Nebraska's snow plows are sporting some extra brains behind their blades this season.
The state is outfitting all of its 697 plow trucks with technology to track them while they move and monitor the amount of salt and brine they spread during winter storms.
The technology has been installed in about 200 trucks so far and should be deployed statewide by next winter.
The goal is to make better use of Nebraska's vast, taxpayer-owned, highway-clearing resources.
Last winter, the state Department of Roads spent more than $6 million on salt and nearly $5 million on other anti-icing or ice-melting products, although some of that was saved for future seasons.
Keeping tabs on the use of deicer will help ensure those materials are spread evenly and effectively across the state's 10,000 miles of highways, said Tom Renninger, assistant manager of operations at the Roads Department.
Now, he said, "we're actually going to know how much material we're applying."
The upgrades are part of a five-year, $6 million contract with Parsons Corp. for a so-called maintenance decision support system that uses weather forecasts to recommend the type and quantity of material crews should use to treat roads.
It's among the more significant, albeit less visible, upgrades being made as part of ongoing efforts to modernize Nebraska's road-clearing operations.
Other changes are visible from the car window.
Roger Kalkwarf hopes drivers don't do double-takes when they see a normal plow dragging one of his new tow-plows along Interstate 80 or another wide stretch of road this winter.
"You're not daydreaming," said Kalkwarf, who oversees plowing of state highways in Southeast Nebraska. "It's something real."
The tow blades attach to the rear of a truck and clear snow from an adjacent traffic lane, allowing a single truck to cover two lanes at once: one with its standard front-end plow and the other with the tow-plow.
Each tow-plow costs about $105,000. This year, the Roads Department has 26 of them ready to roll.
Kalkwarf has 11 in his area, District 1, including three new tow-plows being used this year to clear U.S. 77 south of Lincoln and Nebraska 2 east of Palmyra.
"It's a fantastic move as far as for the traveling public because we're wiping out two lanes instead of one," he said. "That makes a heck of a difference."
And if winter packs a wallop the plows can't clear, the state can test another new tool at its disposal.
This year, the Roads Department installed remote-control gates for closing on-ramps at eight spots along Interstate 80, including the I-180, 27th Street and 56th Street interchanges in Lincoln and the Waverly interchange.
The gates feature railroad-style crossing arms and signs with flashing lights, and can be triggered miles away with the push of a button. That keeps plow operators in their trucks clearing roads during serious storms.
The other four interchanges with remote-control gates are in the North Platte area.
Gates will be replaced at about 70 remaining interchanges between Wyoming and the Omaha area within two years, at a cost of about $8 million, said Austin Yates, information technology systems engineer with the Roads Department's operations division.
Omaha wasn't included because its high traffic volume means the interstate there rarely closes.
Roads officials are always looking for ways to improve safety while saving taxpayer money, said Renninger.
For example, installing GPS tracking devices in every truck will allow dispatchers to quickly summon the nearest plow to a slick spot following a crash. That can prevent additional accidents and keep other plow operators from traveling unnecessary miles.
"Everything we do on the road reflects man hours," Renninger said. "Our No. 1 priority is we want every customer that's driving our highways systems to get home safely — and then we want to build efficiencies into that."