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|Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 77 · No. 4 > Setting the Bar for Excellence|
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-14-002
Setting the Bar for Excellence
by Rachel Strauss
FHWA honors innovative approaches to incorporating environmental stewardship into transportation planning and delivery.
To achieve transportation goals while minimizing adverse effects on the natural environment, transportation agencies often need to innovate. Whether adopting new approaches to streamline processes, using innovative technologies, or creating partnerships to meet a diversity of goals, State departments of transportation (DOTs) and other transportation stakeholders across the country are successfully incorporating environmental protection into long-term transportation solutions.
Starting in 1995, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has sponsored the biennial Environmental Excellence Awards program to recognize outstanding contributions in this area. The recipients have used FHWA funding to implement programs and processes that encourage environmental stewardship and sustainable planning while also meeting the Nation’s growing transportation needs.
Categories cover topics ranging from air quality, wetlands, and ecosystems to environmental research and leadership to nonmotorized and multimodal transportation. For the 2013 awards, FHWA added three new award categories--collaboration and partnership; geospatial tools, technology, and analysis; and programmatic agreements. The new categories recognize the evolving state of the practice and promote processes and projects within these categories that demonstrate measurable streamlining benefits.
The 2013 awards program attracted more than 100 applications. An independent panel of judges consisting of subject matter experts from Federal agencies, nonprofit organizations, and academia carefully reviewed the entries and narrowed them down to 13 award recipients, who were recognized in June 2013 at a ceremony hosted by FHWA. The event was held in Virginia Beach, VA, in conjunction with the annual meeting of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ (AASHTO) Standing Committee on the Environment.
“The winning entries demonstrate a commitment to protecting and enhancing the environment while also shortening project delivery, advancing innovative technology, and going greener,” says Gerry Solomon, director of FHWA’s Office of Project Development and Environmental Review. “They demonstrate that we can have a high-quality transportation system and a healthy environment.”
The award-winning projects described below offer a look at how some of the innovative approaches at work across the country incorporate environmental considerations into transportation planning and project delivery.
Promoting Environmental Streamlining
The ability to streamline projects and move them quickly from the planning stages to implementation is a key concern for many agencies. By integrating environmental considerations earlier in the transportation planning process, the following four award recipients demonstrate best practices in expediting project review and delivery.
Colorado Streamlines Environmental Assessment. When the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and its partners began the environmental assessment for the I–70 Twin Tunnels project near Idaho Springs, CO, they made streamlining a key component of the process. The project, which involves adding an eastbound lane and expanding the eastbound tunnel, will improve safety and reduce congestion throughout this mountain corridor.
The project team, which included CDOT, the FHWA Colorado Division Office and Field Legal Services Division (Western), and several consulting firms, successfully incorporated environmental streamlining practices that went beyond the normal scope of preliminary design by establishing an early involvement agreement related to legal reviews. Site visits by legal staff and reviews of the draft environmental assessment enabled the project team to resolve legal concerns early in the process. These efforts resulted in a compressed comment period and a savings of at least 1 month in the overall schedule.
Oregon and Washington Expedite Reviews With Programmatic Consultations. The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), FHWA Oregon Division, and the National Marine Fisheries Service collaborated on a programmatic consultation that provides a framework for compliance with the Endangered Species Act on Federal-aid highway projects. The programmatic consultation applies to 95 percent of consultations regarding the State’s Federal-aid transportation projects. Specifically, it covers 17 federally listed aquatic species and 16 critical habitats.
In place since 2012, the programmatic consultation has already yielded measurable results in project streamlining. To date, more than 20 projects have used the agreement, with an overall reduction in consultation timelines of up to 85 percent--or 170 days.
The State of Washington also created a programmatic consultation to expedite reviews required under the Endangered Species Act. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), FHWA Washington Division, and the National Marine Fisheries Service worked together to develop the programmatic consultation, which applies to projects either funded by FHWA or requiring a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Two expedited approval pathways streamline the process, while reporting and communications tools help monitor and track progress, expectations, and conditions. The consultation covers 17 critical habitats and 24 species, including salmonids, marine mammals, green sturgeon, eulachon, and rockfish.
Up to 70 percent of WSDOT’s projects requiring consultations under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act are expected to use the programmatic consultation. Results to date show a reduction of almost 90 percent in consultation timelines for the six projects using the agreement.
Kentucky Protects Bats and Their Habitat Through a Memorandum of Agreement. The Indiana bat (Myotis soldalis) is an endangered species found in Kentucky and throughout the eastern United States. Because the bat’s habitat spreads across such a wide territory, many of Kentucky’s transportation projects have the potential to affect the species. In the past, every project required a biological assessment under the Endangered Species Act or faced time-of-year restrictions, which often resulted in delays and increased costs.
In 2012, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, the FHWA Kentucky Division, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Kentucky Ecological Services Field Office signed a programmatic memorandum of agreement for conservation of the Indiana bat. The agreement provides options for compliance with the Endangered Species Act, significantly reducing the time and expense of consultations regarding the Indiana bat. The agreement standardizes biological surveys and assessments and establishes a means to protect the bats by allowing agencies to pay into the Indiana Bat Conservation Fund, administered by a third-party nonprofit organization.
The new programmatic process goes beyond project-level mitigation to provide recovery-based conservation benefits for the Indiana bat in the form of habitat protection and restoration, as well as priority monitoring and research projects. The agreement ensures that ecosystem and habitat concerns are integrated into the earliest stages of planning and project development to avoid and minimize impacts.
To further promote streamlining, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service developed a map of Kentucky that highlights known occurrences of the Indiana bat. The map helps transportation officials determine the amount they would need to pay into the conservation fund based on a project’s location. Those in areas without known occurrences might require a lower payment and proceed with construction more quickly. For projects in areas with known occurrences, transportation officials can coordinate earlier and work together more efficiently to determine the payments needed for the conservation fund.
“The [memorandum of agreement] gives agencies options and flexibility so they can choose the steps they wish to take and how to address potential impacts on the species,” says Phillip DeGarmo, a wildlife biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Kentucky Ecological Services Field Office. DeGarmo, who helped establish the agreement, adds, “From a biological standpoint, it just makes sense.”
Advancing Innovative Technology
Technology and research are advancing the ways in which agencies think about and apply environmental considerations to transportation projects. The following 2013 award recipients were recognized for their groundbreaking applications of data and technology to improve environmental outcomes.
West Coast Electric Highway Builds Infrastructure for a Cleaner, Energy-Independent Future in Oregon. An extensive network of fast-charging stations for electric vehicles along I–5 and connecting corridors is changing the way people travel in Oregon and Washington. The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) and its private partner, AeroVironment, are installing 43 charging stations throughout the State, making it easier for drivers to use nonpetroleum fuel sources in Oregon and encouraging a shift toward use of electric vehicles. This network--collectively known as the West Coast Electric Highway--also includes 12 charging stations in Washington.
The deployment of a robust network of charging stations means that electric vehicles will be able to travel beyond the typical battery range of around 100 miles (161 kilometers). In March 2012, ODOT completed the first stage of the project, installing 10 fast-charging stations covering more than 200 miles (322 kilometers) of I–5. A fast-charging station can recharge an electric vehicle in anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes. With funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant program, known as TIGER II, ODOT installed an additional 22 stations as of June 2013 and aims to complete the remaining 11 by summer 2014.
Electric vehicles emit fewer pollutants than conventional automobiles and produce zero local emissions. By encouraging greater use of alternative fuel vehicles, the West Coast Electric Highway will help improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Research Improves Safety for Wildlife in Utah. Collisions between drivers and mule deer, elk, moose, and other wildlife passing through the roadway environment are an all-too-common occurrence in wilderness areas. Between 2007 and 2013, a research project focused on wildlife crossings in Utah employed motion-sensing cameras to monitor how wildlife used crossing structures, culverts, and bridges. The study resulted in recommendations for crossing structure designs that could help prevent future collisions.
Utah State University led the research team, with support from the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. The team used 44 cameras to produce more than 2 million images over 40,000 camera days, monitoring 38 structures on 7 highways and interstates. The images provided the researchers with photographic evidence to support their recommendations, such as placement of fencing in situations where wildlife have ample culverts and bridges that enable them to pass under the roads. In part because of this study, shorter culverts, open bridges with terrestrial paths for wildlife to travel, and attached wildlife fencing are the new standard.
These operating procedures also provide the State with substantial cost savings by reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions. For example, UDOT engineers found that two of the culvert crossing structures monitored in the study reduced collisions along I–15 by more than 90 percent and paid for themselves in less than 3 years.
GIS Inventory Helps Protect Historic Apache Trail in Arizona. Travelers have long enjoyed Arizona’s historically significant State Route 88 corridor, also known as the Apache Trail. Built in the early 1900s as a wagon road, the corridor provides views of majestic canyons and vast wilderness areas in Maricopa County. The road’s many features have helped to support its eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places.
Given the age of the Apache Trail, local officials face a number of challenges in maintaining the highway infrastructure. Many of the road’s unique historical engineering features, including one-lane bridges and rock structures, are more than 80 years old. One 39-mile (63-kilometer) segment is paved for only 19 miles (31 kilometers). Sections with steep grades make travel challenging for many visitors to the area.
To catalog the historical resources and improve management practices, the FHWA Central Federal Lands Highway Division, the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT), and the U.S. Forest Service’s Phoenix office partnered to develop a comprehensive geographic information system (GIS) inventory of more than 850 roadway features in the corridor. The GIS inventory enables partner agencies to identify the location, condition, and rehabilitation needs of specific roadway features such as culverts and retaining walls. The inventory includes locations, images, and videos of all the corridor elements, including character-defining features, through 2010. In addition, ADOT maintenance staff continues to document and photograph features and identify changes.
The GIS inventory has led to further efforts to protect this historic corridor. Project partners, working with the Arizona State Historic Preservation Office and FHWA Arizona Division, are establishing a programmatic agreement for the roadway in accordance with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. The goal of the agreement is to consult on a programmatic basis to cover a range of activities that may be redundant or have similar impacts on the roadway, and to outline a process for treatment and maintenance in keeping with the road’s historic character. The inventory also resulted in ADOT developing a detailed maintenance and operations plan for the corridor in 2012. These activities will help partners protect the cultural resources and historic nature of the roadway.
“The Apache Trail is a spectacular and unique resource, particularly for a State highway,” says Thomas Puto, a project manager with the FHWA Central Federal Lands Highway Division. “The inventory has produced a fully functioning database that all project partners can access and update. Prior to the inventory, agencies did not have a comprehensive record of what the resources along the corridor were or when they were built. The inventory provides a way to identify the corridor’s character-defining features and to preserve these features from a cultural and historical resource perspective.”
Collaborating with Partners
Much of the work performed by awardees could not be done without the collaborative support and participation of their many partners. The following 2013 award recipients illustrate some of the possible achievements that can be reached by collaborating with project partners to accomplish goals and meet deadlines.
Partnership Hastens Replacement of Historic Bridge Between New York and Vermont. Built in 1929, the historic Lake Champlain Bridge was closed in October 2009 because of structural deficiencies. Without this critical connection, travelers faced an 85-mile (137-kilometer) detour over rural roads to reach their destinations.
The New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) and the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans), together with an extensive list of other partners, including Federal and State agencies in both States, quickly jumped into action. Within just 2 years, a brand new Lake Champlain Bridge opened to traffic.
To protect nearby historical and cultural resources, project partners used innovative methods such as archaeological reconnaissance, data recovery and monitoring during construction, plus state-of-the-practice seismic techniques to evaluate the effects of construction on the foundations of nearby historic buildings. They also established two programmatic agreements with the States’ historic preservation offices to facilitate the Section 106 process.
NYSDOT and VTrans partnered with local historians and preservationists to document the original bridge’s legacy and historical significance and to develop a comprehensive commemoration program, which includes a resource guide, filmed oral history accounts, a documentary film, a history book, and interpretive displays at five sites. Two of the sites, in Port Henry, NY, are located within sight of the bridge. The other three sites, located in Addison, VT, and Crown Point, NY, are in close proximity to the bridge.
The project to build the new Lake Champlain Bridge shows how close collaboration between State DOTs and their partners and stakeholders can expedite delivery of projects spanning State lines.
Wisconsin Project Restores Wetland Functions in an Urban Setting. When the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) was looking for a mitigation site to compensate for unavoidable wetland impacts from a bypass project on U.S. 10, nearby Moses Creek rose to the top of the list. The creek runs through Schmeeckle Reserve, a protected area north of Stevens Point, WI, that consists of approximately 280 acres (113 hectares) owned by the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point. Officials with the university, the St. Paul District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the city of Stevens Point agreed that restoring Moses Creek to its natural state could achieve many of WisDOT’s objectives and then some. The effort also would help improve flood management and connect the community to the natural environment.
“Our ultimate goals were very similar,” says Janet Smith, environmental coordinator for WisDOT’s North Central Region. “In addition to restoration, we wanted to increase diversity, provide high-quality habitat, improve drainage, and educate the public.”
WisDOT and its partners worked together to restore the wetland and aquatic habitat surrounding Moses Creek and the adjacent area. In collaboration with the university, WisDOT enlisted students to collect data on water quality and conduct vegetation studies. To encourage visitors to the protected area, WisDOT installed a boardwalk trail through Schmeeckle Reserve and added interpretive signs, providing the local community with opportunities for walking and wildlife watching.
Right from the start, the project involved many stakeholders, which helped to encourage collaboration and community building. “Everyone was able to come together and bring the project to fruition,” Smith says. “The project is an aesthetic gem for the community.”
Enhancing the Environment
Encouraging transportation agencies to think about the effects of their activities on the natural environment is at the core of FHWA’s Environmental Excellence Awards. The 2013 winners are leading the way in their efforts to encourage activities and approaches that preserve and protect the environment in the delivery of transportation improvements.
Planned Bikeway to Span 116 Miles (187 Kilometers) in California and Nevada. The Truckee River between Lake Tahoe, CA, and Pyramid Lake, NV, is a scenic and historic corridor with adjacent freeways and railroad tracks. Many sections of the corridor, however, lack safe and convenient access for nonmotorized transportation modes, such as bicyclists and pedestrians. Proponents of the Tahoe-Pyramid Bikeway aim to change that. This visionary project will establish a bicycle and pedestrian trail along the entire 116-mile (187-kilometer) length of the Truckee River.
Development of the bikeway is underway, with several segments already completed, such as the one extending from Verdi to Sparks, NV (east of Reno). About 200 bicyclists use the trail daily. A future section, east of Reno, will provide the only off-freeway route for residents to use when commuting to Reno by bicycle or on foot.
Maryland Reintroduces Native Habitats in Managing Roadside Vegetation. The Maryland State Highway Administration’s Office of Environmental Design is tackling the issue of invasive species and vegetation management by focusing on roadside vegetation’s environmental functionality rather than its aesthetic value. The agency is developing a network of native roadside habitats that are functional, healthy, and sustainable. Six projects are underway to remove invasive species and establish native habitats, including meadows, wetlands, and forest stands along roadsides and medians. The projects cover 446 miles (718 kilometers) along 14 highways in 14 counties throughout Maryland, in addition to 31 wetland mitigation sites.
The agency expects that this integrated approach to managing roadside vegetation will help curb the spread of invasive species and reduce related costs and environmental impacts.
Minneapolis Bridge Project Incorporates System to Treat Stormwater. The Lowry Avenue Bridge over the Mississippi River has provided a vital connection between north and northeast Minneapolis, MN, for more than a century. However, the bridge’s open-grate deck enabled pollutants from vehicles and runoff to drain directly into the river below. When the time came to replace the bridge, officials with Hennepin County, the city’s department of public works, and other public and private sector partners took the opportunity to develop and install an innovative water treatment system that improves the quality of discharged stormwater.
A new underground sand filtration system removes 85 percent of total suspended solids in stormwater from 10.5 acres (4.2 hectares) of the corridor surrounding the bridge and provides low-flow treatment for an additional 127 acres (51 hectares). Having this filtration system in place prevents more than 14,000 pounds (6,350 kilograms) of total suspended sediment from reaching the river annually.
Ohio Integrates Green Goals Into Cleveland Bridge Design. Early in the development of Cleveland’s Innerbelt Bridge project, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) established seven categories of sustainability goals, known collectively as the Green 7, to be achieved during construction. The $293 million project involves building a new westbound I–90 bridge over the Cuyahoga River Valley in Cleveland, OH. Work began in fall 2010, and the new bridge was expected to open to traffic in late 2013.
When preparing the request for proposals for the design-build project, ODOT included four sustainability requirements in the scope for the design and construction phases: energy and energy efficiency, community environment, green building, and waste reduction and recycling. The design-build team later added three more categories: green project administration, materials and resources, and green construction practices.
“ODOT was interested in setting a standard of excellence for the implementation of sustainable design principles when we developed this value-based, design-build proposal,” says David Lastovka, a transportation engineer with ODOT District 12. “We wanted to challenge teams to apply state-of-the-art techniques to the design and construction of this project. Teams submitted sustainability plans with their technical proposals, which were then scored against our sustainability criteria.”
Throughout design and construction, ODOT and its design-build team adopted a variety of environmentally conscious approaches to achieve these goals. For example, they chose construction vehicles with greater load-carrying capacity to reduce vehicle emissions, committed to a two-for-one tree replacement program, installed pocket fish habitats in the steel bulkhead walls of the shipping channel, and achieved a 50 percent diversion rate for construction waste.
To track its sustainability performance, ODOT partnered with FHWA to pilot test FHWA’s Infrastructure Voluntary Evaluation Sustainability Tool (INVEST). In fact, the Cleveland Innerbelt Bridge is the largest INVEST pilot project in the country and the largest transportation project ODOT has undertaken to date.
Establishing comprehensive sustainability goals on such a large and complex project was a challenging task. “It took a lot of people saying ‘Yes’ to focus on the sustainability concept,” says Matthew Perlik, assistant environmental administrator with ODOT’s Office of Environmental Services. “Saying ‘Yes’ to additional documentation, to more meetings, more analysis, and to thinking about how the work of the DOT improves a community in a variety of ways beyond just better transportation. This new approach to measuring how our projects impact the community has helped track and communicate the project successes and has made sustainability not just a concept, but a reality.”
Models for Environmental Stewardship
All of the projects recognized in the 2013 Environmental Excellence Awards represent significant achievements in preserving and enhancing the environment in the course of delivering transportation projects. Through a variety of approaches, including promoting streamlining, advancing new technologies, and showing the value of collaborating with diverse partners, the winning entries demonstrate a strong commitment to environmental excellence and innovation.
“Each of the recognized projects provides innovative ideas that can lead to even more remarkable projects in the future,” says FHWA’s Solomon. “They represent the highest commitment to environmental stewardship and will serve as models for the rest of the Nation.”
Rachel Strauss is a community planner at the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, MA. She was the Volpe project manager for the 2013 Environmental Excellence Awards and worked with Marlys Osterhues and William Ostrum of the FHWA Office of Project Development and Environmental Review in coordinating the awards. Strauss holds a master’s degree in city planning from the University of Pennsylvania.
For more information about the award-winning projects or how to apply for future rounds, visit www.fhwa.dot.gov/environment/environmental_excellence_awards.
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