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|Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 72 · No. 1 > Accessing America's Treasures|
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-08-005
Accessing America's Treasures
by Marili Green Reilly
The FLHP celebrates its 25th anniversary with a retrospective of past accomplishments and a preview of its next 25 years.
About one-third of the United States is set aside as public lands — a total of 263 million hectares (650 million acres). Every year, more than 273 million visitors come to the 391 national parks, such as Yellowstone, the Everglades, and the Grand Canyon. Another 40 million people visit the 547 national wildlife refuges. Tourists and local residents also travel the 46,690 kilometers (29,000 miles) of highways in the national forests and grasslands. Native Americans and residents of neighboring communities traverse the 163,710 kilometers (101,683 miles) of roads on Indian reservations every day.
The public lands highways are on land owned and managed by Federal agencies: the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), National Park Service (NPS), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service (USFS). For much of the last century, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has partnered with the landowning agencies that manage the national parks, forests, refuges, and reservations. FHWA has contributed its highway engineering expertise to the planning, location, design, and construction of the highways and parkways in the Federal domain. For the past 25 years, this work has been accomplished under FHWA’s Federal Lands Highway Program (FLHP).
President Ronald W. Reagan formally established the FLHP on January 6, 1983, by signing into law the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982. The law ensured the availability of resources through the Highway Trust Fund for building and maintaining roads on public and Federal lands. Basically, the FLHP provides project administration and engineering expertise at the request of other Federal agencies that do not have road building units. Although other programs had provided some funding for these roads in the past, road improvements competed with nontransportation-related needs and were dependent upon funds approved under the annual appropriations of various Federal agencies.
In total, the FLHP supports about 232,000 kilometers (144,000 miles) of federally owned roads that are open to the traveling public. In addition to the four core Federal agencies that work with FHWA on the public roads — BIA, FWS, NPS, and USFS — the FLHP collaborates with other Federal land management agencies on the transportation and security needs of the Nation. These agencies manage an additional 270,480 kilometers (169,000 miles) of public roads.
The FLHP vision is to “create the best transportation system in balance with the values of Federal and tribal lands.” By building accessible and scenic transportation networks, FLHP is ensuring that all travelers have the opportunity to enjoy these national treasures — and that the journey is as enjoyable as the destination.
The First 100 Years
By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, road construction in the United States began to provide access to the scenic heart of the country by building highways to historic sites and pushing roads into Federal reserves. In the 1976 bicentennial publication, America’s Highways 1776–1976, FHWA lists some of the agreements its predecessor agencies worked out with other agencies. These partnerships provided an array of road projects serving cities, parks, and forests, and facilitating national security.
During the first 100 years, federally funded road projects on Federal lands were as diverse as the lands on which they are situated, from Florida swamplands to the Alaskan tundra and Arizona desert and from the Olympic Mountains of Washington State to the scenic parkways of the Washington, DC, area.
Landmark Projects Of the Past 25 Years
During the past quarter century, the 1982 Act and its successor authorization laws provided funding for the Federal Lands Highway Program for road projects on Federal lands. With those funds, the FLHP and its partner agencies supported the repair of many of the early roads, built new roads to serve the increasingly diverse transportation needs of the public, and implemented new programs that ensure the protection of natural resources while providing public access to recreational sites and scenic vistas.
A snapshot of three notable projects of the past 25 years — the Natchez Trace Parkway through Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee; the Hoover Dam Bypass in Arizona and Nevada; and Walden Point Road in Alaska — illustrates how the FHLP and its partner agencies have met the changing needs of the traveling public.
The Natchez Trace Parkway
Construction of the Natchez Trace Parkway began before World War II and received the careful attention of two generations of highway engineers. The parkway’s most recently constructed bridge is indicative of the road’s many innovative design aspects. With a total span of 502 meters (1,648 feet), the double-arched, segmentally constructed concrete bridge offers a dramatic view from its 47-meter (155-foot) height, while the wide arches frame the natural environment.
Following the route of an ancient trail, this historic parkway commemorates the farmers from Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky who floated supplies down to ports in Natchez and New Orleans in the early 1800s and then returned home via this land route. In 1996 under the National Scenic Byways Program, FHWA recognized the Natchez Trace Parkway as an All-American Road, one of America’s Byways®. In 2000, then-FHWA Administrator Kenneth R. Wykle said, “Travelers on [all of] these roads can look into the heart and soul of America and connect with the stories [that] have made America what it is today.”
The Eastern Federal Lands Highway Division (EFLHD) and its predecessor offices worked on the Natchez Trace Parkway for more than 70 years, with the first contract awarded in 1937 for a portion of the project in Madison County, MS. In FHWA’s Bicentennial collection of reminiscences by former employees who worked on park, forest, and other direct Federal projects, The Trailblazers, Roderick S. Banks recalled that before “the first shovelful of dirt” was removed, the scenery “was not inspiring. The topography was relatively uniform; the fields worn out and gullied; the local roads [were] tracks in mud or dust.” But, he adds, “The potential was there and . . . a thing of beauty was produced.”
Hoover Dam Bypass
A transportation bottleneck on one of the Southwest’s most highly traveled highways brought together seven agencies in a partnership to keep a popular recreational area open while providing a safe bypass for through traffic. The agencies began the final phase of the Hoover Dam Bypass — a 580-meter (1,900-foot) bridge over the Colorado River — in January 2005 about 458 meters (1,500 feet) south of the Hoover Dam. The bridge will connect the already completed approach highways nearly 275 meters (900 feet) above the Colorado River.
The key problem was that U.S. 93 was routed originally across the top of Hoover Dam. The highway is narrow with many switchbacks as it descends the steep canyon sides approaching the dam. But the route is also the major link between Phoenix, AZ, and Las Vegas, NV. Incident-caused road closures and resulting time lost in transporting goods and services could have nationwide economic impacts.
Since the 1960s, the Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation), the Federal agency responsible for administering the dam and reservoir, had been looking into bypass possibilities to provide more security to the dam and to accommodate the ever-increasing volume of traffic on U.S. 93. The Central Federal Lands Highway Division, which was asked to take the lead in 1997, has coordinated the efforts of the Nevada and Arizona departments of transportation (DOTs), Reclamation, NPS, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), U.S. Coast Guard, FWS, and the Western Area Power Administration. A multifaceted funding plan includes money from the Federal Highway High Priority Projects funds, State funds, Federal Public Lands Highway Discretionary funding, National Corridor Planning and Development funding, USDOT appropriations, and the 2003 Consolidated Appropriations Resolution.
In the July/August 1999 issue of Public Roads, Terry Haussler and Doug Rekenthaler Jr., wrote that the completed bypass will “improve traffic flow, substantially reduce air and noise pollution, effectively eliminate the threat of a serious [incident] on or near Hoover Dam, and dramatically improve the visitor’s overall experience.”
The partner agencies expect to complete the entire 5.6-kilometer (3.5-mile) corridor in June 2010.
Walden Point Road
An ongoing project in Alaska addresses the transportation needs of a much smaller population. Annette Island in southeastern Alaska is home to the Metlakatla Indian Community. Working in partnership with the community, the BIA, Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, and the U.S. Department of Defense, the Western Federal Lands Highway Division (WFLHD) designed the 23.7-kilometer (14.7-mile) Walden Point Road to facilitate residents’ travel to a planned ferry terminal on the island’s northern tip.
A group of Tsimshian Indians from Canada founded Metlakatla in 1887. The community now has a population of about 1,421. It is the only Indian reservation in Alaska and is home to one of the largest Indian fish hatcheries in the United States. The reservation’s roads are under BIA management.
A World War II-era Coast Guard airstrip on the island provided both military and commercial passenger service until it closed in the 1970s. Since then, two seaplane bases and the State ferry have provided transportation to Ketchikan, but costs and inclement weather can restrict residents’ travel, particularly in winter and early spring.
The Walden Point Road and future ferry service will provide a much needed boost to the community’s economy, which includes fishing and seafood processing, a new bottled water facility, and tourism. The new road also will provide residents access to Ketchikan’s hospital and medical facilities, shopping, and other services necessary for a comfortable lifestyle. A consistent daily schedule and a shorter ferry route will open up opportunities for workforce placement, college education, and even access to recreational facilities, while allowing Metlakatla residents to remain in their own community.
The FLHP serves the traveling public through the innovations it brings to highway design and construction. The program’s innovative practices have resulted in many miles of highway that are considered by many to be both functional and beautiful.
Innovative practices, such as the use of cantilevered construction to minimize damage to the landscape, have helped FHWA attain a recognized leadership role in preserving scenic landscapes. Under the National Scenic Byways Program (NSBP), established under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation recognizes certain roads as National Scenic Byways or All-American Roads based on their archaeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, and scenic qualities. Since 1992, the NSBP has funded 2,181 projects for State and nationally designated byway routes in 50 States, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. During the 15th anniversary celebration of the NSBP in 2006, retired FLHP Administrator Thomas Edick was among the scenic byways supporters who received a Byways Pioneer Award from the National Scenic Byway Foundation and the Scenic Byways Coalition, which recognized the contributions of key supporters.
One innovation that has contributed to the success of scenic byways is the concept of context sensitive solutions (CSS). The principles of CSS have shaped Federal transportation policy guidance since 1998, and an FHWA report, Integration of Context Sensitive Solutions in the Transportation Planning Process (FHWA-HEP-07-014), notes that “a CSS approach means a commitment to meaningful stakeholder participation, and keeping the human and natural context foremost in mind, which will produce a plan for a transportation system that will be an asset to the community and/or region.” Utilizing context sensitive solutions means examining the need for the project first, then addressing community values such as scenic, aesthetic, historic, and environmental concerns equally with mobility and safety issues. In a CSS approach, the citizens become a part of the design team.
Context sensitive solutions help FHWA and its partners maintain the environmental, cultural, and historic integrity of the lands they manage. As Eleanor Williams Clark noted about highway work in Yellowstone National Park where she is the chief landscape architect, “This is not the kind of construction you see on State roads or on highways anywhere across the Nation. It’s very complicated ecologically, it’s very complicated culturally, it’s very complicated in terms of management. I mean, how many places do you have bison moving through, or grizzly bears, or erupting plumes of smoke and hot water?”
Lying Lightly on the Land
Context sensitive designs have helped the FLHP and its partners provide access to these national treasures while honoring ancient cultural artifacts, preserving sensitive natural environments, and maintaining historical integrity. As the NPS’s then-Director Fran P. Mainella noted in a video, “Lightly on the Land,” produced by FHWA and its partners: “If you don’t have . . . environmentally appropriate access to the parks, . . . people will not be able to appreciate them as well. Roads provide that access.” When the NPS needs roads, she said, “Federal Highways works with us to lay them lightly on the land.”
Here are three examples of projects that required a sensitive approach:
In Mount Rainier National Park in Washington State, the historic stone guardrails were gradually giving way or being damaged by traffic incidents. Their unreinforced construction did not meet current safety standards, so when engineers and designers at WFLHD replaced them, they chose concrete-cored reinforced walls and added a face of native stone that mirrored the appearance of the original construction.
On the Hopi Indian Reservation in Arizona, the steep cliffs lining the sides of the only highway to the top of the mesa were gradually eroding. Giant slabs of sandstone threatened to calve off onto the roadway. With the discovery of ancient burial sites and petroglyphs on the cliff sides, Central Federal Lands Highway Division (CFLHD) could not use blasting in some areas. Geologists at CFLHD used rock bolts to secure the rock to the side of the mesa, preserving the sacred sites.
When truck traffic through the Cumberland Gap in Kentucky, historic gateway to the west, began to create an unsafe situation, EFLHD looked for a suitable way to improve safety and also was as able to reroute traffic away from the landmarks. An innovative tunnel design enabled the EFLHD engineers to replace two highways that had detracted from the scenic beauty and bypass the most sensitive areas. U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, KY, lauded the project as “the most significant thing that has happened [here] since Daniel Boone began to bring settlers through the Gap.” The tunnel has since won FHWA’s 1998 Excellence in Highway Design Award, and the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA) recognized it in 2002 as Kentucky’s Top Transportation Infrastructure Project of the 20th Century.
The Next 25 Years
The FLHP brings together for the first time a consolidated and coordinated long-range program funded under the Highway Trust Fund. In 2009, that program will provide approximately $1 billion annually to construct, preserve, and improve public roads, an amount that has grown from the $250 million provided annually by the original Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982.
During the next 25 years, if the program is to continue its momentum, it will need to address changing needs. According to Transportation for Tomorrow: Report of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, (www.transportationfortomorrow.org/final%5Freport), known as the Section 1909 Commission, the growth of urban areas and their push outward toward Federal lands is “placing new pressures on natural landscapes.” The pressures include “increased demand for recreational activities and energy/alternative energy resources” and ever greater numbers of international visitors. The demands place an “increasing emphasis on the need for adequate public transportation access. Providing such access requires cross-jurisdictional collaboration and integrated planning with adjoining State and locally owned transportation infrastructure.”
The partnerships and interagency agreements through which the FLHP interacts with its four core partners provide a basis for such collaboration and planning. It is not unreasonable to expect that future highway legislation would encompass some level of program growth for these partners, bringing a higher percentage of the roads owned by these agencies up to the standards expected by the public. In fact, in an analysis authorized by SAFETEA-LU, the Section 1909 Commission identified a backlog of road improvement and restoration needs within these agencies’ lands.
The commission also notes that there are additional road systems maintained by those partners that currently are not covered by a dedicated program. For example, the USFS oversees federally owned National Forest System roads, while most of the Forest Highways currently are supported by State DOTs. Originally serving the timber industry, the additional 112,539 kilometers (69,900 miles) of National Forest System roads now provide access to the public for recreational purposes as well as to firefighters, law enforcement, and resource management. Although the FLHP does not include National Forest System roads, there are partnership channels and transportation design expertise in place through the existing Forest Highway Program if these roads were to be included in the FLHP. Similarly, the FWS has roads that currently are not supported through the FLHP that provide access to the fish hatcheries.
The FLHP also supports important program activities, such as long-range transportation planning and bridge inspections, of other Federal land management agencies. These agencies include the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Department of Defense/Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command (SDDC), USACE, USFS, and Reclamation.
No dedicated program exists to support the transportation infrastructure needs of these noncore partner agencies. Instead, capital improvements to their non-FLHP road systems must come from elsewhere in that organization’s budget.
The BLM manages and protects 105 million hectares (258 million acres) of land in 12 Western States. Within those lands are approximately 130,410 kilometers (81,000 miles) of roads, bridges, and trails, for which it is responsible. Included in this number are 12,880 kilometers (8,000 miles) of public arterials carrying traffic to recreational and tourism sites.
Reclamation oversees 3.5 million hectares (8.6 million acres) of land, 348 reservoirs, and more than 300 recreational sites, including the highly popular Hoover Dam reservoir. The agency has inventoried 2,998 kilometers (1,863 miles) of roads and more than 500 bridges that provide access to their recreation, water, and power facilities.
USACE is the largest provider of water-based recreation with more than 80 percent of these areas within 80.5 kilometers (50 miles) of a major metropolitan area. USACE recreational facilities are located in 43 States and are served by 12,558 kilometers (7,800 miles) of roads.
The SDDC services roads to approximately 500 major military installations, about 23,184 kilometers (14,400 miles) of which are open to the public to access housing, museums, hospitals, and recreational sites.
A future area of growth for which the FLHP may someday be responsible could be an increase in the assistance provided to these Federal land management agencies. Just as a Federal responsibility has been established to provide dedicated funds to Park Roads and Parkways, Forest Highways, Refuge Roads, and Indian Reservation Roads, the roads of these agencies could benefit from a similar solid and coordinated long-range program of dedicated funding to assure maintenance to the same standards that the public has come to expect as they travel from national forests to national parks to recreation sites on other Federal lands.
Regardless of what future path the FLHP program travels, the growing and changing needs of the American public and international visitors will continue to put an increased strain on the transportation infrastructure of the Federal lands. Recreational spending accounts for a significant portion of the Nation’s economy. Recent statistics show that Federal lands are frequent beneficiaries of recreational visits. National forests and grasslands welcome 205 million visits annually, which contribute $7.5 billion in direct spending to the economy. Ninety million visits are made to Reclamation lands each year, generating $24 million in economic activity. National parks attract 273 million visitors annually. BLM recreational sites attracted 69 million visitors in 2006, and the National Wildlife Refuge System welcomed 38 million visitors in 2006, generating $823 million to regional economies.
Travel and tourism are integral to the economy of many rural communities in or near Federal or Indian lands. The USACE estimates that expenses for recreational trips generate $2 billion and more than 123,000 local jobs for communities around the lakes the agency manages. The FWS expects that visits to its lands will increase from 38 million in 2006 to 51 million by 2015. Growing use of Federal facilities will increase the wear on the public roads and increase the need for repairs and for more and better access.
Resource outputs such as grazing, timber harvesting, oil extraction, mining, and electricity generation also are conducted on Federal lands. A high-quality transportation infrastructure therefore is critical for the economic prosperity of the Nation.
Finally, as roads built in the 100-plus years of FHWA history continue to age, the FLHP and its partner agencies will see the need for repair and preservation efforts grow in the future. The need for emergency funding to handle weather-related events such as washouts or damage to Federal lands roads also will increase. As communities become more dependent upon Federal lands and tribal roads off the interstate and primary highway system, and as citizens increasingly move from cities to rural environments, the need to maintain these roads is likely to increase.
One of the primary factors that contributes to the success of the long-term partnerships is that FHWA and the Federal land management agencies have learned how to work together to build roads that meet the transportation community’s standards while respecting and protecting the resources in which those roads are located.
The work of the FLHP has not gone unnoticed by its partners. Jon Oshel, P.E., county road program manager of the Association of Oregon Counties, has noted, “The reality is that most of the projects constructed by the Federal Lands Highway Program simply would not have been constructed had the program not existed.”
“As the FLHP approaches the next 25 years, it is prepared to support its partners in the continued improvement of roads through Federal and Tribal lands,” says FHWA Associate Administrator for the FLHP John R. Baxter. “As we commemorate and celebrate the first 25 years of the FLHP, we will approach the next quarter century more focused than ever on creating the best transportation system in balance with the values of Federal and Tribal lands.”
Marili Green Reilly is a freelance writer who has temporarily rejoined the staff of WFLHD to compile a history of early WFLHD projects. Her 25 years with FHWA included work on the WFLHD contracts team.
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