantly more snow this year, especially in the mountain passes.
Ford says the department has a well-calibrated mix of materials using primarily liquid magnesium-chloride and solid magnesium-chloride, and utilize a smaller amount of mixes including sand where necessary. For this season, CDOT is relying on 13 more trucks, has added plows and is staffing up, with a pool of workers available on a rotational bases. Additional mechanics have been hired to keep the fleet up and running and there has been an early push to hire sufficient temporary workers. Keeping the I-70 corridor open is the most critical mission, and CDOT had a joint operations center (between two regions) to coordinate the task, covering the entire stretch from Denver to Vale.
Colorado is also improving its Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) system, with AVL devices to be installed in all fleet vehicles for real-time tracking of locations and ability to use the information for fuel and operational efficiency. Some of the information will also be available to the traveling public, to supplement information such as the condition reports and web cams available on the department's website.
Last year, CDOT undertook a $1.01 million project to upgrade the Department's traveler communications network. The project will install 80 new stand-alone "live view" cameras across the state; either adding to or replacing some of the existing 422 cameras already has in place. The cameras are all visible on CDOT's traveler information site at cotrip.org.
Another new initiative this year is in the area of avalanche control. The new system being introduced is called Gasex. Employed in many places in Europe and some ski resorts in the U.S., the system uses radio-controlled detonations in embedded pipes to induce snow slides. With installations at the Berthoud Pass, going into Winter Park and the Loveland Pass on the I-70, the state's key commercial transit route, it will be the largest Gasex system in the country.
Until this year Colorado has used a combination of three methods to manage snow slides: use of howitzers firing explosive shells to trigger slides; charges dropped from helicopters; and a mechanical "avalauncher," which uses compressed gas to fire explosive projectiles onto slopes. There was an unfortunate accident with an avalauncher last year, when the device detonated prematurely inside the chamber of the device, injuring two workers. Improved safety will be one of the advantages of the Gasex system.
Another innovation in Colorado is procedural. The Department uses "snowplow escorts" to, in effect, meter traffic going through the Eisenhower tunnel, to prevent breakdowns in traffic flow caused by vehicles not equipped for road conditions. CDOT Snowplow Escorts hold traffic for short periods and then lead an escort of traffic with Colorado State Patrol up steep mountain passes. The system aims to allow traffic to move on freshly treated roads at a safe, controlled rates of speed thereby reducing the occurrence of winter related crashes, vehicle traction issues, and consequent traffic delays.
Both Utah and Colorado transportation departments are continuing to make the winter season easier to navigate for their citizens. When the winter storms come, the departments will be doing all they can to keep traffic moving quickly and safely.