Weather-Savvy Roads: Colorado's Pathfinder Process
U.S. Department of Transportation
The intent of this case study is to illustrate a successful Pathfinder process from the State of Colorado for organizations interested in implementing Pathfinder.
PATHFINDER CASE STUDY
The Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) has always maintained a good working relationship with the weather forecasting community. The National Weather Service (NWS) has three forecast offices throughout Colorado—Boulder, Pueblo, and Grand Junction—that work together to formulate a statewide view of weather conditions. CDOT contracts with a private road weather forecaster, Iteris, Inc., to provide road condition forecasts during major weather events. The emergence of Pathfinder gave CDOT the opportunity to strengthen its relationships with the weather forecasting community and determine the impact that weather events have on State highways and interstates, and to ensure that travelers receive consistent messages regarding travel conditions.
The Colorado Pathfinder process has five key steps, as illustrated in the figure below.
The intended outcome of the Pathfinder process is to have a unified message of an incoming weather occurrence. This event will then be transmitted to alert the public about the forecasted event and expected roadway conditions. Prior to a severe weather event, a weather and road condition forecast briefing is prepared in PowerPoint by the Colorado NWS Forecast Offices, CDOT Road Weather Manager, Iteris, Inc., and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) and distributed to the key weather forecasters and CDOT staff. A pre-storm conference call occurs 24–48 hours prior to the weather event affecting Colorado's roadways and includes numerous people involved in responding to the storm or otherwise impacted. This same group formulates an implementation plan that involves maintenance operations strategies and communication of consistent messaging to the public. The plan is then executed and post-storm reviews conducted to learn how to improve next time.
Further details about these steps in the Colorado Pathfinder process are described below.
1. Weather and Road Condition Forecast Briefing
The weather and road condition forecast briefing highlights the weather event overview, conditions, and commutes affected. It is prepared by the NWS, CDOT Road Weather Manager, the CAIC, and Iteris, Inc. A sample of weather event conditions expected is provided below.
Forecasts of beginning and end times of the event, temperatures, precipitation types and amounts (e.g., snowfall rates and totals—see map), and wind speeds are provided for 17 separate regions across the State. Additionally, avalanche concerns at various mountain pass locations are identified.
The briefing is provided to CDOT management and staff in the 5 regional offices, traffic operations, maintenance, and communications functions, as well as the State Office of Emergency Management and other weather forecasters. The briefing also serves to inform stakeholders of a pending storm and its potential impact on travel. The forecast is reviewed by the road weather manager who gains a complete understanding of the event (type, level, geographic extent, duration, etc.) and hosts the pre-storm conference call, if appropriate.
SNOW PACKED AND ICY ROADS ARE LIKELY ON THE MOUNTAIN PASSES BEGINNING THIS EVENING AND ON EAST FACING MOUNTAIN SLOPES AS EARLY AS FRIDAY AFTERNOON THROUGH SATURDAY MIDDAY. SLUSHY/SNOW PACKED ROADS POSSIBLE ACROSS I-25 URBAN CORRIDOR AND ALL ALONG THE FRONT RANGE FOOTHILLS AFTER MIDNIGHT SATURDAY THROUGH MIDDAY SATURDAY. I-25 ACROSS RATON AND PALMER DIVIDE COULD ALSO BECOME SNOW PACKED AND ICY.
CDOT Weather Briefing 03/30/2017
2. Pre-Storm Conference Call
A pre-storm conference call occurs 24–48 hours prior to the weather event that will affect Colorado roadways. (Call attendees are shown in the information box below.) The call focuses on three key topics that together inform the development of a plan of action:
The operational readiness assessment that occurs in this step is critical to CDOT maintenance preparation for, and response to, the pending weather event to ensure safe travel around and through Colorado.
Pre-Storm Conference Call Attendees
3. Implementation Plan Development
The outcome of the pre-storm conference call is an implementation plan. The plan includes actions, responsibility, and timing of activities. The actions can include:
Example DMS Messages
4. Plan Execution
The plan is executed by the responsible parties. The maintenance plan is executed to ensure roads are treated and maintained throughout the storm. The unified messages are disseminated by the weather community, CDOT, and emergency management to ensure there is consistent communication about the upcoming storm. This includes CDOT messaging on its traveler information website, social media (example below), and on DMS. Additionally, messages informing the public of maintenance activities, and the location and timing of pre-treatment and snowplowing efforts are disseminated.
5. After Action Reviews
For significant storms, after action reviews focused on maintenance responses are conducted, documented, and shared with maintenance managers to continuously improve treatment strategies, readiness, and sharing of resources. The reviews are also shared with the Division of Emergency Management and the Division of Transportation System Management and Operations (TSMO) staff. Pathfinder processes are also reviewed and suggested improvements are expressed. These reviews have improved practices and addressed deficiencies.
Helpful Practice: Documenting Business Processes
In the early days of implementing Pathfinder, CDOT discovered that work activities were inconsistently implemented because each region had a slightly different methodology and different assigned responsibilities. They embarked on an activity to document their business processes and found this to be a very useful way to understand activity and data flows, responsibilities, and timing.
Below is an example of the business process to communicate with stakeholders internal and external to CDOT.
The benefits of the Pathfinder process are realized by CDOT maintenance operations with more focused and efficient storm treatment strategies, by CDOT traffic management to implement effective management approaches, and by the motoring public who are more clearly informed of the impacts on their travel with consistent, impact-based road weather forecasts.
An internal survey of maintenance managers indicated that the majority felt Pathfinder increased communications and collaboration during storm events. They would like some refinements in the timing, length, and regional/specific area focus on the calls. CDOT intends to continue refining the process and implement changes during the winter of 2017-2018.
CDOT is currently developing a public facing survey to learn how the Pathfinder information is benefiting the traveling public. The survey will focus on both maintenance activities (satisfaction with winter road maintenance) and travel information (sources, satisfaction with information, conditions as expected, etc.). This survey will be implemented during the winter of 2017-2018.
Performance Measurement Opportunities
CDOT is continuing to find ways to measure the impacts of major weather events. One of those possible performance measures is travel time. The graph below illustrates some early work that CDOT is conducting to understand how weather events can impact travel time at key locations on urban areas interstates. This example is on I-25 between the cities of Colorado Springs and Castle Rock. The storm lasted approximately four days and the colored lines indicate travel time by day in each direction. Travel time can increase 50 percent or more during the most intense times of the storm. As indicated during the early morning hours for northbound I-25, a major crash or fatality can also have a significant impact on travel times.
Coordination with Adjacent States
CDOT is reaching out to adjacent states to expand the Pathfinder approaches beyond the Colorado borders. Early efforts with Wyoming have been successful, and Nebraska and Kansas will also be engaged to coordinate maintenance activities and travel messages.
The strengthened collaboration between CDOT and weather forecasters has been a very positive experience in Colorado and significant progress has been made to implement Pathfinder. Colorado intends to continue evolving the Pathfinder program. An example is CDOT is upgrading their VMS Message Guidelines to improve language consistency. CDOT invites input and feedback from all stakeholders.
For More Information
Paul Pisano, FHWA
Lisa Streisfeld, CDOT
David Johnson, CDOT
United States Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration