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Tolling Points

A Well-Funded Toll Road Puts Safety Concerns on Ice

Road salt and de-icing solution might not be the most obvious symbols of a safe, well-run toll road.

But when temperatures dropped just below freezing last week in the Dallas-Forth Worth area, it fell to the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) to deploy round-the-clock maintenance crews, armed with MD-20 de-icer and plows, to keep the roads open and safe.

There’s a particular temperature range when highway ice is particularly treacherous, and those were exactly the weather conditions NTTA reported in a driver alert at December 11: at 5:03 AM, sensor readings showed surface temperatures from 23.7 to 28.8°F on key overpasses and one bridge.

Cautioning drivers to “use caution, drive slowly and allow extra distance between vehicles,” and supplying contact information for the authority’s command center and customer service line, were the most visible part of the response. But the deep expertise behind a severe weather alert goes much farther.

Toll roads offer a safe ride all year round, but two factors drive their response to severe weather: expectation and opportunity. Because users are paying a toll for their ride, they look forward to a high maintenance standard. And because toll roads have ongoing funding, in an era of a soaring highway infrastructure deficit and a near-bankrupt Highway Trust Fund, they have the wherewithal to deliver.

And so it was that IBTTA’s 2013 Operations and MAINEtenance Workshop last May included in-depth presentations on the snow challenges facing many tolling agencies in an era of severe weather, not to mention a deep dive into the intricacies of salting and ice controlin Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Maine. A highlight was a talk by Michael Lowrey and Patrick Condon of the Indiana Toll Road Concession Company (ITRCC). The agency’s 156.7 center lane miles of highway and 100 miles of ramps receive an average of 88 inches of snow per year, blowing in on heavy winds from the southeastern tip of Lake Michigan. Condon said the 2013 snow season started out with light coverage through the end of January, but ended with four snowstorms in April.

“Did it accumulate? No. Did we have to have people out and ready? Yes, because we still had bridges that had to be treated.”

Condon said storms have become less predictable in recent years, making it tougher to concentrate resources where they’re needed. “It’s a prediction nightmare, and trying to budget can be a real nightmare. Now these storms average about 80 miles wide,” compared to a 30-mile span in the past, making it much more difficult to allocate equipment.

Next year’s transportation reauthorization debate will concentrate on very large budget numbers, large enough to address an enormous infrastructure crisis. But on the front lines, highway funding is about a commuter on a highway, possibly with two kids strapped safely into child seats in the back, hoping a crew on a 12-hour shift had enough MD-20 de-icer to keep the road safe. Every state needs funding options, with enough flexibility to possibly choose tolling, if it is right for them, to meet their needs.



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