ROADS/BRIDGES: Survey finds 70% of state DOTs are tracking El Niño's potential weather impacts

El Niño is causing many state DOTs to prepare in the face of the weather uncertainity. 

December 21, 2015

The unpredictable ocean and atmospheric phenomenon known as El Niño has prompted state DOTs to make winter weather preparations.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) released the results of a survey on winter weather preparations. Seventy percent of the 41 responding state departments of transportation reported they're closely tracking El Niño - because the weather phenomenon is predicted to impact their region this winter.

"The primary goal of state DOTs is to maintain mobility throughout the year," said Bud Wright, AASHTO executive director. "Winter time is no exception and according to our survey even some of our southern-most states are tracking El Niño and preparing accordingly."

Forty-one state departments of transportation participated in the survey from late November through mid-December 2015, responding to a range of questions about winter maintenance and preparation.

"We know there's going to be impacts due to El Niño this season," said Rick Nelson, AASHTO snow and ice cooperative program manager. "There's also a lot of uncertainty about when and how the roads in each state will be impacted. We've already seen flooding and mudslides in the Pacific Northwest and early snowfalls and warmer temperatures in other parts of the country. State DOTs are preparing for whatever happens and, at the same time, they're also hoping for the best."

According to experts, El Niño weather patterns typically bring wetter weather to the Pacific Coast and the southern United States. Temperatures in the North are expected to be warmer while the South will be cooler.

The survey finds that 40% of DOTs located in a patchwork of states across the country have increased salt supplies this year in anticipation of more snow and ice. 90% of survey respondents report using Road Weather Information System (RWIS) sensor technology. Sensors attached to maintenance vehicles, located on weather stations or embedded in roadways and bridges collect and transmit data about atmospheric and road conditions. The data gives maintenance officials the ability to make informed decisions about when and where to deploy equipment to plow roads or apply salt and other deicing chemicals, saving time and money.

Motorists are strongly encouraged to utilize all of the travel information resources available through their state DOT. More than 70% of survey respondents indicated that their agency is using social media to educate and prepare travelers about winter weather, and 73% reported their agency is using a mobile app to keep motorists informed about current road conditions.