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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 65· No. 6 > A Hallmark of Context-Sensitive Design

May/June 2002
Vol. 65· No. 6

A Hallmark of Context-Sensitive Design

by Steve Moler

Take a drive north along U.S. 93 just outside Missoula, MT, and you'll see some of the most breathtaking scenery in this country. But you'll also see an odd-looking billboard for this rural two-lane road. Before you go much farther, you'll pass some ominous markers scattered here and there along this 56-mile (90-kilometer) corridor, which leads from Evaro to Polson through the Flathead Indian Reservation. Each marker signifies a site where someone perished in a fatal automobile crash. The billboard? It reads: "Pray for me, I drive Hwy. 93."

This stretch of U.S. 93 is a vital link between I-90, western Montana's major east-west thoroughfare, and premier recreational sites at Flathead Lake and Glacier National Park. But increased traffic volume, combined with an absence of passing and turning lanes and adequate shoulders, produced one of Montana's most dangerous roadways. From 1995 through 1999, for example, 42 people were killed and 727 injured along this stretch of roadway, an unusually high rate of mortality and injury for this type of highway.

But the highway's reputation is about to change. After more than 15 years of painstaking planning and negotiations, the Evaro-to-Polson section is about to get a $120 million upgrade that's expected to improve the highway's safety and performance significantly while minimizing environmental impacts and respecting Native American culture.

Historic Agreement Reached

On December 20, 2000, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), Montana Department of Transportation (MDT), and the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) signed a historic memorandum of agreement that has ended lengthy project delays and moved the project closer to construction. The agreement outlines areas where the three groups could agree on lane configurations, design criteria, and environmental impacts and enhancements.

"We wanted to create a highway corridor that everyone would be proud of," says FHWA Montana Division Administrator Jan Brown. "We used a process that considered not only transportation needs but respected cultural, community, and environmental values. I think this process will become the way we do business in many of our future projects."

The Evaro-to-Polson section is part of MDT's broader strategy to rehabilitate the entire 187-mile (301-kilometer) section of U.S. 93 from Idaho to British Columbia. The south section, 33.4 miles (53.7 kilometers) from Hamilton to Lolo just south of Missoula, will be upgraded to four lanes starting in about 3 to 4 years. The north section, 20.6 miles (33.1 kilometers) from Somers at the north end of Flathead Lake to Kali-spell, is being upgraded already to a four- and five-lane divided highway.

MDT initially proposed improving the Evaro-to-Polson leg, called the central section, to a four-lane undivided highway. But the CSKT, the reservation's tribal government, strongly opposed the plan because of concerns that a four-lane highway would accelerate non-tribal development, adversely affect wildlife and wetlands, and damage tribal cultural and spiritual sites.

If the highway was ever going to be improved, MDT and the CSKT had to overcome one fundamental challenge: how to balance the route's safety and capacity needs with the tribe's environmental and cultural concerns. The answer ultimately was found in a relatively new and emerging transportation approach called "context-sensitive design."

A Brief History of Context-Sensitive Design

  • The seeds of context-sensitive design were planted during development of the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). A coalition of environmental interests and other groups formed the Surface Transportation Policy Project, which sought to bring environmental, aesthetic, and cultural considerations into ISTEA discussions. In its final version, ISTEA emphasized "environmentally sensitive highway design" and increased public involvement and collaboration with local communities.
  • Enactment of the 1995 National Highway System Act put many of the Surface Transportation Policy Project environmental and aesthetic considerations into law as part of transportation design of Federal projects. The National Environmental Policy Act also requires Federal agencies to evaluate potential environmental and social consequences of transportation projects.
  • In July 1997, FHWA, in cooperation with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and several related interest groups, published Flexibility in Highway Design, which identifies and explains ways to use flexible design standards to lessen the impacts of transportation projects on the environment.
  • In May 1998, the Maryland Department of Transportation hosted a workshop called Thinking Beyond the Pavement, which brought together State and Federal officials, academia, and the public to discuss ways to integrate highway development with communities and the environment while maintaining safety and performance. The conference also focused on ways to move environmentally sensitive design practices into the mainstream of transportation design.
  • In mid-1998, the National Training Steering Committee, consisting of representatives from the Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, and Utah departments of transportation, was established to develop training programs and review policy guidelines for applying the principles of context-sensitive highway design within State highway departments.
  • In June 1999, a national Context Sensitive Highway Design Workshop in Reston, VA, hosted by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and co-sponsored by AASHTO, the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), and FHWA, heightened awareness and increased understanding of those working in context-sensitive design.
  • In September 2001, a national context-sensitive design workshop in Missoula, MT, used the U.S. 93 project to illustrate context-sensitive design.

What Is Context-Sensitive Design?

This new kind of planning has been defined as "a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach that involves all stakeholders to develop a transportation facility that fits its physical setting and preserves scenic, aesthetic, historic, and environmental resources, while maintaining safety and mobility." This kind of approach considers the total context of a transportation project.

Highway planners and engineers traditionally focus design objectives on obtaining the highest levels of safety and capacity for a road at the lowest cost, as outlined in the Green Book, the Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets. Planners and engineers accomplish these goals by building wider lanes and shoulders, along with straighter and flatter alignments. Engineering economics, a historical mainstay of engineering schools, focuses on solving problems at the lowest cost with little emphasis on cultural or other impacts.

But over the past two decades, engineers have used more flexibility in highway design guidelines to comply with current environmental laws and satisfy historical, cultural, and aesthetic interests. Context-sensitive design is the evolutionary change from a tradition of focusing almost exclusively on engineering.

In response to these changes, FHWA published in July 1997 Flexibility in Highway Design, a guide that provides ideas, options, and examples of ways to design more environmentally friendly highways without compromising safety and mobility. The guide stresses the importance of early public participation, identifying community interests, and fostering creative thinking as an essential component of achieving good highway design.

This map shows that the 56.3-mile (90.6-kilometer) $120 million Evaro-to-Polson reconstruction project spans the entire length of the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana
This map shows that the 56.3-mile (90.6-kilometer) $120 million Evaro-to-Polson reconstruction project spans the entire length of the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana.

"Engineers have to go out and talk to people, then address what they hear and apply it to highway engineering," says Tim Neuman, chief highway engineer and context-sensitive design expert with CH2M Hill. "You've got to find out what's important to them, then design the project around what people want."

Context-sensitive design emphasizes four critical approaches:

  • Actively seeks public involvement from the outset.
  • Develops designs that meet the needs of specific sites rather than trying to use centralized, standardized solutions, recognizing that different communities may have different values and priorities.
  • Engages landscape architects, planners, and architects who can contribute their skills to develop creative design solutions.
  • Uses the flexibility contained in the current design guidelines to balance safety and capacity with environmental, cultural, and historical concerns.

Almost everyone who has worked on the Evaro-to-Polson project agrees that these four basic principles of context-sensitive design played a crucial role in ending the project's stalemate.

The highway's new design takes into consideration tribal spiritual and cultural values, and includes a series of innovative "critter crossings" to allow safe movement of fish and wildlife through the corridor, all of this while significantly improving the route's safety and capacity. In balancing all of these needs, the reconstruction of U.S. 93 is emerging as one of the nation's showcases in context-sensitive design.

"What we agreed to is essentially the future in highway design," says MDT Deputy Director Jim Currie. "The process has allowed for some free thinking to minimize impacts on nature and tribal culture but still provide service. This is a different way of doing business."

Cultural Considerations

To grasp the fundamental issues fully, one must first understand Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d'Oreille history and culture. The tribes say their history is not written in books but is etched into the landscape. Among the ancient rock outcrops, mountain formations, crevices, forests, and other natural features lay landmarks and sacred sites that have been embedded into the minds of tribal members through generations of personal experience and "coyote stories." The coyote represents the link between tribal members and the natural and spiritual worlds through which the highway will be constructed. All of this is contained in what the tribes call the Spirit of Place, a continuum of everything on the reservation that is seen and unseen, touched and felt, and traveled through.

The reservation, like a hometown, family farm, or childhood neighborhood, is a special place, a land where tribal membershave walked and lived for centuries and where they derive inspiration and spirituality.

Photoe of Indian tribal life in 1910
This historic photo, from the Curtis Collection, illustrates what life was like on the reservation in 1910. Tribal members are shown performing what is believed to be a war dance. Understanding these types of cultural rituals and the sites where they were performed became important considerations in the planning and design of the U.S. 93 reconstruction.

Widening the corridor to a full four-lanes would have had substantial impacts on sacred sites and erased tribal history. Such changes would have altered what makes the reservation important and unique. The new highway, the tribes say, should be designed with the idea that the road is a visitor and should respond to and be respectful of the land and Spirit of Place.

This conceptual drawing illustrates how a highway can be constructed with barrier fences to encourage wildlife to go under the road through a corrugated metal or concrete box culvert.
This conceptual drawing illustrates how a highway can be constructed with barrier fences to encourage wildlife to go under the road through a corrugated metal or concrete box culvert.

These historical and cultural considerations were not well understood when MDT and FHWA began planning the Evaro-to-Polson reconstruction in the mid-1980s. MDT began by conducting a series of environmental assessments along four separate sections of the corridor. But the tribes requested a more comprehensive approach using a corridor analysis through an environmental impact statement, which MDT and FHWA began in 1990.

The six-year study resulted in an unusual "record of decision" in August 1996. The three governments agreed that the highway alignment should stay roughly the same with only a few minor adjustments. The parties also agreed to come up with an access management plan, essentially a method of reducing the relatively large number of frontage and local roads and private driveways that accessed the highway.

Photo of road cut
The tribes consider road cuts such as this one to be culturally harmful because the landforms that have been scarred are integral parts of the tribe's creation stories, which explain the origins of the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d'Oreille people.

But that's where the agreements ended. Significant differences remained between the CSKT and MDT's preferred alternatives. MDT wanted a four-lane configuration; the tribes wanted a two-lane highway with some passing lanes. The record of decision deferred construction until both sides could agree on the appropriate design and "a project-level environmental document is completed that addresses social, economic, and environmental impacts."

Back to the Drawing Board

After the record of decision was published in 1996, both sides began discussions to resolve remaining differences, but without much success. MDT asked the tribes what they wanted; the tribes wanted to know, "What can you build us?" The tribes wanted a road that would "allow them to continue practicing their tribal ways," but MDT had difficulty determining exactly what that meant. MDT attempted some new designs and alternatives for certain segments, but the tribes found them unacceptable. A stalemate ensued for the next two years.

Why had negotiations failed? All of the project's key players agreed that numerous roadblocks had hindered progress, including a lack of trust, entrenched positions that limited creative approaches, and lack of a shared vision.

But the project took a positive turn in fall 1998, when MDT hired Skillings-Connolly Inc. of Lacey, WA, to develop access management and right-of-way acquisition plans. During this process, Skillings-Connolly used a crucial strategy from the context-sensitive design playbook—stakeholder involvement. In addition to establishing local committees, the firm met individually with more than 600 property owners along the corridor in summer 1999. These meetings resulted in agreements that reduced driveway access by 50 percent, from 700 to 350.

Tribal drummers around a bonfire
Drummers around a bonfire are participating in a powwow, an important aspect of tribal culture for the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes.

"We were successful because we started talking to people," says Lyle Renz of Skillings-Connolly. "We started meeting with stakeholders and community leaders to discuss the highway. We eventually got buy-ins from most of the property owners, which also set the stage for the next step."

Liking these results, the three governments agreed to retain Skillings-Connolly to facilitate further discussions with the tribes, provide project management, coordinate community involvement, and develop mutually acceptable engineering and design concepts that would lead to a memorandum of agreement in accordance with the record of decision.

Conceptual drawing illustrating how quarried stone can be used in a road crossing structure
This conceptual drawing illustrates how natural materials, such as locally quarried stone, will help fit road crossings structures into the existing landscape.

Paris Pike Project

Also during this same period, the CSKT began looking at other projects throughout the country where cultural preservation was a consideration. One project in particular caught the tribe's attention.

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KTC) was upgrading a 17-mile (27-kilometer) segment of U.S. 27/68 between Paris and Lexington in the heart of Montana's Bluegrass Country. The two-lane rural highway extended over rolling hillsides dotted with historic thoroughbred farms.

A conceptual plan for the Evaro highway showing landscaping to enhance the appearance of the road
A conceptual plan for the Evaro highway shows how landscaping along the road could help enhance the character of the town and serve as a more attractive entrance to the reservation.

The narrow right-of-way was lined on both sides with old trees, wooden fences, and stonewalls, some of which dated back to the Civil War period.

But the highway, which had minimal shoulders and no passing or turning lanes, had become extremely congested and hazardous. So KTC proposed building a four-lane highway. But, like U.S. 93, local communities objected, claiming widening the road would do irreparable harm to the corridor's history and landscape.

KTC hired Jones & Jones Architects and Landscape Architects of Seattle, WA, to work with the project's engineering consultant to find ways to build a four-lane highway with minimal environmental and cultural impacts. After extensive evaluations and input from local communities, Jones & Jones came up with a design for what is known as the Paris Pike project.

The firm looked beyond the existing right-of-way by incorporating "zones of opportunity," areas along the corridor where the road could be constructed without adversely affecting the environment, even if it meant extending or moving the roadway outside the existing right-of-way. The firm ultimately came up with an acceptable alternative: two completely independent two-lane highways—one going northbound, the other going southbound—that followed the contour of the land. In most places, existing trees, fences, and stonewalls either were preserved or moved and restored to their original condition.

Aerial photo showing a section of U.S. 93 that cuts directly through a kettle pond in the Ninepipe wetlands complex
An aerial photo shows a section of U.S. 93 that cuts directly through a kettle pond in the Ninepipe wetlands complex. This section will likely be redesigned to respond more favorably to the land.

"We got away from this notion that the road is the important thing," says Jim Sipes, a Jones & Jones senior associate. "The road is the visitor. You've got to be mindful that there's a history to be respected. What matters is not how you can go through things but how you can make the highway fit. Now we have a road that fits the landscape."

Unique Landscapes and "Big Rooms"

Impressed with Paris Pike, the tribes asked MDT and FHWA for Skillings-Connolly to hire Jones & Jones as consultants to develop concepts for landscape architecture, roadway aesthetics, lane configurations, interpretive areas, and wildlife crossings. Skillings-Connolly agreed, and in spring 2000, Jones & Jones joined the team.

"We had to get inside the minds of the tribes and then come up with concepts," Sipes says. "We all have significant places in our lives that we feel connected to, and for the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d'Oreille people, that place is the reservation. We had to find out what was important to them and then design a highway around that."

After an extensive study of the land and tribal history, Jones & Jones concluded that the broader environmental continuum of valleys and mountain ranges contained large, definable spaces resembling large outdoor rooms. In examining these "big rooms," the firm identified 14 separate landscapes, each with its own unique physical characteristics. To make the project more manageable, the 14 landscapes were combined into five separate design segments. From these emerged ideas for how the road should respond to the land.

One of the 14 landscapes, called Pablo Pines, features pine-covered sand hills formed when winds blew down off the glaciers that created Flathead Lake. In this area, the road design favors keeping the pines and rolling character of the sandy hills close to the highway to increase the perception that the road is integrated with the land rather than slicing through it.

In another landscape, called Ninepipe, an area of wetlands containing numerous turtle ponds and small lakes, the design calls for "dodging and maintaining lake and pond integrity and restoring those that have been divided by the existing highway." In the St. Ignatius landscape, a broad valley etched with dentritic drainage patterns, the design accentuates the drainage patterns that follow the streams. At Ravalli Hill, where high rolling hills create a powerful divide between the Mission Valley and Ravalli Canyon, the design calls for healing the scars from road cuts by treating cuts or blasted rock faces with a substance that gives the rock a natural weathered look.

To enhance and preserve tribal culture, place-name and interpretive signs conveying important cultural and natural landscape information will be in three languages: Kootenai, Salish, and English. The borders of the signs will illustrate traditional beadwork patterns. A logo depicting the coyote, legendary hero of the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d'Oreille people, will be featured on interpretive signs. Native materials, such as quarried stone and rough-sawn lumber, will be used whenever possible. Only indigenous plants and soils will be used to revegetate disturbed areas.

Photo of bear in the wild
Bears like this one will be safer because wildlife crossing structures incorporated into context-sensitive designs, will enable the animals to move more freely over or beneath the highway.

Critter Crossings

Because of their close ties to the land, the tribes are sensitive to the impacts of roads on wildlife. Biologists estimate that 1 million vertebrates—amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals—are killed on the nation's roads and highways each day. Just last summer, for example, an adult female grizzly bear was killed after being hit by a truck on U.S. 93 near Post Creek at the southern edge of the Ninepipe wetlands complex.

The survival of native animals such as grizzly bears, wolves, deer, elk, lynx, and wolverine is dependent on their ability to move from one wilderness area to another, according to wildlife experts. As humans have developed the region, large habitats have been cut into smaller pieces, leaving animals with fewer breeding areas. Their shrinking populations are losing their genetic diversity because of inbreeding, which makes them less resilient to environmental changes and challenges. As this happens, animal populations begin to decline or disappear. Maintaining connections between animal populations, called "linkage zones," enables endangered species to attain larger, more genetically diverse populations.

Project logo, a depiction of Coyote, legendary hero of the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d'Oreille people
The project's design theme will be represented by this logo, a depiction of Coyote, legendary hero of the Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d'Oreille people.

U.S. 93's new highway design features 42 fish and wildlife crossing structures that facilitate the movement of fish and wildlife through the corridor. Among the 42 structures are eight open-span bridges, 33 corrugated metal pipe or concrete box culverts of various sizes, and one 200-foot-wide wildlife overcrossing, a structure that will allow bears and other large animals to cross over the highway without coming into contact with traffic. This structure will help link grizzly bear populations of the Mission Range and Bob Marshall Wilderness Area to the east with the Bitterroot Grizzly Bear Recovery Zone to the west. Wildlife fences and cattle guards will funnel wildlife toward and through the crossing structures.

"The highway issue is really key," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Chris Servheen in a July 29, 2001, Missoulian newspaper article. "What we see is increasing highway development and increasing traffic volume on all these highways in Montana. Unless we build consideration for wildlife into highway development, the highways in and of themselves can pretty well fracture these habitats."

What the MOA Stipulates

  • A 31-mile (50-km) section of existing two-lane highway between Evaro to just north of St. Ignatius will remain primarily a two-lane rather than a four-lane highway, with some passing, turning, and climbing lanes in certain areas.
  • A 10.6-mile (17-km) section from just north of Ronan to the Montana Highway 35 intersection at the south end of Polson will become a four-lane divided highway.
  • A supplemental environmental impact statement will be drafted for the 11.2-mile (18-km) section in the environmentally sensitive wetlands area known as Ninepipe.
  • A series of wildlife crossings will be built to allow safe passage of deer, bear, elk, and other wildlife across the highway.
  • A four-lane divided highway will be constructed to move traffic more efficiently through and around Arlee. In Arlee itself, north and southbound traffic will use two parallel one-way streets.
  • A method for continuing decision-making and discussion of project details is provided. A Technical Design Committee, consisting of representatives from each of the three governments and other experts as needed, will work out details of the design.
  • A Project Oversight Group, consisting of the original negotiating team, will provide policy guidance and dispute resolution for the Technical Design Committee.
  • A visitor's center will be built at Ravalli Hill, and displays will interpret the reservation's traditional cultural landscape.
  • The cultural landscape will be restored along the project's entire length with careful contour grading and installation of native plants and soils.

Traffic Safety

Part of the project's shared vision was the understanding that environmental and cultural issues have to be linked to highway safety and capacity. In spring 2000, the Midwest Research Institute (MRI), of Kansas City, MO, one of the nation's premier traffic operations and safety consultants, was hired to assist in developing and evaluating a lane configuration plan that all three governments could agree on.

In its evaluation, MRI determined that the corridor's crash levels were not only above statewide rates, but also the crashes themselves were more severe than usual. For example, 4.8 percent of crashes between 1995 and 1999 led to fatalities, compared with 1.7 percent statewide. Additionally, 44.2 percent were non-fatal injury crashes, compared with 37.1 percent statewide. The most common types of crashes were head-on, rear-ender, and sideswipe collisions, suggesting that passing maneuvers were possible causes of many of the more serious crashes.

Members of the U.S. 93 project team evaluate a wildlife 'jump-out'
During a visit to Canada's Banff National Park, where extensive wildlife crossings and other context-sensitive design features have been built, members of the U.S. 93 project team evaluate a wildlife "jump-out," which enables animals trapped between continuous fencing to escape to safety. Jump-outs are proposed for use at Evaro Hill, Ravalli Curves, and Ravalli Hill.

Using the TWOPAS computer traffic modeling system, which simulates how a highway would perform under certain conditions and alignments, MRI evaluated various lane configurations to ensure that the levels of service would meet the criteria established by the three governments. Instead of the four-lane undivided highway envisioned in MDT's original preferred alternative, MRI was able to confirm that constructing a two-lane highway with wider shoulders and some passing, climbing, and turning lanes (with four-lane divided highway sections where most needed) would meet project safety and capacity goals.

MRI predicted that over the next 20 years the new design will reduce fatal crashes by 70, injury crashes by 520, and property-damage-only crashes by 650, for a total of 1,240 fewer incidents. The new design also will achieve an acceptable level of service through 2024.

"MDT and the CSKT had vastly different visions of what the project should look like," says Doug Harwood, an MIR traffic safety engineer. "We had to work with the team to help determine what would work from a safety standpoint. In the end, safety was an important part of the agreement reached. No one wanted to miss the opportunity to save 70 lives and prevent 520 injuries."

The three governments eventually agreed to construct a combination of four- and two-lanes with full shoulders and passing, turning, and climbing lanes where appropriate; improved sight distance and access control; and safer curves. The busiest section, a 10-mile (16-kilometer) leg from Polson to Ronan, and two additional miles elsewhere, will have a divided four-lane configuration with curves that respond to the landscape.

Why did a project that had been stuck in project quicksand for almost 15 years suddenly flourish? What made the difference, according to those involved in the project, was that all parties started listening to each other, respected each other's differences, built trust, and used context-sensitive design as a strategy to get the project moving.

"The words in the MOA are about rebuilding a road," says Fred Matt, the CSKT's tribal council chairman. "But the process leading up to it was about rebuilding trust, honor, and mutual respect among the governments."

What's Next?

With most major obstacles cleared, the project is now heading toward construction as early as 2004. Eight consultants have been hired to begin final design work under the oversight of Skillings-Connolly, Jones & Jones, and Herrera Environmental Consultants. Right-of-way acquisition also continues on various sections. The supplemental environmental impact statement required in the memorandum of agreement for the Ninepipe area also is moving ahead, including completion of the initial public comment period known as scoping and the initial phase of writing a draft environmental impact statement.


Steve Moler is the public affairs specialist at FHWA's Western Resource Center in San Francisco, CA. He has worked in various areas of journalism for more than 15 years, including public relations, media relations, news writing and editing, community outreach, and communications strategic planning. Moler is one of two instructors who teaches the FHWA Media Training Course, a one-day class that prepares participants to better handle media inquiries, develop main message points, and prepare for media interviews. You can reach Moler at 415-744-3103 or at steve.moler@fhwa.dot.gov.

For more information on the Evaro-to-Polson project, log on to the project Web site at www.skillings.com/projects/mt_projects.htm. FHWA's context-sensitive design Web site can be found at: www.fhwa.dot.gov/csd/index.cfm

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