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Freezing rain causes chaos on Grand Forks streets

Meridian to be acquired by California traffic management firm

By Kevin Bonham

Herald Staff Writer

Meridian Environmental Technology, a Grand Forks company that developed a 511 road condition and travel weather information system, is being purchased by a California-based traffic management technology firm.

Iteris Inc., based in Santa Anna, Calif., will pay $4 million, plus as much as another $2 million over the next 24 months, depending on the company's performance, according to a stock-purchase agreement signed this week.

"This was an obvious strategic move for us since our companies have worked very well together on various projects in the past, including 511 travel information and weather forecasting services," Meridian President and CEO Leon Osborne said.

Meridian, which will operate as a wholly owned subsidiary, began operations in 1996 as a privately held company by Leon and Kathy Osborne and a handful of investors.

Meridian employs about 60 people, professionals in the areas of atmospheric science, computer science and informational technology.

"We think in time we would be able to expand the size of our organization," said John Osborne, Meridian's director of marketing development.

Meridian's focus has been to provide state-of-the-art systems and operational services designed to enhance the safety and mobility of the nation's highway system, Leon Osborne said.

The 511 travel system is based on the emergency 911 system. It allows telephone and cellular phone users to get up-to-date weather forecasts and road condition reports 48 hours in advance. The technology provides mile-by-mile information on road conditions, as well as the weather.

Meridian's 511 road information systems are used in eight states -- North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Nevada and Georgia.

Those eight states represent about 25 percent of the U.S. land mass and 8 percent of the nation's population. That eight-state system accounts for about 20 percent of all the calls in the 42 states that operate 511 services, said John Osborne, who is the Osbornes' son.

Meridian's 511 systems logged its record volume of 1.573 million in December 2009 across the eight states in which it operates. Of that total, 944,000 came with a one-week span during a blizzard that hit the Great Plains over the Christmas holiday.

"We didn't lose any calls," John Osborne said. "Anything that could get to the system was answered."

Nebraska logged the highest total that month, with 370,000, with North Dakota calls reaching 116,000. The highest monthly volume from travelers in North Dakota has been 170,000, in March 2009.

Wyoming traditionally has the highest volume of 511 calls.

How much deicer?

Meridian also has developed a Maintenance Decision Support System, which offers winter highway management tools to state transportation departments.

It uses a model system developed by Meridian in the 1990s to forecast road surface conditions for state highway transportation departments.

It helps maintenance agencies determine when to plow or sand roadways, as whether or not to apply materials and how much to apply.

"There are some places where, if a storm's coming, they go out and say 'let's throw some stuff out,'" John Osborne said. "We make it much more effective and efficient. It reduces manpower time and material costs."

Some states have reported annual road maintenance cost savings of nearly $10 million.

John Osborne said Iteris' traffic management technology will help the company reach new clients in the Midwest.

"We can actually bring that into the Great Plains states," he said. "We do have increasing traffic areas, not just Minneapolis and Kansas City, but Fargo and other growing cities. We have to worry about safety, primarily with our winter weather."

Leon Osborne, a Texas native, came to UND in 1979. He is a Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at UND and director of UND's Surface Transportation Weather Research Center. Osborne holds a bachelor's in physics and a master's in meteorology. He also serves as director of UND's Regional Weather Information Center.

"It's a tremendous opportunity, not only for Meridian, but we believe it has some particular long-term benefits for the region," he said of the acquisition. "It brings together two companies with very strong capacity and capabilities. While they don't overlap, they work very well together."

Reach Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 110; or send e-mail to kbonham@gfherald.com.

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