Northeast DOTs Arm Themselves for Winter Weather

📅   Wed January 30, 2002 - Northeast Edition
Lori Lovely



Every year state Departments of Transportation (DOT) prepare to do battle with Old Man Winter, bracing themselves for cold temperatures, strong winds, heavy snowfalls and treacherous ice. As the years go by, each DOT combines its experience with the available budget, technology, equipment and manpower to keep the roads clear and safe for travelers, adapting techniques to suit individual state needs and circumstances. Because of the northern yet coastal location, many states face a diversity of conditions requiring complex response plans.

Maine

Maine allots about $32 million to maintain its 4,000 center line miles, but as Highway Maintenance Engineer Brian Pickard said, “We’ll spend whatever we need to get through the winter.” The state maintains 203 three-axle wheelers, 380 two-axle trucks and 48 graders to battle winter whiteness. Pickard said it’s in the process of obtaining truck-mounted pre-wetting units, but warns that it will take a few years because it doesn’t intend to retrofit older trucks. Its right-hand trucks with hoppers are mounted with zero-gravity spreaders. The state also is purchasing equipment for three of the 100 crews to be able to de-ice for pre-storm treatment. Currently only one crew has that capacity.

Manning that equipment are 665 plow drivers who average a 54-hour work week during the 20-week-long winters. Maine doesn’t use contract labor for road maintenance. Instead, Pickard said, “If we need extra help, we’ll ask the bridge maintenance and traffic engineering people. It’s rare that we have to do that.

“Our strategy,” he continued, “if a storm hits during afternoon rush hour, is to work late and release people for rest, then hit it again. But we’ve shifted from a sand-priority to a salt-priority, which results in less ability to release people for rest.”

Calcium chloride is Maine’s chemical of choice, although one crew is experimenting with salt brine made by the DOT.

Because much of the state is heavily forested, there is little need for snow fences, although Pickard said some northern farmers have allowed them.

“If we have enough snow,” he added, “we’ll plow up 10-ft. piles: three rows of them, 30 ft. apart. That serves as a temporary snow fence.”

The lone road information site has been unsatisfactory in predicting storms until recently, said Pickard. The state is developing three new sites and has plans for 53, depending on funding. “Putting in weather sites isn’t as sexy as building a road,” said Pickard. “It’s hard to get funding.” For now, the DOT relies heavily on the states and crews to the south and west for information about upcoming storms.

The large northernmost state experiences a wide divergence of conditions, primarily because of its coastal position. “York Beach in south Maine to Quebec in the St. John River Valley may get 45 to 115 in. of snow” said Pickard. “The mountainous areas can get 120 to 150 in., and the coast typically gets very little snow, due to the Gulf stream — but they have to deal with freezing rain. We usually have at least two storms that produce between 12 and 24 in. of snow, and we average one to six snowstorms per season. We’re geared up for everything. We’re determined that no state roads will be shut down due to weather.”

Massachusetts

Massachusetts, which recently hosted the Northeast Snow and Ice Symposium, also experiences changeable weather conditions year-round, said Doug Cope, public affairs director for the DOT. “A typical storm will see rain on the coast and snow inland, but sometimes Cape Cod can pick up an ocean snowstorm, while the rest of the state will have nothing. The mountains along Route 2 in Florida, MA, had more than 200 in. of snow last year. But, last year was pretty snowy; this year is more typical.”

During a typical winter, Massachusetts budgets $35 million for road maintenance. In addition to the 125 DOT trucks, the budget covers contracts with 2,200 vendors with their 4,000 pieces of equipment. “We contract the vast majority of our plowing,” said Cope. “Our trucks are the first out, and will be the only ones out for specific, limited areas or conditions — icing on ramps, for instance.”

For use on the state’s 12,500 lane miles, 133 depots stockpile sand and salt. Capacity for salt is 225,000 tons; and for sand, 200,000 tons. Cope said will use 280,000 tons of salt during an average winter. “We’ve looked at new things,” Cope said, “but we stick to calcium chloride.”

About 1,000 mi. will be treated with a 50/50 mix of calcium chloride and liquid calcium chloride, while only one stretch of road on Route 25 in the southeast portion of the state is being treated with magnesium chloride. “It’s near a cranberry bog,” explained Cope.

More than 100,000 drivers commute to Boston. With several interstates and critical commerce routes converging on the capital city, traffic is heavy.

Cope said it concentrates on rush hour. But he said that crews treat all roadways the same, with the goal of keeping them open and safe.

“Our biggest challenge is to locate the rain/snow line,” Cope said. “Typically, Boston has less snow than just a few miles to the west. Often we find that Route 128 — the beltway — is the dividing line.” The state’s five district snow and ice engineers evaluate the threat of icing, and depending on the temperature, might pre-treat roads. “Temperatures aren’t usually the problem,” said Cope. “During our biggest storms, the temperatures are usually around 30 degrees.” State vehicles are equipped with temperature sensors, and Massachusetts also relies on weather stations to provide information about air and pavement temperatures and water content.

He added that freeze-thaw cycles occur most often in March, and that every spring Commissioner Matthew J. Amorello requires the DOT to conduct freeze-thaw inspections on bridge decks. And pothole patrols are conducted on a regular basis.

Connecticut

Massachusett’s neighbor to the south, Connecticut, spends approximately $16 million per year to clear and maintain 11,000 mi. of highway. The small New England state has hills, mountains and coastline to deal with. Michael Turano, transportation maintenance director, mentioned that many of the secondary highways are narrow with little — if any — shoulder.

Turano calculated the 10-year average use of chlorides (primarily salt) at 100,000 tons, with 240,000 cu. yds. of abrasives (primarily sand). An average 12 storms per year demand 100-percent call-out of the state’s 632 trucks and 250 contractors. “Fighting a winter storm costs the state about $60,000 an hour,” estimated Turano, “and takes about 15 to 20 hours.

“The key is getting out before the storm hits,” he continued. “We aim for a three-hour prior notice.” To help with advance warning, Turano said the DOT watches the weather channel, noting that storms generally travel from northwest to southeast across his state. They also rely on road weather information stations to provide road temperatures and conditions, then relay that information to the traveling public via the media and the DOT Web site.

“Every storm is different,” he explained. “For a heavy snow, after an initial application, we’re mostly plowing.” Post-storm meetings and training sessions are conducted, however, to review procedures in preparation for the next one.”

Rhode Island

Hugging the point between Massachusetts and Connecticut, Rhode Island claims the title for smallest state in the nation. Logically, its budget also is the smallest, $8.5 million. Deputy Chief Engineer John Nickelson said the DOT is determined to keep Rhode Island’s roads open at all times.

To date, the interstates have not closed — even in the worst blizzards, according to Nickelson. “There’s a lot of commerce passing through here,” he explained. “We have a lot of high-volume roads. I-95, which cuts through the middle of the state, carries about 150,000 cars a day.”

The small ocean-side state experiences a great deal of variability over a small area. “The ocean moderates the snow,” said Nickelson, “but sometimes storms roll up the coast. When we get a Nor’easter, it can snow like crazy.”

With only 160 people working on clearing roads, there just aren’t enough for shift work. Nickelson said his staff works continuously, from start to finish. In addition, the state contracts approximately 75 percent of its plowing.

The DOT uses sodium chloride, pre-wetting it with calcium chloride when necessary. It also uses a limited amount of sand. “We’re required to by legislation,” said Nickelson. “It helps when we have freezing rain, but it doesn’t melt snow or get rid of the mess. We like to get the roads clear; we like to have bare pavement.”

Rhode Island also is experimenting with liquid applications of magnesium chloride, as well as with eight road weather information stations to monitor atmospheric and pavement temperatures, and infrared systems on supervisors’ vehicles. But, said Nickelson, “change takes time.”

Vermont

Vermont’s challenge is not the volume of snow in any one storm, said David Dill, director of the maintenance and aviation division. “We can clear that in a day,” he said. “What kills us is the constant, frequent storms of any size — one inch or three — when we have to clear the roads. Frequency is our biggest concern.”

Averaging 73 storm days per season, the small northern state has an average winter maintenance budget of $14 million to plow 6,500 lane mi.

Last year was unusual, according to Dill. Vermont experienced 100 storm days and spent nearly $20 million toward clearing roads, ordering more salt and sand and paying $2.5 million in overtime. “We don’t have enough people for two 12-hour shifts,” said Dill. “We have one shift, and sometimes a night patrol. Our core force is one team, one set of trucks. When we need to, we’ll work two-to-three days, catching catnaps when we can. Overtime is a big expense for us.”

Dill said the state uses plows, wings mounted on regular trucks. Increasingly, Vermont is switching from single-axle to tandem-axle vehicles. Graders are used only to cut ice. What Dill called unusual things, such as rest areas and parking lots, are contracted out.

Although Dill said it’s “always interested in experimenting with new products,” such as Ice Ban, Magic and Ice B Gone, “the bottom line is we have not swerved from salt and sand. Things come out with great promise — environmental advantages and things that keep them on the road,” but Dill hasn’t found anything that works better than the old standby. Vermont being a very rural state with only one major city, Dill said all products are affected by the lack of traffic.

The nine maintenance districts in Vermont employ individual routines, but Dill said each one reviews procedures, and that all drivers have assigned routes with which they are very familiar. He added that they are “just getting into ITS schemes. Nothing has been deployed extensively, although we do have portable truck-mounted sensors to evaluate variables for temperature.”

A mild season to date has made it a little easier for Vermont to adhere to its “safe road policy,” which strives for roads to be passable within 24 hours. “We don’t expect them to be completely clear,” said Dill.

New York

One state reaching for the goal of clear roads is New York. Although it shares many of the challenges and procedures of its neighbors, Joe Doherty, program manager for snow and ice control for the New York DOT, said, “No state has the combination of people, weather and traffic that New York has.”

Rising to the challenge are 1,340 heavy dump trucks, 82 graders, 242 large loaders, 80 medium loaders and 42 jumbo snow blowers. An average winter will see 7,500 tons of salt put down. Doherty said it also mixes liquids: calcium chloride, magnesium chloride and agricultural blends such as Magic. “Eastern New York uses residue from the production of Captain Morgan,” he said, “and western New York uses products from corn processing.”

Completing the picture, 3,500 snow plow operators, 460 supervisors, 60 equipment instructors and 580 managers, engineers and office staff contribute to keeping New York’s roadways open all winter. In addition, 180 municipal contracts — approximately 19 percent of the entire system — contribute. About $25 million per year is allotted for these contracts, with another $25 million going toward material, and $50 million for labor and equipment.

Doherty claimed it’s a 12-months a year, seven days a week system. “The health and safety of commuters, the economy of the state, and the fabric of our community — social, religious, etc. — depend on the roads.”

New York is sharing information with other national organizations in its innovative solutions to blowing snow. “We’ve invested half a million dollars in a software program, in conjunction with Brookhaven National Labs of Long Island,” said Doherty. “We’re working on ’what-if’ scenarios, creating computer-aided designs to reduce drifting snow.” Currently, Doherty said, the state is using some stationary snow fences, and even uses guardrails as mini-snow fences, although he noted that can create unexpected problems of its own. He expects to do more with snow fence options within six months.

New York’s anti-icing policy is what Doherty calls a “just in time anti-icing” situation. “Our trucks start rolling when the first snowflakes fall,” he said. Crews put down mostly salt, but in certain locations — notably bridge decks and heavy commuter areas — they also put down liquid applications.

Crews also apply sand mixed with de-icer to create a sort of sandpaper.

Doherty indicated that New York would like to expand its road weather information system over the next three years. Currently at 40 locations, Doherty said they’re headed for 200 sites in the future. Sensors detecting the chemical concentration as well as pavement and atmospheric temperatures serve as small meteorological stations.

The state has already experienced extreme snow accumulation. “We declared a state of emergency in Buffalo,” said Doherty. “We mobilized trucks, loaders and private contractors. We took 22-yd. dump trucks to take away the snow.” The National guard showed up with additional loaders and trucks.

Doherty mentioned that one difficulty working in urban areas like Buffalo is the limited room to maneuver, parking and other restrictions.

But he’s hoping to find some ideas to help deal with such problems when he attends a snow and ice conference in Japan. He’s already heard tidbits about technological advances that excite him. “They have a flexible pavement,” he said. “The weight of the car breaks the ice. We’re always looking for better ways of doing things — and if we find something, we latch on to it.

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania has latched on to an impressive new technological method for de-icing bridges. Six bridges in the state are playing guinea pig to an automated anti-icing system with built-in weather station pavement centers that predict when the bridge deck will freeze, then proceeds to treat the deck with anti-icing chemicals. This revolutionary technology came over from Europe and is used in very limited areas across the United States. Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s (PennDOT) Director of the Bureau of Maintenance and Operations, Robert Peda, said, “This has basically eliminated crashes at previously high-accident sites.”

The Swiss system uses a storage tank beneath the bridge to store the chemical. A pumping system controlled by valves ensures equal pressure for application. The nozzles — flat discs — are spaced every 50 ft. along the shoulder, and emit a steady stream between 12 and 18 in. high. A flashing yellow light alerts motorists, although there is no danger. In fact, traffic helps spread the material. The system also can be manually operated.

Peda said Pennsylvania is looking at more technological answers to high-accident areas, areas far from the winter maintenance stockpile, and areas that experience sudden freeze. Similarly, Don Wise, chief of maintenance for PennDot, said the state is “always available for new information,” and that it uses a variety of liquids and other materials.

With a budget of $177 million and 90,000 lane mi. to maintain, Pennsylvania battles diverse conditions. The northwest part of the state near Erie, with its mountains and lake effect, can see 200 in. of snow per year, while Philadelphia, in the southeast, might experience only 30 in. a year. Wise said the state typically sees 15 to 20 “events” per year, each averaging a 12-hour clearing, from spreading material to plowing mode to cleanup mode (plowing shoulders, turning lanes and bridges). “Big storms take a little longer,” he added. “Last year was long — from October to the week after Easter. We used 100 million tons of salt.” Peda added that smaller, continual storms end up costing more because materials have to continue to be put down. He said the state has initiated an aggressive plan to reduce materials while maintaining service.

This year the state is experiencing a mild winter, having used only 65,000 tons of salt to date. Wise said no year is typical. A budget surplus would be beneficial. Wise indicated that excess funds not used for winter maintenance go to other roadway programs and projects.

Guided by a five-year average, the budget requires a delicate balance. Wise said Pennsylvania has covered storage for 450,000 tons of salt, and contracts are issued as early as August. The state’s policy is to restock immediately as salt is used, keeping reserves close to capacity through February. Partly, that is to be prepared for storms and another benefit is because the state competes with municipalities for salt.

In addition to salt, the state uses magnesium chloride, calcium chloride and 3 million gallons of salt brine it mixes in its own brine-makers. The state uses 105 anti-icing trucks, and are adding more by retrofitting vehicles. Peda added that the fleet is equipped with pre-wetting capability. “We wet at the centers,” he said. “It makes for quicker action and reduces the amount of material needed by up to 40 percent.”

While there are times that crews respond as storms begin, Peda said PennDOT is not “totally reactionary.”

“We concentrate on anti-icing in problem areas. By applying a liquid solution before the storm, the treated road prevents snow from bonding with the pavement.” Pre-storm anti-icing can take place anywhere from a couple hours to a day in advance of a weather system, said Wise. Crews are called in, and the command center coordinates the movement of crews from one district to another as necessary. Anti-icing material is spread at 30 gal. per mile.

Pennsylvania also employs 2,200 trucks, 550 front-end loaders and 24 snow blowers. Many trucks are equipped with infrared monitors to calculate air and pavement temperatures so educated decisions can be made as to when and how much to salt. Peda acknowledged that it takes time to gain the skills and ability to accurately judge a situation, which is why Pennsylvania actively participates in the Eastern winter equipment snow symposium. In addition, PennDOT holds a “winter snow academy” that is revised every four years. Maintenance managers and foremen attend a two-day train-the-trainer session so they can share their knowledge.

Pennsylvania maintains the largest work force because it has the fifth largest state highway system, and of those five states, it is the northernmost.

The 5,300 road workers are supplemented by 900 temporary equipment operators, 175 mechanics, radio operators and support staff, and 800 contract with local governments. The extra hands allow PennDOT to keep most trucks busy on two shifts. “We do some split shifts and dual-shifts to cover high-traffic volume,” said Wise. “We also have night patrols to check for freeze/thaw situations around the clock. The southeast part of the state has more traffic; we have to respond immediately.”

The southeast also is known for rolling farmland, which can be the site of blowing snow. Wise said it uses natural plantings as snow barriers in gusty areas. “We’re a large state; we try things,” he added.

One of Pennsylvania’s successes results from the sharing of information. Seventy-five road information stations monitor temperatures and conditions — most with cameras. Internet users can access the Web site and actually see conditions. Wise said last year it received 200,000 hits.

The 24-hour monitoring also allows PennDOT to respond immediately to changing weather.

Maryland

Winter is a 12-month season to the Maryland Transportation Authority. An organization is either doing winter maintenance or preparing for it, said Public Relations Officer Heather Brautman. Maryland’s preparation plans each year include working with the State Highway Administration, which has a fairly extensive Roadway Information System. Information in the system is pooled for the authority’s use, and provides detailed forecasts and pavement temperatures. This allows the authority to tailor responses based on actual roadway conditions. The system also uses current information to project pavement temperatures for the next 12 hours.

Total budget this year peaks at $1.3 million, which includes materials, equipment and personnel. This year, the authority has 215 snow plow operators at its seven facilities, and 290 people trained in winter maintenance. All personnel also receive training in regard to jurisdiction and roadway maintenance responsibilities. There are 87 dump trucks equipped with plows and salt-spreading equipment. Another 88 vehicles, including supervisory transportation, front-end loaders, backhoes and other emergency equipment, are on stand-by.

Maryland has 26,000 tons of salt and 96,520 gal. of liquid magnesium chloride, which is sprayed on the roadway before a storm to keep ice and snow from bonding. It also is sprayed onto salt being spread on the roadway, helping the salt form a brine quicker and helping it last longer on the surface.

Brautman added that officials and front-line employees critique the agency’s response to each storm, and use the information to prepare for future events. In addition, at the end of each year, storm response efforts are critiqued at an authority-wide level to determine the lessons learned.

West Virginia

Although it’s inland, West Virginia exhibits varying conditions, this time primarily due to elevation changes. Charleston averages 17 to 18 in. of snow, much less than the mountainous areas.

Out of a total maintenance budget of $175 million, $29.8 million is dedicated for winter road maintenance. The staff of 2,200 snow removal personnel have 35,865 mi. of road to clear including gravel and dirt roads. The DOT’s Carl Thompson said, “We handle all the back country roads. We’ll cinder and plow; we don’t do a lot of work unless there’s deep snow — 4 in. or more.”

West Virginia does not use contractors. Thompson said they prefer to use its forces unless a major storm hits, when it may call for farm tractors, graders and dozers. “Each county has an area to cover,” he explained. “They have a plan for every truck, and a set route for primaries and secondaries. One group takes care of the interstate; it’s their only responsibility. If we need more help, crews will shift to that area once they’ve taken care of theirs.”

With 550 single-axle dump trucks and 130 tandem-axle trucks, 100 one-ton trucks, 13 snow blowers (mainly for mountain areas), and assorted motorgraders if the depth of snow requires them, West Virginia DOT workers apply sodium chloride and salt. This year’s allotment is 140,000 tons. Thompson said that two districts use liquid calcium, and one uses magnesium chloride on a bridge made of cortan steel. “It’s more friendly,” he explained. “The sodium caused corrosion.”

Crews typically don’t pre-wet. Thompson said they aim to catch the storm ahead of time. “We like to get something down before the storm hits,” he said. “It sticks better.” Thompson likes to keep ahead of the snow, but recognizes that it’s difficult to stay ahead of heavy storms. “We try never to shut down a roadway,” he said. “We came close in ’93, but we kept the interstates open. We kept traffic moving. Our goal is to never have the interstates closed.”

New Jersey

New Jersey’s preparations include building additional salt storage facilities and increasing the number of remote weather station sensor stations to monitor roadway and atmospheric conditions, according to James Weinstein, transportation commissioner.

The 31 remote weather stations allow the state to tailor salting and plowing activities appropriately across a state that sees a wide variety of conditions. Rain and sleet in southern New Jersey might blanket the northwest with a foot of snow. The stations provide detailed data about air temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, road and bridge surface temperatures, wet or dry pavement, and whether — and what kind of — salt has been applied. “Not only is it important to be prepared with equipment, personnel and materials, but also to know specific roadway and weather conditions in different areas of the state,” said Weinstein.

More than 600 trucks will be augmented during major storms with up to 1,100 contractor trucks. Contractors have been assigned specific highway segments and will be called out on an as-needed basis. In addition, 190 additional pieces of contractor equipment, including graders and loaders, are available.

NJDOT began the season with 137,000 tons of salt, 513,000 gal. of liquid calcium and 5,800 tons of abrasives on hand. Additional deliveries are scheduled to the 73 maintenance yards as needed. Weinstein indicated that replenishing early and often is a major component of the work NJDOT does.

A budget of $12.7 million covers the materials, personnel and equipment needed for snow removal on 16,000 lane mi. of highway, including shoulders and ramps. Last year’s budget stretched to $29 million, with 359 tons of salt used on 49.8 in. of snow.

New Jersey accepts qualified volunteer plow operators, and coordinates snow removal with the state’s other transportation agencies and State Police from its emergency control center — also known as the snow room.

Delaware

Delaware conducted its annual snow removal inspections in November. Teams reviewed each site’s equipment in an effort to ensure winter preparedness. Approximately 325 pieces of equipment, such as dump truck with snowplows, graders and four-wheel-drive vehicles, were checked for proper maintenance and condition. A limited number of heavy-duty V-plows and snow blowers are available on a statewide basis for unusually severe weather.

During peak snow periods, as many as 350 people take part in snow removal operations. This includes drivers, mechanics, dispatchers, prowl car drivers and office personnel to man the phones. During particularly lengthy or difficult storms, private contractors are called in to assist with snow removal along highway shoulders and crossover areas.

DelDOT primarily uses a mixture of salt and sand for traction and melting. The combination helps keep costs down, and reduces wear on bridges.

Each maintenance area has its own snow removal plan. All roadways are divided into categories with primary roads and transit routes receiving first and continuous attention. After primary roads are open and passable, crews move on to secondary and tertiary roads. Changing weather conditions they face include freeze/thaw, additional accumulation and wind, forcing them to return to primary roads. The department maintains 88 percent of all roadways in Delaware, or 5,500 mi. The goal is to keep the primary roads clear for traffic.

The budget of $3.1 million is applied to all weather-related conditions in Delaware: snow, flood or hurricanes.

All states have reported a relatively mild start to the winter season, saving budgets, equipment and materials.