Taxpayers paid thousands each time S-Curve anti-icing system was used

The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) is retiring all 175 "pucks" or spray nozzles that were built into the S-Curve as part of an anti-icing system when the new bridges were put in back in 2000

Was million dollar anti-icing system a waste?

GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. - For years they've been shooting the "hockey pucks" to anti-ice the S-Curve in downtown Grand Rapids.  But, in a couple of months those pucks are going to be officially "shot" and some are wondering why. 

The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) is retiring all 175 "pucks" or spray nozzles that were built into the S-Curve as part of an anti-icing system when the new bridges were put in back in 2000.  The devices shoot out solution during the winter when the bridges are dry before winter storms are expected to hit the area.

The 13 Watchdog team broke the news back in January, MDOT is taking the system down permanently after this winter but we wanted to take a closer look to see if the installation of what was a $1.2 million anti-icing system was a waste of time and money.

More than 120,000 vehicles travel, on average, every day through the S-Curve, which puts the road in the top 10 across Michigan for busiest highways. 

The hockey puck-like devices were built into the roadway back in 2000 as a way to make the S-Curve safer to drive on in the winter.  In final evaluation, the system is receiving mixed reviews and is being shut down after less than two decades of service.

The automated spraying system pumps anti-icing solution through the nozzles onto the roadway and takes approximately 30 minutes to complete the cycle.  It's intended to spray the liquid out so tires will pick up what's on the pavement and track it down the road, ultimately preventing any ice build-up.

We've been told by several sources the S-Curve's anti-icing system never really worked how it was intended to function.

In our investigation, we found there were several issues from the beginning with the system.  Often, the automated system was being tripped too often by trucks that had snow on top of the trailers.  That meant, the S-Curve was getting a healthy dose of anti-icing solution when there wasn't a storm coming.

"The automation was too sensitive and we couldn't tone it down," Kent County Road Commission Director of Maintenance Jerry Byrne said. 

That means workers at the Kent County Road Commission only turned it on manually.

Some of the pucks also failed and parts needed to be replaced.  Byrne compared some of the failings in the system to what typically happens to a residential sprinkler system as it ages, with many pieces potentially breaking down.

One of the other drawbacks was the fact they couldn't turn the system on when the road was already wet, limiting its production.  

Byrne told us the system was used, on average, approximately once a week during the winter.  He said 200 gallons of solution are typically used at one time at a cost of $700-$800. 

In our investigation, by adding the final price tag and the cost for the liquid solution, it cost taxpayers at least $5,500 every time the pumps were turned on.

Byrne defended the cost.

"If you reduce accidents, it's worth it," Byrne said. 

Instead of using the spray nozzles, Byrne says next winter the Kent County Road Commission will be using their anti-icing trucks to take care of the S-Curve.

"To us and to MDOT, it didn't make sense continue to stick repair costs into a 17-year old product when we are doing anti-icing to the north and to the south anyways," Byrne said.
 
MDOT's Director Kirk Steudle told us last month he thought the anti-icing system was a good trial.

"It's an innovation," Steudle said.  "Maybe today we would do that differently and we haven't done any since then.  I don't fault them for trying back then because they were trying to do something different, instead of the same old, same old."

The anti-icing system is being shut down but could be used again in the future.

Byrne and Steudle both showed a willingness to take a look at a future "fixed" anti-icing project, depending on what it is.

The 13 Watchdog team found multiple studies that showed mixed results for these kind of "fixed automated spray technology" (FAST) systems. 

A study done by the Colorado Department of Transportation in October of 2014 found: "Documented experience with FAST systems in North America and Europe has revealed a mixed picture. On the one hand, several studies have indicated reductions in mobile operations costs and significant reductions in crash frequency, resulting in favorable benefit-cost ratios. On the other hand, there have been a variety of problems related to activation, system maintenance and training."

A study done by researchers in Canada back in 2013 had a positive view of the technology:  "Fixed Automated Spray Technology Anti-Icing systems are a viable tool to reducing weather related traffic crashes."

As for the installation of all those hockey pucks in the S-Curve, did taxpayers receive a return on their investment of $1.2 million. Did the spraying prevent enough accidents to justify the cost?

Byrne thought it had saved money by preventing accidents but acknowledged it was tough to calculate and difficult to determine how effective the system turned out to be.  

"Any time we can save accidents, it was worth it," Byrne said. "Can you prove it? Probably not."

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