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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 57· No. 3 > Environmental Research: Helping Highways Improve the Quality of Life

Winter 1994
Vol. 57· No. 3

Environmental Research: Helping Highways Improve the Quality of Life

by Ginny Finch

"The American public insists that our highway program be consistent with environmental goals and values. That's a challenge for all of us, and the environmental research program is a vital tool in our effort to meet this challenge while maintaining America's mobility."

- Anthony R. Kane, Associate Administrator for Program Development

Over the past few years, technological advancements and protecting the environment have been catalysts for change in the policies and procedures of many federal agencies. "Environment" has become one of the most significant political buzzwords of the 1980s and 90s, but for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), environmental concerns are much more than a buzzword. FHWA is committed to contributing to an enhanced environment with improved tools and technologies for alleviating highway intermodal impacts on air quality, noise, wetlands, hazardous waste sites, water quality, and historic resources.

This commitment is shared by FHWA Administrator Rodney E. Slater. "Our goal in all of our transportation investments is long term," he said in a July 1993 speech at the Pacific Rim TransTech Conference. "We believe that, if we invest wisely and build partnerships, we can spur the development of new technologies -- even whole industries -- and contribute to a cleaner environment at the same time."

To accomplish this goal, the experts involved in FHWA's environmental research program are developing research products ranging from air quality models to case studies of successful and innovative highway designs. Not only do these research products carry out FHWA's commitment to the environment and mobility, they are also designed to help states and metropolitan areas in their ongoing planning and project development.

"Water quality issues, air quality concerns, and environmentally and socially sensitive highway design practices are three focus areas of the environmental research program."

The environmental research program was launched on October 1, 1991, and in fiscal year 1993, the program included 42 projects and a budget of $4.1 million. The program is carried out by the Office of Environment and Planning, whose other responsibilities include drafting regulations, reviewing environmental impact statements, providing technical assistance, and developing policies and guidance.

Many of the research projects now underway were first identified in 1991 at a national conference in Denver co-sponsored by FHWA and the Transportation Research Board (TRB). The conference, "Environmental Research Needs in Transportation," brought together FHWA, other federal agencies, state highway agencies, local governments, consultants, academicians, and environmentalists, who laid out an ambitious agenda for multi-faceted research on specific issues in transportation and the environment. The Denver conference not only helped establish FHWA's "core" environmental research, it also laid the foundation for FHWA participation with TRB, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and others on a variety of research projects.

Water quality issues, air quality concerns, and environmentally and socially sensitive highway design practices are three focus areas of the new research program. In one study, ecologists are looking at the water quality impacts of existing highways and further highway construction. In another study, co-funded by the National Academy of Sciences, transportation and air quality experts are investigating carbon monoxide emissions at intersections. In still another study, researchers are examining possible highway design alternatives, exploring solutions for specific design problems, and identifying creative design approaches that are both environmentally sensitive and safe.

Here are some details about each of these three representative projects.

The passage of the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) and earlier technological changes, such as the introduction of unleaded gasoline, have stimulated new interest in the study of water quality problems associated with highway use. To meet the new challenge -- to accurately predict impacts and develop effective mitigation techniques -- the "Highways and Water Resources" research team is developing improved evaluation methods and innovative "best management" tools. Nationally and internationally, the team is looking at the "bigger picture"-- the way in which highway water quality and storm water issues are part of all water resource problems associated with highways. These researchers are also coordinating with other agencies to ensure that both FHWA and states' policies and procedures are consistent with federal storm water and non-point source pollution policies. When the project is completed in about six years, researchers will know much more about the best ways to control ground water pollution from highway sources. They will have quantifiable information about the effects of de-icing chemicals on aquifers. They will also be able to develop hydro-geological guidelines for wetland restoration. And they will understand more clearly how to treat and dispose of lead paint debris so it will not contaminate water supplies and resources.

Just as technology and the passage of ISTEA have renewed interest in water quality research, passage of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments has created new challenges. To meet the standards of the act for maximum carbon monoxide (CO) levels, the states must not only avoid violations, they must also actively seek to reduce the number and severity of violations. FHWA and the National Academy of Science's National Cooperative Highway Research Program have launched a three-year study of highway intersections, using EPA "hot spot guidelines" to develop computer models. At six to eight intersections throughout the country, researchers will study how air moves, how traffic moves, and how engines operate. Project designers chose intersections on heavily traveled roads, since these locations tend to have the highest CO concentrations. They will examine the affects of "queue length" (number of cars stopped), wind speed, time of day, amount of sunlight, temperature, traffic speed, and acceleration rates on the concentration of CO. As a result of this study, states and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) will be better able to predict and minimize the impacts of traffic on air quality.

"We must work together to save wetlands and at the same time explore transportation alternatives that reduce the need for more roads."

- Secretary of Transportation Federico Peña

Like the air quality intersection project, "Improving Aesthetic Design Elements of Urban, Suburban, and Rural Roads" will aid decision-making. The project will help engineers design highways that create a "sense of place"-- for example, retaining scenic and historic features along roads where safety standards must be upgraded. The timeliness of this highway design research project is reinforced by ISTEA, which allows state highway agencies greater flexibility in highway design. To make design professionals more aware of the broad range of design options, project researchers will develop a handbook and case studies detailing innovative solutions to certain design conflicts. They will also create a catalog of visual design approaches -- a catalog that includes a multimedia, computerized version and a video. The entire effort is aimed at helping states improve and enhance their highway designs without compromising the safety of pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists.

The environmental research program is a "strategic transportation investment." It is a young program that will soon be paying big dividends, enabling states and MPOs to implement cost-effective strategies to simultaneously enhance mobility and protect the environment.

Ginny Finch is a program analyst and communications specialist in FHWA's Environmental Analysis Division. She recently created a 40-page, color brochure, "Wetlands and Highways: A Natural Approach," 30,000 copies of which were distributed.

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