Feb. 10, 2011

Winter in South Dakota can be harsh and unpredictable, putting a strain on the South Dakota Department of Transportation’s (SDDOT) personnel, equipment and, of course, budget.


Like many other state DOTs, SDDOT was faced with budget challenges due to a decrease in revenues and an increase in costs. With winter-maintenance costs reaching historic levels—nearly one-fourth of all maintenance costs—SDDOT had no alternative but to find additional ways to reduce the cost of winter operations.


A change in service


Winter in South Dakota can be harsh and unpredictable, putting a strain on the South Dakota Department of Transportation’s (SDDOT) personnel, equipment and, of course, budget.

Like many other state DOTs, SDDOT was faced with budget challenges due to a decrease in revenues and an increase in costs. With winter-maintenance costs reaching historic levels—nearly one-fourth of all maintenance costs—SDDOT had no alternative but to find additional ways to reduce the cost of winter operations.

A change in service

For many years, SDDOT’s standard hours of operation for winter maintenance have been from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. The intent of these specific hours is to provide a good level of service without excessive fatigue to the department’s single crew of maintenance staff. By starting winter-maintenance operations around 5 a.m., SDDOT could make a round of plowing and deicing to get the state highways in good condition by the time people are traveling to work, school and other activities. Similarly, by continuing operations until approximately 7 p.m., people are able to get home safely at the end of the day before winter operations are suspended for the night.

Extended hours of service are provided on interstate highways within and adjacent to South Dakota’s two largest cities, Sioux Falls and Rapid City, to accommodate emergency responders. The department also provides extended hours of operation on other routes when a significant public event warrants some extra attention because of increased traffic.

During the winter of 2006-07, SDDOT experimented with extended hours of winter-maintenance operations statewide. This was accomplished using existing staffing levels supplemented with only a few seasonal and contract personnel. The level of service was reduced for the extended hours, compared with the maintenance operations taking place during the standard hours of operation. The following winter season, SDDOT further modified its winter-maintenance operation by developing a priority system for the extended winter-maintenance coverage.

When officials evaluated data from the two seasons of extended winter-maintenance operations, it was evident a significant amount of money and resources were expended for the benefit of very few nighttime travelers. In addition, the extended hours of operation were extremely hard on the department’s maintenance workers, who were required to work long hours including nights, weekends and holidays.

SDDOT is fortunate to have well-trained, experienced and dedicated maintenance workers. However, it was not practical to continue asking them to work the extended hours and provide the high level of service that was required.

During the winter of 2008-09, SDDOT took a slightly different approach. Traffic volumes were evaluated along the interstate system, and a plan was developed to provide extended hours for the locations that warranted the service. This included the two large urban areas of Sioux Falls and Rapid City, along with a few additional high-volume areas. The remainder of the state highway system, which is predominantly lower-traffic-volume rural highways and rural sections of the interstate system, went back to the 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. primary hours of operation. These hours of operation continue today, as they have proven to be very effective and well received by the public.

Deep effectiveness

Last winter, SDDOT made significant changes to the methods used to fight snow and ice. Prior to the winter of 2009-10, SDDOT’s snow- and ice-treatment methods revolved around heavy use of salt/sand abrasive mixtures in all weather conditions with applications being made approximately every two hours until roads were clear or maintenance was suspended for the day. Research showed that the use of sand abrasive was not very effective at providing traction on compacted snow and ice, especially on higher-speed roads, and the use of straight salt may be more effective and efficient for many conditions. Research also showed the timing for applying deicing chemicals could have a significant impact on their effectiveness. Therefore, SDDOT implemented a more science-based approach to treating snow and ice and implemented the use of the Maintenance Decision and Support System (MDSS) to guide those efforts.

One of the obstacles the department would have to overcome was the maintenance staff’s natural resistance to change. SDDOT created a Winter Maintenance Task Force which included some of its more experienced winter-maintenance personnel. This committee was asked to research winter-maintenance technologies and develop standards for the use of straight salt, salt brine, magnesium chloride and salt/sand abrasive. Early involvement of the winter-maintenance staff in the development of the new winter-maintenance program resulted in their awareness of the efficiencies that could be achieved. The task force also developed procedures to monitor and compare cost and effectiveness of the new winter-maintenance procedures.

Prior to implementing the new winter-maintenance procedures, the task force put together and conducted a statewide training effort for every winter-maintenance employee. Training included presentations by experts from other states who have experienced success in using some of the new ideas incorporated into SDDOT’s new winter-maintenance procedures as well as a presentation on accepting change and the need to try new ideas. Staff also was trained on the use of the MDSS system so they would be confident in the system and knowledgeable in using the right treatment at the right time and in the right application rate for the conditions.

Through this effort, the department was able to achieve a high level of support from winter-maintenance staff for the proposed changes to the winter-maintenance practices. With the implementation of the new winter-maintenance program for the 2009-10 winter season, an even higher level of maintenance staff support was achieved by demonstrating how the same level of service SDDOT had been providing in previous winters was effective even though equipment time and materials usage had been reduced.

Another major obstacle to overcome was to manage the expectations of the traveling public. Travelers in South Dakota were accustomed to seeing sand on the highways during a winter-storm event, and there was concern the public perception would be that SDDOT was not adequately treating the highways if sand was not present.

In order for the public to better understand what the new SDDOT winter-maintenance practices were, the department felt it was extremely important to put together a public-information campaign, including education on SDDOT’s hours of operation and treatment methods, something many people were not aware of. Feedback indicated travelers were not as upset that SDDOT was not out on the roads 24/7 as they were that they simply did not know what the hours of operation were.

Procedures were developed to notify the public when winter-maintenance operations were suspended through the use of the 5-1-1/SafeTravelUSA systems, and the SDDOT developed a “Winter Driving in South Dakota” brochure that explained the department’s winter-maintenance operations to the public. In addition, SDDOT provided information regarding winter-maintenance operations through the use of dynamic message signs, the SDDOT website and storm-specific media releases for the more significant storm events.

When evaluating the new procedures and talking with motorists, if the public knew what to expect and had ample time to make their travel plans accordingly, the majority of people seemed quite satisfied with the level of service being provided.

The winter of 2009-10 was one of the most severe winters South Dakota has experienced in recent history. In spite of that, SDDOT spent $2.3 million less than was spent on winter maintenance the previous year. The SDDOT spent approximately $17.9 million on winter maintenance for the winter of 2008-09, but reduced its expenditures to about $15.6 million for the 2009-10 winter season.

Almost $2 million of the realized savings came from a 64% decrease in contract labor and a 61% decrease in sand abrasive. While salt and magnesium chloride saw a 50% increase, the savings in all areas of winter maintenance from the new procedures proved the SDDOT was moving in the right direction and making good decisions.

While good progress and improvements are being made, SDDOT continues to explore ways to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its winter operations.

About The Author: Fuller is director of operations at the South Dakota Department of Transportation.

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