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High-tech forecasting system to pinpoint roads

/ Source: The Associated Press

A new high-tech computer system that provides pinpoint weather forecasts for specific stretches of highway, tested in Iowa over the past two winters, is attracting interest from transportation officials worldwide.

The Maintenance Decision Support System provides road crews with pavement temperature, subsurface temperature, humidity and wind for short segments of roads, helping them to determine when to plow or use anti-icing chemicals.

Field tests were conducted on 16 snow plow routes in central Iowa, working with Iowa Department of Transportation garages near Ames and Des Moines. The winter of 2002-2003 was mild, but last year's snowier weather provided better readings on the system's capability, said Bill Mahoney, project manager at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

Interest from around world
"The recommendations covered more characteristics, from rain changing to snow, snow changing to rain, freezing rain, black ice ... we were able to refine how we collected data so we could better measure the evolution of road conditions," Mahoney said.

He said the project has attracted interest from around the world.

"We've been releasing CDs with the documentation publicly — we've had about 60 organizations per year request copies of the software — folks from commercial weather service providers in the United States, northern Europe and Canada," he said.

Dennis Burkheimer, IDOT's winter operations administrator, said the system won't replace decisions made by road crew supervisors, but could result in savings if implemented statewide.

"If we get a forecast that is 100 percent accurate, we could save money because we could get roads cleaned quicker and our crews off the road faster," he said.

High marks from DOT
He said supervisors at the IDOT garages involved in the project gave the system high marks.

"By the end of the tests they were following the guidance and the recommendations of the system," he said. "The garages have 80 years experience by supervisors who are telling us it's a good tool that needs to move forward."

Mahoney said the computer system, developed as a joint effort of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the Federal Highway Administration, not only should help state DOTs better prepare for and manage chemical treatments on roads when a winter storm strikes, but also should make roads safer for motorists.

"The bottom line is the DOT should be able to stay on top of the weather situation and level of service on the highway should be better," Mahoney said.

Burkheimer said Iowa is working with Colorado, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota to advance the system into the private sector.

"We're pooling our funds to take what was developed during the federal project and moving toward the private sector to further develop into applications for users like us," he said.