Add Workforce Shortages, Environmental Concerns To Winter Weather Challenges Of Road Maintenance Crews

While major cities like New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC have yet to see any measurable snow this season, many parts of the country are seeing above average snowfall, blizzards and ice events that are creating challenges for road maintenance crews. These weather events combined with mounting environmental concerns and significant staffing shortages that many Department of Transportations (DOTs) are facing, are creating more challenges in their ability to effectively treat and clear roads. As a result, many DOTs are relying on advanced weather intelligence that can provide hyperlocal treatment plans, making the work more efficient and effective.

In an average year, winter pavement conditions are responsible for 24 percent of all weather-related accidents, more than 1,300 fatalities, and billions of dollars in losses related to 544 million vehicle hours of delay. While winter weather is unavoidable, the impacts can be managed by supporting decision making with expert weather insights.

These weather insights can help make the most of all resources available to DOTs. From Maine to Missouri, plow-driver staff is down 30 percent from where it needs to be and these staffing shortages are making it challenging for many transportation agencies to appropriately make winter plans. Just earlier this month in Nevada, the DOT was advising no unnecessary travel during a recent winter storm because of a lack of snowplow drivers. The agency has said they have “record-level vacancies” for snowplow operators with a work force shortage of nearly 35 percent.

DOT teams consider multiple factors when determining how to best respond to threatening winter conditions. Many of these decisions are directly affected by current and forecast weather and could include identifying which roads to treat, when and what chemicals to apply and at what rate. By using weather forecasts and road sensors, DOTs can efficiently use staff and treatment resources and identify the precise roads that may need treatment. This not only can help with staff shortages, but also can reduce the environmental impacts of road treatments. With the serious concerns of chemicals in water runoff or seeping into the soil, a focus on a highly targeted use of chemicals is crucial.

To address this issue, many DOTs are using advanced weather metrics as well as sophisticated models to create hyperlocal treatment plans. These plans allow them to target specific areas with the most need and prioritize their resources more effectively. This can help to keep roads safe and minimize disruptions during severe weather events.

This approach can help identify which areas of the roads need treatment in a more efficient and effective manner. These decision-support models can process large amounts of data from various sources, such as weather forecasts, temperature sensors, and cameras, to provide detailed information about the current and forecasted weather conditions. This information can be used to identify which areas of the roads are most likely to experience issues such as freezing or icing, and to predict when those issues are likely to occur. The data can also be used to create detailed treatment plans that target specific areas of the road network and optimize the use of resources.

The Iowa DOT is one agency that has invested in improved weather information to allow for quicker and more efficient response to snow and ice storms. The state has a “Track A Plow” system, which seems simple yet it’s been key to helping the agency efficiently and safely manage winter roads across the state. This tool allows Iowa’s DOT to understand how much it costs to clear snow from each stretch of road, which storms are most expensive to manage, and it even has helped the team reduce costs related to salt application by more than $2.5 million a year.

When winter weather impacts the state, Iowa’s plow drivers can use real-time data to see the condition of their route, bringing in data from a dozen different sources so the team can see which roads need more plowing, how urgently, and which plow is closest to problem spots.

Maintenance Decision Support Systems (MDSS) integrate road and weather data, maintenance recommendations, and resource data to guide appropriate treatment strategies based on available resources and best practices. It’s important that the MDSS system receives high quality data about weather and pavement conditions and having access to real-time radar, site-specific weather and pavement conditions is especially critical in providing a clear picture for decision-makers.

The impact of chemicals on the surrounding environment is also an important consideration as the public demands more sustainable practices. There has been growing environmental concerns around the use of road salt and scientists warn that salt can seep into lakes and rivers, killing wildlife and posing health risks to humans. Salt is also damaging to both asphalt and metal, resulting in $5 billion in damage each year to roads and cars.


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