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Fighting Snow on the New York Thruway

Tom Stewart
Albany, NY

I have been fortunate to have great collaborators who have described our projects in their research summaries. I have been involved in one rather offbeat study that has not been mentioned.

Roger Pielke, Jr., National Center for Atmospheric Research, and I have been funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study the value of improved weather forecasts in surface transportation.

We chose, as a case study, the winter operation of the New York Thruway, where about $10 million is spent on "snowfighting" (plowing and salting) every winter. The decision makers are the supervisors at 23 maintenance facilities distributed along the 500-mile toll road.

Doctoral student Radhika Nath and I visited several facilities and interviewed supervisors about how they cope with the uncertainty in their environment. We found that they try to anticipate snow and must begin preparations 2-4 hours in advance of a storm.

They have many sources of weather information, including forecasts, radar displays provided by a satellite link, and reports of approaching weather from toll barriers and maintenance facilities to their west. In effect, they make their own local forecasts. The supervisors must guard carefully against false negatives (not plowing and salting when it is needed) and are not so concerned about false positives (sending out snowplows and salting when it is not necessary). This is consistent with their primary mission, which is to serve public safety and convenience. The question that we need to answer is whether better forecasts can be used to reduce the unnecessary use of labor, fuel, and salt without compromising public safety or inconveniencing drivers.

In order to estimate the economic value of improved forecasts, we needed information on the quality of the current forecast, the costs of snowfighting, the incidence of various types of winter weather, and the expected improvement in forecast quality. The necessary data have proved difficult to obtain, but we have pieced them together from various sources. The completed study will provide an example of how descriptive decision studies can be used to estimate the value of information.

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