What We Can Learn From The MDSS Pooled Fund Study

As the winter months approach, road maintenance officials will no doubt be recalling the comments and complaints they were inundated with during last year’s blizzard.

Whether it be your neighbor protesting the 6am plows that stopped them getting to work on time, the mayor reminding you that there just isn’t the budget to deploy plows for each and every snowfall, or the finance department highlighting your over-expenditure in red ink, transportation agency staff in charge of making decisions on road maintenance will understandably be questioning whether they’re doing the right thing.

Thankfully, a group of state transportation agencies, all of which use the Maintenance Decision Support System (MDSS) to help make winter maintenance decisions, have conducted a pooled fund study (PFS).

What is the MDSS PFS?

Supported by the US Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration, to qualify as a PFS, more than one state transportation agency, federal agency, other municipal or metropolitan agency, college/university or private company must find the subject important enough to commit funds or other resources to conduct the research, planning and technology transfer activity.

This was the case with MDSS, which evaluates winter maintenance strategies — including treatment, application rates and timing — to recommend the most beneficial and cost-friendly methods of road maintenance to those responsible for keeping the roads safe and drivable throughout the winter season.

Several state transportation agencies came together to study MDSS-related issues. Complex variables such as sporadic and rapidly changing weather patterns that are difficult to forecast, new road maintenance treatments and limited staff funding, make standard road maintenance decisions challenging. In order to accommodate these challenges, the MDSS utilizes the scientific framework and computational tools to create an individualized treatment approach. With current road and weather conditions, predictions, and treatment options, MDSS can run a set of models to determine the best action based on given road surface behavior predictions for a specific area.

The PFS has established several research objectives. The main purpose of the PFS is to create an operational MDSS that will meet the requirements of the participating state transportation departments. Through the PFS, state transportation departments can assess the need, potential benefit, and receptivity for state and regional MDSSs.

Ultimately, the PFS hopes to define functional end-user requirements for an operational MDSS that can:

  1. Access current road and weather conditions
  2. Forecast weather that will affect transportation routes

  3. Predict how road conditions will change in response to candidate maintenance treatments

  4. Suggest optimal maintenance strategies to maintenance personnel, and
  5. Evaluate the effectiveness of maintenance treatments that are applied.

The PFS has shown benefit through MDSS not only for the recommendations, but also in other aspects of winter weather information. The MDSS gives a one-stop winter weather information location. Not only can you see maintenance recommendations, but also radar and snow accumulation to validate the recommendation.  These will aid in better anticipation of storm events and road conditions so area road managers can be more confident in their road maintenance decisions. Further, they can then evaluate their decision for cost effectiveness by matching expected weather impact and actual road safety during the storm period.

Can MDSS really make a difference?

MDSS demonstrates potential for significant cost savings and improved service:

  • A case study of five New Hampshire winters showed that if MDSS had been used, 23% less salt could have provided the same level of service and an overall benefit/cost ratio of 8:1.
  • In its deployment of MDSS in 2008-2009, Indiana estimated overall savings at $11 million, 27% of its winter budget. Based on actual experience, several of the participating states are moving to statewide deployment.

The success of the PFS is a direct result of strong collaboration between the participating states and their contractor.

Pool Fund Study States

States that have participated or are current members of the MDSS PFS.