PLEASANTVILLE — Bill Rickert, a 30-year employee at the Atlantic City Expressway, remembers how snowplow crews used to rush haphazardly out on the toll road to battle the storms.
“In the old days, you would just go out there and ride around,” said Rickert, a former snowplow driver who now serves as lead maintenance foreman for the expressway.
Although plowing and salting remain staples for snow removal on the expressway, road crews are supplementing the old-fashioned methods with an array of sophisticated weather technology to improve their response to storms. This winter’s unusually harsh weather has made the high-tech aids as important as ever.
A fiber-optic network ties together all of the weather stations, road sensors and computer software that provide a snapshot of storm conditions along the entire expressway.
Jim Sullivan, deputy director of engineering and operations for the South Jersey Transportation Authority, the expressway’s operating agency, said the technology eliminates a lot of the guess work and ultimately makes things safer for motorists.
Rickert added that snowplow crews no longer blindly venture out on the expressway, hoping to find the brunt of the storm along a 47-mile road that stretches east-west across southern New Jersey.
“Instead of just riding around, it’s just so much easier to punch up the temperatures and other conditions (on a computer). That way, you know exactly what is out there and how to make the right decisions when it’s time to go,” Rickert said. “This is a lot more advanced.”
If any road in New Jersey is subject to the vagaries of the weather, it is the expressway. The weather tends to be snowier on its western tip stretching from Hammonton, Atlantic County, to Washington Township, Gloucester County. The expressway’s midsection through central Atlantic County offers a hodgepodge of weather. Its eastern end in Atlantic City usually has more mild weather because of the ocean’s moderating influence.
Sullivan noted that the expressway’s schizophrenic weather was evident during Tuesday morning’s nuisance storm. Crews cleared 4 inches of snow from the western end, but the eastern fringes had nothing but rain.
The expressway has weather stations in Pleasantville, Hammonton and Winslow Township to keep track of conditions in the highway’s three main sections. The centerpiece of each weather station is a 60-foot antenna that resembles a cellphone tower.
“It’s kind of innocuous. Nobody knows what it is,” Sullivan said of the tower overlooking the expressway at Exit 5 in Pleasantville.
While motorists may pay the weather stations little or no attention, the towers are closely monitoring the traffic and road surface. A surveillance camera hangs from the top of the structures. The towers also are equipped with sensors that measure the temperature, winds, rainfall and snow amounts.
Sensors embedded in the road communicate with the towers to collect the weather data. All of the information is fed to computers at the expressway’s maintenance facilities.
On the expressway’s weather homepage, maintenance crews can view the road temperatures and freezing points for each section of highway. They can detect whether any ice is on the road. The sensors show them the amount of rock salt and anti-icing chemicals that were applied by the road crews and if more are needed.
Out on the road, expressway supervisors rely on weather sensors installed in their vehicles. Information collected by those sensors allows the supervisors to direct road crews to icy areas, particularly the bridges and ramps that are prone to freezing, Sullivan explained.
The expressway began using its high-tech weather systems four years ago. Since then, the highway has become much more efficient in responding to storms, cutting its expenses by 50 percent, Sullivan said.
“Before, there was a lot of waste,” he said. “You would just put a lot of salt on the road.”
The New Jersey Department of Transportation also uses advanced technology to protect its roads.
One key piece of the DOT’s storm-response system is a traffic operations center in Cherry Hill. Traffic conditions on busy highways throughout South Jersey are monitored on a bank of video screens at the operations center. Road sensors keep track of traffic volume and warn the center if there are slowdowns. Computers can take over to automatically adjust traffic signals to flush cars through trouble spots.
But for all the marvels of modern technology, road crews still heavily depend on the old methods of rock salt, brine solution and even sand to treat the highways. Since Jan. 1, the expressway has spread more than 2.5 million pounds of rock salt and racked up hundreds of man-hours to clear nearly 20 inches of snow.
New Jersey’s severe winter has cut deeply into salt supplies, forcing the state to seek emergency shipments to replenish depleted stockpiles. County officials also are struggling to keep enough salt in reserve to respond to future storms. They said they have enough on hand for about two or three more storms but will need extra salt if even more snow comes their way.
“We’re no better or no worse than anybody else out there,” said Bill Rafferty, Cumberland County’s engineer.
Rafferty estimated that Cumberland has about 1,300 tons of salt left, matching the amount the county used during the unusually snowy winter of 2009-10. If the salt runs out, Cumberland will go with what Rafferty described as Plan B — putting sand on the roads.
Bill Reinert, director of Atlantic County’s Public Works Department, said salt supplies dipped dramatically a few weeks ago, but the county has been able to rebuild its stockpiles with new deliveries. Atlantic County now has about 3,000 tons of salt left.
Atlantic County has gone through so much salt this season that it began using up stockpiles left over from the relatively mild winters in recent years.
“It was literally the bottom of the barrel,” Reinert said.
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