Weather Channel Addicts, Meet Snowplow Sites

The region copes with the season's first round of sleet, freezing rain and ice after Tuesday's snowfall.
By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 28, 2009

People who live and work in the D.C. area can never get enough information when it comes to snow.

That's why Montgomery County officials offer residents a Web-based snow map telling them which streets have been plowed and a number they can call if they have complaints. On its snow information Web site, the Virginia Department of Transportation offers a video of its snowplows hard at work.

But now officials in the District and Howard County have upped the ante in the snow information sweepstakes.

Both offer residents the chance to track snowplows as they work. The District's site has an added bonus: a photo of an actual intersection or building if the location is equipped with a camera.

The excitement! The drama!

In Howard, all 120 of the county's snow removal vehicles are equipped with Global Positioning System units. Go to Howard's site and follow the plows as they, well, plow.

Bill Malone, chief of Howard's bureau of highways, said giving the public access to a system similar to the one he and his crew use to deploy vehicles is a cost-effective way to let residents know what roads are clear and whether they might be better off staying home and telecommuting. "A lot of times it's not obvious when a truck has salted [an area] because the road is still white, but people can look on the map and know," he said.

Be forewarned: A brief experiment with the site, which can be refreshed every 15 minutes, shows that it's not that easy to locate the plows on the large countywide map. But the site does offer a color-coded key to see whether your street or commute route has been cleared, salted, or cleared and salted.

The District's site offers a similar experience using color-coded dots. The city's technology is so sophisticated that on some vehicles managers can tell not only where a truck is but also what it is doing (Is it salting? Is it plowing?), said John Lisle, a spokesman for the D.C. Department of Transportation.

Officials with the Virginia Department of Transportation, which is responsible for plowing the bulk of the roads in the state, have installed GPS units on their plows, but they do not offer the public access to plow activity, a spokeswoman said.

Montgomery officials considered installing GPS units on 175 plows but decided it wasn't cost-effective, said county spokeswoman Esther Bowring. But she noted that last January county officials launched a "storm operations center" that opens on days such as yesterday, when the weather is bad. Officials track snowplow progress via radio, she said.

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