Bangor panel wants snow plowing to go high-tech in hopes of cutting cost

A Bangor Public Works plow is nearly obscured by snow as it travels Essex Street during a past storm.
BDN FILE PHOTO
A Bangor Public Works plow is nearly obscured by snow as it travels Essex Street during a past storm. Buy Photo
Posted Nov. 20, 2013, at 3:50 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Plow trucks will do more than just push snow and spread salt around to make the roads passable if the city has its way.

During a Government Operations Committee meeting earlier this week, Bangor Public Works Director Dana Wardwell proposed installing global positioning system units on part of its fleet, gathering data that might help the department learn where it can be more efficient.

Bangor Public Works has a fleet of 42 vehicles, including 10 sanding and salting trucks with plows attached. Wardwell said he would like to put GPS units on all 10 salting and sanding trucks, as well as on three street sweepers and a pair of vehicles yet to be determined.

“We try to be at the forefront of utilizing these sorts of technology,” Wardwell said.

The 15 GPS units would cost the city about $6,400. The Government Operations Committee supported the idea this week, recommending that the full council approve the purchase at its next meeting.

Wardwell said the GPS carries “endless possibilities on the amount of data that can be provided to managers.”

For more than a decade, plow trucks in Bangor have been using computers to monitor and control the amount of salt the trucks are spreading, and some vehicles are outfitted with devices that measure road temperature, Wardwell said. GPS will offer something new — a real-time view of some of that data and a map of where trucks are, data about how fast they’re traveling, whether they’re spreading sand or salt, or whether they’re stuck in traffic or moving freely, and more.

Currently, trucks have to come back to the station in order for a foreman to look at the data from the spreader computers.

Wardwell said that by looking at routes, public works might be able to change truck paths to run more efficiently, saving both fuel and salt or sand. The department also would be able to determine whether some roads are going too long without a plow run during a storm.

It appears Bangor would be among the first Maine communities to put GPS units on its plow trucks.

Maine Department of Transportation doesn’t use GPS units in its fleet of some 400 plow trucks, according to MDOT spokesman Ted Talbot. MDOT does have the computerized spreader that measures the output of sand and salt.

“You always want to be more efficient on your routes,” Talbot said. “Do we have an eye toward GPS? Sure,” but it might not be in the near future, he added.

Talbot said he isn’t aware of any municipalities with GPS plows.

Portland has looked at the potential of using GPS on its plow trucks in the past, but has yet to take action, according to the public works department.

Portland Water District installed GPS units on its vehicles to improve scheduling and “support employee safety,” according to Michelle Clements, spokeswoman for the district.

They use the devices to locate the closest employees for emergency water shut-off calls; see if an employee’s vehicle is still in the area if they don’t respond to cellphone calls; or look up driving history of vehicles in the wake of complaints to see if the complaints are warranted.

“We are very pleased with the system,” she said.

Mike Myatt, executive director of Bangor Housing Authority said the agency installed GPS units in its fleet of 25 vehicles, mostly service vans, in September 2012.

Myatt said the units are used to get a real-time view of where the vehicles are. From a dispatching perspective, that allows Bangor Housing to see who is closest to a call from a resident who has a broken furnace or water pipe, for example.

Bangor Housing also can see whether a vehicle is idling and where it is. If it’s idling too long, supervisors can call the worker to ask them to turn off the vehicle while it’s sitting at a work site.

In the first winter, Bangor Public Works would collect and review data from the GPS units to see how it might be useful, according to Wardwell.

“Obviously you can pull a lot of information out of this, but how much of it will be really useful to us?” Wardwell said.

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