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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 70 · No. 3 > On the Way to Greener Highways

Nov/Dec 2006
Vol. 70 · No. 3

Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-2006-001

On the Way to Greener Highways

by Marlys Osterhues

A new public-private partnership promotes environmental stewardship while fostering innovative streamlining and market-based approaches to meeting transportation needs.

Centerton Nursery created this unusual 'green highway' display at the Eastern Performance Trials at River Farm, Alexandria, VA, in September 2005. Photo: American Horticultural Society.
Centerton Nursery created this unusual "green highway" display at the Eastern Performance Trials at River Farm, Alexandria, VA, in September 2005. Photo: American Horticultural Society.

When building and maintaining a safe and efficient surface transportation system, impacts on the natural and cultural environments are inevitable. But Federal, State, and local highway agencies are taking steps to integrate environmental sensitivity into their day-to-day activities, which range from recycling old pavements and protecting watersheds during construction to involving community members and business leaders in the transportation decisionmaking process.

In 2002, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) designated environmental stewardship and streamlining as one of its three "vital few" goals, along with safety and congestion mitigation. Subsequently, FHWA made substantial investments in improving the quality and efficiency of environmental decisionmaking through initiatives such as context sensitive solutions (CSS), the EcoLogical approach, the Exemplary Ecosystem Initiatives program, the recently announced Human Environment Initiatives program, and efforts to link planning and the environment.

Building on this momentum, a new multidisciplinary partnership brings together the diverse initiatives and activities that contribute to the "greening" of U.S. highways. The Green Highways Partnership (Green Highways) is a voluntary, collaborative effort aimed at fostering partnerships to improve upon natural, built, social, and environmental conditions, while addressing the functional requirements of transportation infrastructure. Green Highways provides State departments of transportation (DOTs) the opportunity to highlight the many good environmental practices already underway and encourages additional innovations.

FHWA is one of many partners that include Federal and State transportation and regulatory agencies, contractors, industry groups, trade associations, academic institutions, and nongovernmental organizations focused on highways and resource management issues. The partnership engages practitioners who represent an array of disciplines, including engineering, environment, law, safety, operations, maintenance, and real estate.

Green Highways grew out of efforts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Region 3, which consists of the mid-Atlantic States of Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. "The goal is to achieve transportation and environmental objectives so that both are 'better than before,'" says Hal Kassoff, senior vice president at Parsons Brinckerhoff, Inc., a consultant involved in the initiative.

Woven throughout the Green Highways concept are the critical drivers of integrated planning, market-based approaches, regulatory flexibility, and environmental streamlining. "Green Highways represents the next logical step in the evolution of FHWA and State DOT efforts in environmental streamlining and stewardship, building on recent investments over the last few years," says Shari Schaftlein, team leader for program and policy development at FHWA's Office of Project Development and Environmental Review.

Setting the Stage for Green Highways

The Green Highways Partnership creates opportunities to unite a number of existing, complementary activities and efforts under a single comprehensive approach.

Context sensitive solutions (CSS). CSS is a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach that involves stakeholders in developing transportation facilities that complement their physical settings and preserve scenic, aesthetic, historic, and environmental resources while maintaining safety and mobility. See www.fhwa.dot.gov/csd.

Exemplary Ecosystem Initiatives. Through the Exemplary Ecosystem Initiatives program, FHWA recognizes best practices in environmental stewardship demonstrated at the State level. Since 2002, FHWA has highlighted more than 20 innovative and forward-thinking initiatives that employ ecosystem-based approaches. See www.fhwa.dot.gov/environment/ecosystems/.

Planning and Environment Linkages. FHWA has hosted more than 20 workshops across the country to promote the linkages between planning and the National Environmental Policy Act. See http://environment.fhwa.dot.gov/integ/index.asp. Also, a planning work group, chaired by FHWA and established as part of Executive Order 13274, Environmental Stewardship and Transportation Infrastructure Project Reviews, aims to advance integrated planning by bringing together the necessary agencies and stakeholders early on. For more information on the executive order, visit www.dot.gov/execorder/13274/index.htm.

Eco-Logical. To promote ecosystem approaches to transportation development, FHWA championed a multiagency effort to develop a nonprescriptive approach to making infrastructure more sensitive to wildlife and ecosystems through greater agency cooperative conservation. The effort culminated in May 2006 with release of the publication Eco-Logical: An Ecosystem Approach to Developing Infrastructure Projects (FHWA-HEP-06-011). See www.environment.fhwa.dot.gov/ecological/ecological.pdf. Also see The Nature of Roadsides (FHWA-EP-03-005), which describes an ecological approach to highway rights-of-way.

Geospatial Tools. Innovative technologies, such as geospatial tools, also contribute to ongoing collaborative efforts that facilitate greener highways. FHWA advocates use of geospatial tools and technologies to streamline consideration of environmental challenges in the development of transportation projects. In May 2006, for example, FHWA sponsored a mid-Atlantic peer exchange through the Transportation Research Board to gain support and develop a network of professionals involved with geospatial applications in transportation and environmental decisionmaking. See http://gis.fhwa.dot.gov/.

Recycling. FHWA is encouraging an industrial byproducts exchange for recycling and reusing materials. For more information on FHWA's recycling efforts, visit www.fhwa.dot.gov/pavement/recycling/index.cfm.

Through a combination of networking events and opportunities, public-private partnerships, and a new Web site clearinghouse (www.greenhighways.org), Green Highways proponents are pushing the boundaries of traditional highway-building practices. "Whether one represents industry or agency, everyone involved welcomes the opportunity to advance to a more sustainable country and world," says Robb Jolly, senior vice president of market development for the American Concrete Pavement Association (ACPA).

Green Highways Forum

In June 2005, EPA's mid-Atlantic region hosted an executive planning charrette (technique for engaging multiple stakeholders in intense planning sessions) in Philadelphia, PA, to define and establish a vision for Green Highways. More than 50 senior-level executives from the public and private sectors participated. Several FHWA division administrators, division environmental staff, and other representatives attended the session.

The initial organizing efforts culminated with a Green Highways Forum, held November 8-10, 2005, in College Park, MD. The forum brought together, for the first time, several hundred Federal, State, and local transportation and environmental officials, as well as professionals from the private sector and trade associations. "The Green Highways Forum is a turning point toward the creation of goodwill relationships and partnerships for the advancement of transportation and the environment," said FHWA Associate Administrator for Planning, Environment, and Realty Cynthia J. Burbank, speaking at the event.

FHWA officials discussed with attendees the opportunities afforded by the 2005 Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU). A number of SAFETEA-LU provisions advance concepts and strategies relevant to green highways. For example, the law contains a new responsibility on transportation planning for States and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to look explicitly at environmental mitigation needs associated with implementing transportation plans or transportation improvement programs. Another new element is the requirement to compare transportation plans with environmental plans, inventories, and maps.

SAFETEA-LU also modifies the environmental review process for projects requiring environmental impact statements. The law calls for early coordination and requires that agencies and the public be given opportunities for involvement in defining the purpose and needs as well as the range of alternatives. Specifically, SAFETEA-LU adds a new category of "participating agencies" to enable State, local, and tribal agencies to play more formal roles in the environmental review process.

The new law also encourages research and technology transfer by establishing a new national cooperative research program for environmental and planning research. Cooperative research efforts put a premium on partnerships such as those formed around Green Highways.

Developing a Roadmap

As a followup to the forum, more than 40 representatives from the public and private sectors attended a retreat in St. Michaels, MD, in March 2006. The purpose was to frame the future of Green Highways and to refine the roadmap for the partnership.

The group divided into three theme-focused teams to translate the Green Highways vision into pilot projects with measurable outcomes. Attendees identified the following three focus areas that offer the greatest potential to demonstrate Green Highways concepts:

  • Watershed-driven stormwater management (plans, designs, structural products, and practices)
  • Recycling and reuse (industrial byproducts and use of recycled materials)
  • Conservation and ecosystem management (principles and practices)

"These areas are ripe for focus because of advancements in environmental science and technology," says ACPA's Jolly.

Raja Veeramachaneni, director of the Office of Planning and Preliminary Engineering at the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA), adds that "to achieve successful outcomes, significant collaboration is needed to piece together aspects of a wide variety of laws, regulations, procedures, procurement methods, and specification requirements. A functioning partnership is essential to develop timely solutions when obstacles arise."

A current focus of Green Highways is to implement pilot projects that demonstrate the concepts visibly and tangibly in the mid-Atlantic region. "Pilot projects will inform and inspire the implementation of practices and actions that are innovative, efficient, cost effective, and environmentally sound," says Veeramachaneni. "The anticipated outcome of the pilots is to demonstrate sustainable solutions and provide for market-based incentives. Pilots also will serve to improve partnerships and research efforts. Green Highways serves as an opportunity to translate good ideas into practical realities."

Produced by one of the stakeholders in the Green Highways Partnership, this graphic illustrates how existing environmental initiatives and highway activities feed into the Green Highways concept. Source: Andy Fekete, RBA Group.
Produced by one of the stakeholders in the Green Highways Partnership, this graphic illustrates how existing environmental initiatives and highway activities feed into the Green Highways concept. Source: Andy Fekete, RBA Group.

Stormwater Management

The team focusing on stormwater management is pursuing the following activities:

  • Promoting collaboration between diverse public and private stakeholders with the mutual goal of supporting the sustainable use of natural resources and developing coordinated solutions
  • Demonstrating effective storm-water-related best management practices (BMPs) for transportation projects on a watershed basis
  • Assessing the flexibility of the regulatory and policy framework in the Clean Water Act
  • Identifying case studies, with the goal of showcasing up to 10 innovative stormwater demonstration projects in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania

Green Highways

  • Provides an opportunity to highlight effective practices.
  • Advances cost-effective, environmental streamlining opportunities.
  • Integrates planning and market-based opportunities.
  • Encourages innovations.
  • Explores regulatory flexibility.
  • Provides networking opportunities.
  • Facilitates pilot projects.
  • Provides an umbrella for transportation and green-infrastructure initiatives.

Stormwater management innovations are underway throughout the mid-Atlantic region. Urbanized areas are particularly challenging. In 2004, in Washington, DC, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) installed a biocell for stormwater management at Benning Road Bridge. A biocell is composed of natural materials such as mulch, soil mix, and various types of vegetation. Rather than require an engineered structure like a weir or drainage pit, a biocell acts like a filtration trench, where the soil or natural drainage materials filter the water. A biocell can remove up to 90 percent of the suspended solids from stormwater. This project represented the first use of low-impact stormwater management technology by the District Government.

To illustrate commitment to supporting innovations in stormwater management, FHWA and EPA cofunded a $1 million Anacostia River Urban Watershed Partnership Grant. The grant, announced on Earth Day 2006, set up a competition for pilot projects designed to protect and restore urban water resources through a holistic watershed approach to managing water quality.

Recycling and Reuse

The recycling and reuse team is focusing on efforts in a number of areas. First, team members are identifying existing regulations and specifications. The team then will develop State performance standards and specifications for voluntary use of recycled materials in highways. The team also is collecting and disseminating information to increase use of recycled products and developing opportunities to exchange best practices. In addition, the team will produce a toolkit to provide technical information and guidance to help DOTs overcome hurdles.

Another priority is to identify State DOT projects that optimize the beneficial reuse of industrial byproducts. To date, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia have been targeted for pilot projects to showcase beneficial reuses in their States.

As each State offers ongoing stewardship examples, Green Highways will help increase the visibility of these activities and increase their use on more projects. For example, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation constructed the Tarrtown Bridge using shredded tires as lightweight embankment fill on two bridge approaches. The project incorporated approximately 780,000 scrap tires, thereby easing the load on landfills.

In West Virginia, the DOT is using recycled blast furnace slag as the aggregate of choice in the western part of the State for the majority of the asphalt surface course pavements. The effort results in a safer pavement due to the aggregate's nonpolishing properties (higher friction number). According to Jason Harrington, an asphalt pavement engineer with FHWA, with an open-graded friction in course aggregate like slag, the roadway does not experience as much spray or misting during rain, offering better visibility and much less hydroplaning. Further, recycling blast furnace slag, which is available locally, offers an economic advantage compared with using virgin limestone aggregate.

"Although the 'coarseness' in slag increases friction, which is highly desirable, the size of the aggregates are larger, which contributes to a slight increase in noise levels. When noise is a concern, the use of smaller aggregate sizes [0/6 mm or 0/10 mm] is recommended," says Chris Corbisier, FHWA highway traffic noise specialist.

This lowland area is a bioretention facility on Benning Road in Washington, DC, designed to manage stormwater.
This lowland area is a bioretention facility on Benning Road in Washington, DC, designed to manage stormwater.

Conservation and Ecosystem Management

The conservation and ecosystem management team focuses on how to bring advances in mapping and data management together with various initiatives in conservation and ecosystem management to achieve greener highways. The data and regulatory managers are working to gain agreement on how to develop a set of tailored, core data-sets and maps that can be integrated at both the transportation project and planning levels. The maps will facilitate information sharing at the Federal, State, MPO, and local levels, and will facilitate the integration of conservation and ecosystem management practices into land-use planning. Priority areas for conservation will emerge from the development of a regional ecosystem framework.

Green Highways will build on the concept of "green infrastructure," a national effort aimed at better integrating the built and natural environments through greater understanding of the location and health of various habitats. Green infrastructure relates to a strategic approach to conservation that promotes planning, protection, restoration, and long-term management that is proactive, systematic, holistic, multifunctional, and science-based. "Green infrastructure is not a program or a regulatory-driven initiative; rather, it is an approach that provides both predictability and certainty to transportation professionals and the conservation community," says Kris Hoellen, director of The Conservation Fund's Conservation Leadership Network.

"Green Highways provides the umbrella through which to coordinate transportation processes with green infrastructure and other environmental regulatory and nonregulatory actions in an integrated fashion, including opportunities for regulatory incentives and innovative and flexible stormwater and water quality management," adds Dominique Lueckenhoff, associate director of the Water Protection Division, Office of State and Water-shed Partnerships, EPA Region 3.

The Green Highways Partnership's conservation and ecosystem team focuses on such best practices as restoration of streams like this one in Prince George's County, MD. The goal here was to stabilize eroding stream banks, provide grade controls, and increase habitat features as mitigation for construction of an access road near the Washington Redskins' football stadium. Photo: Maryland SHA.
The Green Highways Partnership's conservation and ecosystem team focuses on such best practices as restoration of streams like this one in Prince George's County, MD. The goal here was to stabilize eroding stream banks, provide grade controls, and increase habitat features as mitigation for construction of an access road near the Washington Redskins' football stadium. Photo: Maryland SHA.

FHWA is developing a solicitation for research projects that support and further the conservation and ecosystem management principles embodied in Green Highways and related efforts such as CSS, integrated planning, and the ecosystem-based approach outlined in the recent FHWA publication Eco-Logical: An Ecosystem Approach to Developing Infrastructure Projects (FHWA-HEP-06-011).

Existing successes in innovative conservation and ecosystem efforts include the Blue Ball Properties project in Delaware. The Delaware Department of Transportation partnered with two other State agencies and the local community to develop a master plan for the area. Using an environmental stewardship approach, the mitigation package includes seeding several large areas as meadow; restoring a stream; creating a wetland; developing a regional stormwater management system that includes bioswales, detention basins, and meadow depressions; and replanting with native species. (For more on the Blue Ball Properties project, see the May/June 2003 Public Roads article, A Benchmark for Livable Progress by Robert B. King.)

The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has demonstrated a commitment to conservation and ecosystem management through technology innovations. VDOT's Comprehensive Environmental Data and Reporting (CEDAR) system provides environmental staff statewide with a one-stop location for project documents, images, and forms that are environmentally related. CEDAR documents environmental decisions, facilitates improved project management, streamlines interagency coordination, and strengthens the communication of environmental commitments.

Maryland's Green Highway

In addition to the pilot efforts under development within each theme area, the partnership is looking to apply Green Highways concepts in a more comprehensive manner. Toward that goal, the Maryland SHA recently volunteered to apply an environmental stewardship approach to a transportation improvement project by implementing the following key actions:

  • Application of environmental stewardship principles in the development of alternatives retained for detailed study
  • Full integration of the regulatory requirements for avoiding and minimizing direct impacts on resources through planning and design measures and modifications
  • Incorporation of state-of-the-art features, design techniques, and BMPs
  • Evaluation of overall resource conditions and identification of priority stewardship needs in consultation with project partners and public stakeholders using a watershed framework for environmental management
  • Design and implementation of plans, strategies, and actions—beyond those associated with compensatory mitigation—that seek to improve the overall natural, community, and cultural environments
  • Identification of a preferred alternative that furthers the project purpose, satisfies the project needs, and balances and minimizes direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts on natural, community, and cultural resources

In keeping with the collaborative nature of Green Highways, SHA is planning a design charrette to investigate potential green approaches, technologies, and actions. "This project will provide an opportunity to integrate all of the principles and concepts of Green Highways into a single project and has the potential to serve as a model for other projects in the mid-Atlantic and across the country," says SHA's Veeramachaneni.

Green Highways Network

The Green Highways Partnership also is forming a communications network that is being maintained through a Web site (www.greenhighways.org), regularly scheduled leadership meetings, and press events. Among its diverse functions, the network will craft a Green Highways awards and recognition program; develop, implement, and manage the pilot programs; identify and seek funding mechanisms; and act as a conduit to environmental entities at Federal, State, and local government levels, academia, nongovernmental organizations, and trade and industry groups.

The network will coordinate outreach with organizations such as AASHTO, American Road & Transportation Builders Association, and the consulting community.

According to Lueckenhoff, from EPA Region 3, the Green Highways Web site serves as a tool to consolidate resources, support effective communication and networking, streamline information sharing, and facilitate technology transfer. "The site will be the information 'nerve center' for all activities related to Green Highways," she says.

In addition to the Web site, the partnership is pursuing other outreach activities across the mid-Atlantic to spread the word about Green Highways. Proponents are meeting with State DOT executives across the region to explain the goals and objectives of the partnership and assess interest and opportunities within the theme areas. Further, the Transportation Research Board's (TRB) ADC10 Committee on environmental analysis in transportation is planning a Green Highways workshop for the annual TRB conference in Washington, DC, in January 2007.

A bulldozer is leveling a pile of shredded tires that are being reused as lightweight fill for a bridge abutment and slope. Recycling is one aspect of creating greener highways.
A bulldozer is leveling a pile of shredded tires that are being reused as lightweight fill for a bridge abutment and slope. Recycling is one aspect of creating greener highways.

Looking Forward

Building on innovative programs and approaches spawned from transportation and resource agencies, Green Highways will make it easier for DOTs to integrate commonsense, economically feasible solutions into their day-to-day work in planning, building, and maintaining the Nation's surface transportation system. Further, the initiative will provide opportunities to evaluate and streamline business practices.

"Partnerships like Green Highways are vital to the transportation community and can help facilitate the timely delivery of a quality transportation program," says Administrator Neil Pedersen of the Maryland SHA. "The ultimate goal of Green Highways is to develop self-sustaining, public-private and public-public partnerships."


Marlys Osterhues is an environmental protection specialist with the FHWA Office of Project Development and Environmental Review. She is responsible for advancing key environmental streamlining initiatives and providing NEPA guidance to FHWA division offices in New England and the mid-Atlantic.

For more information, contact FHWA's Marlys Osterhues at 202-366-2052, marlys.osterhues@fhwa.dot.gov, or EPA Region 3's Denise Rigney at 215-814-2726, rigney.denise@epa.gov. For a list of FHWA division office and EPA regional contacts, see www.epa.gov.

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