The city of West Des Moines is a suburban community in central Iowa of about 68,000 residents (doubling to over 150,000 during the daytime due to its location at an interstate crossroads) with 800 lane miles of pavement that are all maintained by the West Des Moines Department of Public Services.
West Des Moines Public Services has been very proactive over the years on winter maintenance operations. They have been incrementally enhancing agency practices and continuously improving performance by leveraging available resources to deploy new technologies and equipment, including:
- Road weather information systems (RWIS)
- Infrared sensors for pavement friction determination
- Automatic vehicle location (AVL)
- Mobile sensors on plows and other agency vehicles
- Integrating Mobile Observations (IMO)
- Software, including that for route optimization and a maintenance decision support system (MDSS) for material type and application determination.
These efforts have been accomplished by identifying trends and pushing technology to continuously improve and automate agency practices.
Upgrades have been made incrementally to the entire fleet of snow plow vehicles over about 10 years, beginning with the installation of AVL around 2008. This technology determines material spread rates, pavement temperature, and the plow position. As of winter 2017-2018, all 16 snow plow vehicles—which are a mix of single- and tandem-axle vehicles—are equipped with AVL, automated spread controls, and sensors.
West Des Moines contracts with a private-sector provider for weather services, such as RWIS information and MDSS outputs for strategies on how to handle storms. The MDSS outputs provide recommendations to operators on the most appropriate treatment strategy given the circumstances, including material and spreading rates. AVL and real-time data from the plow trucks are used to monitor the storm and road weather response, which includes feedback to the MDSS.
West Des Moines has also implemented plow truck route optimization. Once in place, route optimization allowed West Des Moines to more effectively meet level-of-service goals in a timely manner for arterial, collector, and residential networks.
While IMO deployment has improved performance for West Des Moines Public Services, the numerous challenges that were identified and overcome have generated valuable lessons learned, including the following tips for deployment.
- Establish champions. The key to success for any new initiative is having an agency champion or team to manage planning, implementation, and operations. Contractors or vendors may not understand the larger picture of what the agency is trying to do, especially something that is new and innovative. Engaging agency staff is key to seeing a concept through to successful completion.
- Monitor new technology trends. State transportation agencies may receive federal funding or encouragement to pursue innovative technologies. Local transportation agencies, on the other hand, may have to be more proactive to identify technology trends to enhance operations. However, local agencies have more autonomy to do research and try new technologies independently given their smaller bureaucracy.
- Anticipate vendor changes. Standardized formats and plug-and-play (i.e., seamless interoperability and inter-connectivity) are common in Europe but tend to be more proprietary in the United States. A plug-and-play option with increased interoperability between systems is generally not available. For example, when West Des Moines decided to get a new AVL hardware provider, the entire existing system had to be replaced. Therefore, it is important to ask vendors and identify alternatives for service and support. Consider: what can the agency do if the company goes out of business and no longer offers support?
- Understand availability of updates. Technology evolves rapidly, but the core of it may be deployed on plow trucks for use over the next 10 years. Therefore, it is important to understand the availability of service, support, and frequency of needed software updates to maintain pace with rapid changes that can quickly cause a system to be outdated.
- Educate and train staff. Agency staff and management sometimes resist change, which can negatively impact the effectiveness of new practices or technologies. Education and training should address the goals and benefits of new practices and technologies to achieve buy-in. With education and training, staff may become more willing to learn how the systems work and modify their work activities as needed.
- Schedule regular calibration. Regularly scheduled calibration of equipment is essential to ensure optimal performance and quality data. For example, maintenance staff have found that some sensors can take as long as 15 to 30 minutes to accurately measure outside pavement temperatures after being inside a warmer, garage environment.
- Integrate technology. Installing sensors adds complexity to plow truck hydraulic and/or electrical systems. If not handled appropriately, this can present challenges between the technology, plow operator, and person maintaining the technology. Although it may seem as if everything works in unison, agency staff must integrate the technology so that if one component fails, the entire system does not shut down and the plow truck can continue to operate on the road when needed. Increased collaboration with system vendors may be useful in addressing these issues.