Streets viewpoint: Watch out for these five obstacles this winter
Maintaining the network of streets and highways has always been a challenge to the professionals responsible for road maintenance, but it is the most challenging in winter when snow and ice create dangerous conditions. This winter will bring many typical winter road maintenance challenges, but there are also several new issues requiring special attention.
1. Shrinking budgets. This decade is going to challenge cities and counties to find new ways to fund winter maintenance, because the demand placed on them by the public will likely not decrease. As the economy becomes more efficient, winter weather becomes more of a problem for commuters and businesses than ever before. New ways to finance winter street maintenance operations, and buy tools and equipment that save money, will be a necessity.
2. Doing more with less. Increasingly, transportation agencies are given new stretches of road or lane miles to maintain with no additional manpower or equipment. In addition, with budget reductions come reductions in staff and equipment. This challenge requires management to think creatively and look for solutions that stretch resources. One possible solution is using more contract help, which can sometimes reduce costs in years with mild winters.
3. Winter weather. If it were not for the current economic situation, winter weather would have appeared at the top of this list. The challenge with winter weather, of course, is trying to predict the outcome. Weather forecasts have greatly improved over the past 10 years, but the continued uncertainty of a weather forecast, especially in the winter, creates a lot of stress for maintenance decision makers. Significant time is still spent adjusting plans as storms approach to make sure the correct actions are taken. To help manage this challenge, it is important for maintenance decision makers to find the most accurate source for their weather information. Although local media and the Internet can be good sources for weather forecasts, a private service is even better. In addition, vehicle-mounted weather sensors and fixed roadside weather sensors take the guesswork out of what is really going on with streets. Custom forecasting and sensors also address the budget and resource issues mentioned above.
4. Turnover of experienced supervisors. This is a relatively new challenge to winter maintenance, but it is one that is steadily increasing. With a large majority of the workforce nearing retirement, and with many agencies unable to offer competitive compensation, supervisors are younger and have less experience. This challenge can be addressed with more intense training, and with a new technology known as Maintenance Decision Support Systems (MDSS). MDSS reviews all relevant information and recommends maintenance action to combat the weather. MDSS is a tool that can provide critical guidance to less experienced decision makers.
5. The information age. Technology has been both good and bad to winter maintenance, and it is the final challenge. Information flowing at winter maintenance decision makers is at an all time high, just like it is for most professions. Smart phones, the Internet, email, and the media flood road maintenance managers with so much information it can be paralyzing at times. Supervisors are increasingly “wired in” to their jobs 24/7, causing excess stress and burning out quality experience. In the winter, when stress is at a peak, it is important to consider stress-relieving solutions that can help avoid mistakes or other stress-related consequences.
These challenges are not the only ones affecting streets this winter, but they certainly will be significant challenges. The good news is there are many solutions to address these issues, and there are many more on the way.
Jon Tarleton is Roads and Rail marketing manager for Boulder, Colo.-based Vaisala. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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