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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Focus > September 2004 > A New Support System for Winter Maintenance
September 2004Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-04-029

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A New Support System for Winter Maintenance

Keeping roads clear of snow and ice is a complex and demanding task for highway agencies, particularly in an era of tight budgets, increased traffic volume, and high customer expectations. Forecasting and meteorological information aids in this task, but there is often not enough of a link between the weather information available and the decisions made by winter maintenance managers. To help close the gap, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) launched a project in 1999 under its Road Weather Management Program to develop a new Maintenance Decision Support System (MDSS). After being tested in demonstration projects over the last 2 years, "the system has proven itself to be an invaluable tool for winter operations," says Paul Pisano of FHWA. It offers the potential to save highway agencies millions of dollars annually in winter road maintenance costs.

Participating in the development and implementation of the MDSS has been a consortium that includes State highway agencies, academia, the private sector, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology/Lincoln Laboratory, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Forecast Systems Laboratory.

The MDSS project has integrated state-of-the-art weather forecasting and data fusion and optimization techniques with computerized winter road maintenance rules of practice. These are maintenance operations practices and procedures translated into computer logic. The result is a software system that provides maintenance managers with a specific forecast of road surface conditions and treatment recommendations customized for plow routes.

The system uses National Weather Service (NWS) models that receive data from the NWS National Centers for Environmental Prediction. These data include surface observations, statistical guidance, and daily weather summaries. The NWS models are supplemented by NOAA models that present an enhanced representation of clouds and precipitation, providing a more accurate weather prediction. The system also draws upon surface observations from State highway agency road weather information systems, as well as such specialized algorithms as a road temperature forecast module and a road condition and treatment module. An additional system module contains rules-of-practice algorithms, which customize data based on State's winter maintenance rules and techniques.

Road treatment guidance provided to MDSS users addresses the fundamental questions of "what," "how much," and "when." For each route, the system recommends:

  • A treatment plan, such as plow only, chemical use, and use of abrasives;
  • The amount of chemical to use; and
  • The timing of initial and subsequent treatments.

The MDSS also features a "what-if" scenario treatment selector. This allows a user to modify the recommended treatment times, chemical types, or application rates, and then see predictions of  how the road condition might change over the next 48 hours (e.g., predicted pavement temperature, chemical concentration, snow depth, or road surface condition).

The MDSS was tested in Des Moines and Ames, Iowa, from February to April 2003. Three of the Iowa Department of Transportation's (DOT) maintenance garages, covering 15 plow routes, participated in the demonstration. Following the demonstration, further enhancements were made to the system. These enhancements included improving the rules-of-practice module so that it could handle changing weather situations predicted several hours into the future as a storm evolved. Another feature added was a blowing snow potential alert, which is based on precipitation type, snowfall history, snowfall rate, air temperature, and wind speed.

A second demonstration was held in central Iowa in the winter of 2004. "Enhancements made to all aspects of the prototype based on the results of the 2003 demonstration made a significant difference in the quality of the forecasts and treatment guidance and the subsequent confidence shown by the users," notes Pisano. Iowa DOT has estimated that using the MDSS could save between 10 and 15 percent of its annual maintenance costs, totaling approximately $3.5 million each year.

A small amount of additional development for the MDSS will continue into 2005, including testing the system in Colorado and conducting research on how to better predict the onset of road and bridge frost. As the system matures, FHWA and its partners will be shifting their focus to technology transfer efforts, starting this year. This includes making the results of the MDSS research and development available to the private sector and working with the private sector to simplify the integration of MDSS capabilities into their winter maintenance technology product lines. It also includes providing support to State highway agencies as they look at using the MDSS and procuring MDSS services from the private sector. For more information about the MDSS or to obtain a copy of the software, contact Paul Pisano at FHWA, 202-366-1301 (email: paul.pisano@fhwa.dot.gov).

FHWA's Road Weather Management Program is launching a new initiative, known as Clarus, to create a Nationwide Surface Transportation Weather Observing and Forecasting System. This system will provide a one-stop portal for all surface transportation weather-related observations, featuring real-time data that can be incorporated into weather or traffic models, traveler information, or decision support systems. The ultimate goal of Clarus is to reduce the impact of adverse weather for all road and transit users and operators. An Initiative Coordinating Committee (ICC) is being established to serve as a source of expert guidance for the 6-year project. The ICC will include representatives from FHWA, State highway agencies, NOAA and other Federal agencies, academia, and the private sector. To learn more about Clarus or participating in the ICC, contact Paul Pisano at FHWA, 202-366-1301 (email: paul.pisano@fhwa.dot.gov), or James Pol at FHWA, 202-366-4374 (email: james.pol@fhwa.dot.gov).

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Updated: 04/07/2011

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