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Successes in Stewardship
Monthly Newsletter
December 2005

Winter's on the Way: Cleaner Roads and a Cleaner Environment

Photo of a snowplow and other vehicles on a highway.

More than 70 percent of the nation's roads are located in regions that average more than 5 inches of annual snowfall. Every storm presents a new challenge — and opportunity — to practice less harmful, more effective methods of snow-removal and deicing.

Each year as the winter months approach, state public works managers gear up for an increasingly complex job: keeping the roadways clear of snow and ice, without going over budget or harming the environment. With annual winter maintenance expenditures totaling more than 2.3 billion dollars nationwide, and a growing awareness of the impacts of road salt and sand on natural habitat, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and State Departments of Transportation (DOTs) are investigating, implementing, and sharing cost-effective and environmentally friendly methods for snow and ice removal.

Sustaining Safety and the Environment

Traditional snow-and-ice-removal practices can harm the environment. Road salt, the most commonly used deicing agent, can seep into the ground, affecting soil salinity, groundwater resources, and waterways, which in turn negatively impact vegetation and wildlife. Abrasives, such as sand, can pollute the air, contributing to pollution levels that may exceed national ambient air quality standards. Sand can also create sedimentation issues in nearby bodies of water.

Improved approaches to snow and ice removal can mitigate environmental impacts and lower costs without compromising safety. State DOTs are developing practices ranging from well-documented procedures to sophisticated weather information systems; all are intended to reduce the use of costly and/or harmful materials. Many of these practices have proven to lower operating and materials costs, some with little capital expenditures.

States Improve and Share Winter Maintenance Practices

Recognizing that for new methods to be most effective they must be consistently understood and applied, the States featured here are also focusing on providing proper training at all levels of their organizations as well as sharing their best practices with other State agencies through conferences and joint initiatives.

New Hampshire Pilots New Practices

In a pilot project, the New Hampshire Department of Transportation (NHDOT) is implementing a number of new winter maintenance practices along the 20-mile stretch of I-93 from Salem to Manchester. NHDOT plans to compare potential environmental and cost benefits from this pilot project with conventional practices used on Everett Turnpike, a parallel expressway in southern New Hampshire. If the new practices prove successful, they will be implemented statewide.

One of the major new practices that NHDOT is currently undertaking in the pilot project is deicing, which entails applying a salt brine solution to the roads before snow or ice can accumulate. This process makes snow removal easier because less ice forms on the road surface. This reduces the amount of salt that must be applied to the road, as well as the number of passes a plow must make to clear the road. Although initial capital cost investments are required to purchase equipment to mix and apply the brine solution, cost savings eventually result from lower material and labor costs.

Other NHDOT practices include:

  • Training — Thorough training of State and local workers and sharing information with communities that handle local roads helps ensure that appropriate winter maintenance methods are followed.
  • Equipment Improvements — Devices such as infrared thermometers allow application of deicing agents based on pavement temperatures; underbody scraper plows remove snow more effectively, reducing deicing needs.
  • Road Weather Information Systems — Up-to-the-minute information on weather and road conditions improves critical decisionmaking (see sidebar).

Minnesota Advances through Research and Training

With environmentally conscious practices in place for more than 12 years, Minnesota is one of the leaders in winter maintenance stewardship. The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) determines and shares its practices with others through innovative research and training programs.

  • Annual Meetings — MnDOT conducts annual pre- and post- season meetings with maintenance managers and supervisors. Evaluating the past season and formulating suggestions for the upcoming winter season enables the sharing of best practices across the State and helps generate new ideas. Through meetings such as these, MnDOT found that pre-wetting reduced application rates by one-third.
  • Snow and Ice Field Handbook — The Local Technical Assistance Program, Local Road Research Board, and MnDOT use this tool to educate maintenance professionals on current best practices, including how to reduce environmental impacts.
  • Applied Research Program — Since the early 1990s, a portion of MnDOT's annual maintenance budget has been set aside for research in environmental and safety improvements. This program has led to advances in chemical usage and storage, as well as the integration of more efficient equipment.
Road Weather
Information Systems

Road Weather Information Systems enable roadway managers and operators at the State, county, and city levels to make winter maintenance decisions based on current and forecasted weather conditions. A system of environmental sensor stations along major roadways collects atmospheric and pavement data, which is then processed to generate easily understandable information about current and forecasted conditions. Better information leads to better decisions about the amount and type of deicing material to apply to roadways, and less material waste leads to less leeching into the environment. Some States provide this information online so motorists can use it to make travel decisions. For more information, visit FHWA's Office of Operations' Road Weather Management website.

2006 Conferences Can Help You Plan for Next Year's Season

Many national and State organizations have succeeded in sharing successful and innovative practices through conferences and training workshops. These meetings expose winter maintenance professionals to new technologies and methods and provide them the opportunity to build partnerships that enable continued sharing of practices.

Eastern Winter Road Maintenance Symposium and Equipment Expo — Hosted by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, FHWA, and a host-State sponsor, this annual conference features an exhibit hall of winter maintenance technologies and technical presentations sharing the latest winter maintenance advancements. The 2006 Expo will be held September 6 and 7 in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

Annual North American Snow Conference — The American Public Works Association hosts this annual forum for winter maintenance professionals. The 2006 Conference, which will be held April 30 to May 3 in Peoria, Illinois, will feature speakers and more than 30 education sessions that support more environmentally sensitive, cost-saving techniques for effective snow and ice removal.

Annual Road Salt Symposium and Snow and Ice Control Workshop — Fortin Consulting, the Freshwater Society, and the Minnesota Local Technical Assistance Program sponsor the Annual Road Salt Symposium, which addresses the environmental impacts of deicing materials and best practices to mitigate impacts cost effectively. The 2006 Symposium will be held on April 5 in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

Winter Maintenance Managers Provide Lessons Learned

States most affected by winter storms advocate a standardized Winter Storm Severity Index that would allow managers to better compare and analyze storm events, and adjust quantities and types of materials used according to specific snow and ice conditions. This approach helps maintenance professionals need to use fewer chemicals that can leech into the environment.

Winter maintenance managers emphasize that consistent and ongoing education and training is the best way to achieve desired safety, environmental, and cost-savings results. Perhaps the most effective — and demanding — method is to change the mindsets of employees so they use the appropriate amount of the right materials for specific road conditions. Once a better practice is identified, workers at all levels should be given the tools and techniques to follow it properly. In addition, State-to-State sharing of practices will help improve environmental stewardship in winter maintenance programs across the nation.

FHWA's Office of Operations' Road Weather Management website provides a wealth of information about best practices to mitigate environmental impacts of snow and ice removal.

Contact Information

Paul Pisano
FHWA Office of Operations
400 Seventh Street, SW
Washington, DC 20590
Phone: 202-366-1301

Linda K. Taylor
MnDOT Office of Maintenance
Second Floor South, MS 722
395 John Ireland Blvd
St. Paul, MN 55155
Phone: 651-282-2281
William O'Donnell
FHWA New Hampshire Division
19 Chenell Drive
Concord, NH 03301
Phone: 603-228-3057

Look What's New!

Learn more about the new SAFETEA-LU, legislation that authorizes the Federal surface transportation programs for highways, highway safety, and transit for the 5-year period 2005-2009. This site includes the complete legislation as well as summary information and fact sheets on specific provisions.

"Successes in Stewardship" is a Federal Highway Administration newsletter highlighting current environmental streamlining and stewardship practices from around the country. To subscribe, visit the Registration Site, or call 617-494-3137.
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