Doing something about the weather

Maintenance Decision Support System

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has unveiled a prototype of a new decision support system that predicts the impact of bad weather on highway conditions and suggests maintenance treatments.

In this harsh season of storms and delays, state transportation departments are bombarded with a stream of weather information. Often, road maintenance managers are left wondering if they should salt, plow or keep the trucks on hold.

To make the choice more clear-cut, the FHWA's Maintenance Decision Support System takes some of the guesswork out of the upkeep business. MDSS is based on forecasting and modeling research systems that predict weather and road behavior. National research centers are developing the systems.

"Managers can respond proactively by managing the infrastructure and deploying resources in real time," FHWA officials wrote on the agency's Web site. "Yes — something can be done about the weather!"

The stakes are high. Annually, 6,600 commuters die and 470,000 are injured because of adverse weather. The same conditions are the second leading cause of nonrecurrent traffic, with 544 million hours of time lost each year. The cost of the holdup to trucking communities in the 50 largest metropolitan areas alone is $3.6 billion.

In hopes of reducing those numbers, state transportation departments have long asked for better tools. With data coming from multiple sources, local managers are forced to make tough calls, juggling such resources as available workers, trucks and anti-icing chemical supplies.

"It made for a very difficult decision-making process," said Paul Pisano, FHWA's team leader for road weather management.

To improve the situation, the agency contracted with six national laboratories in 1999 for a prototype as part of its national intelligent transportation systems program. "A lot of it was capitalizing on millions of dollars of research they had already done," Pisano said.

FHWA also threw about $2 million into the mix, money that has begun to pay off: The software is now available for further development and is being used in pilot projects.

The technology combines the latest modeling and forecasting techniques, relying primarily on pavement temperatures to paint a picture of what the weather is going to look like statewide and to recommend courses of action, such as, "You should apply 250 pounds of salt to the roads," he explained. Supervisors also can plug other alternatives into the system and see how they might affect highway conditions.

Adaptability was crucial. "We didn't want to develop a shrink-wrapped software that each state had to use. The expectation is that a private-sector developer will take this and tailor it" to individual states' policies and needs, he said.

Iowa officials, for instance, would like to add information on wind, which is a big problem "because we have wide-open spaces," said Dennis Burk-heimer, winter operations manager for the state's transportation department.

Iowa started working with the software last month. During one storm, the system suggested a treatment "pretty close to what we would have done," Burkheimer said. "Hopefully, it's going to provide us with a much more improved weather forecast. It will give some guidance and assistance to super- visors and help them make their plans."

The system does well to approach information technology as an enabler, according to Chip Mather, senior vice president of Acquisition Solutions Inc.

"The product is something that can dramatically help you fulfill your mission," he said. "IT is meant to improve performance and reduce cost."

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Forecasting road conditions

The Federal Highway Administration has released a prototype of the Maintenance Decision Support System. The Web-based system allows winter road managers to:

* View forecasted weather conditions statewide.

* Receive advanced notice about potentially deteriorating road conditions.

* Predict the impact of weather on road conditions.

* Make treatment plans based on available resources.

* Receive recommendations on courses of action.

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