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Visualization for Right-of-Way Acquisition

2. What is ROW Acquisition and Visualization?

ROW acquisition is a process that involves obtaining necessary property rights for a transportation project when an existing ROW cannot accommodate the planned expansion of an existing facility or the construction of a new facility. In some cases, the process can be controversial, expensive, or time consuming. Visualization can serve as an effective aid to the ROW acquisition process, improving its predictability (e.g., potentially fewer legal disputes) and better informing property owners, while accelerating the overall project delivery process. This, in turn, could enhance the negotiation process, potentially reducing the likelihood of condemnation. This report examines some cost generalities as well as the relative benefits of using visualization in the ROW acquisition process. The following section introduces ROW acquisition (section 2.1), visualization (section 2.2), and how visualization can be a tool throughout the transportation project delivery process (section 2.3).

2.1 ROW Acquisition

When ROW is required for an existing facility, or the construction of a new facility, an agency owning a public road may acquire any necessary property. ROW acquisitions must adhere to the U.S. Constitution's Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, which prevent private property from being taken for public use without just compensation. The Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Policies Act of 1970 (the Uniform Act), as amended, establishes standard procedures and requirements for any agency using federal funds to acquire ROW, to ensure that property owners experience the protection that the Fifth Amendment provides. These provisions, together with state-specific requirements and statues, guarantee fair and timely compensation for any property acquisition.

The provisions emphasize acquisition through negotiation rather than condemnation, which is the formal application of eminent domain to transfer a property title from its private owner to the government. The ROW acquisition process can be very expensive, time consuming, and potentially controversial—all concerns given the Federal government's commitment to provide due process and just compensation, acquire property without delaying public projects, promote public confidence in Federal and federally-assisted land acquisition programs, and ensure that public dollars are spent appropriately.

ROW acquisition activities typically span several stages of the project delivery process, beginning in planning and extending into environmental review, design, and during and after construction. These activities can be divided into five basic steps, each of which can benefit from the use of visualization: 1

Once a transportation agency expresses interest in acquiring property, and before the initiation of negotiations, the agency must establish an amount that it believes is just compensation for the real property. To do so, an appraiser will inspect the property to determine its fair market value, an estimate that must be supported in the appraisal. The Uniform Act requires that property owners or designated representatives be given the opportunity to accompany the appraiser during the property inspection. This allows property owners to identify any features that might affect the appraised value, and assists the appraiser in locating features of the property that are not immediately obvious. Just compensation shall not be less than the approved appraisal of the fair market value of the property, taking into account the value of allowable damages or benefits to any remaining property.

Once ROW practitioners establish and review an estimate of just compensation, the Uniform Act requires that the Agency, as soon as feasible, notify the owner in writing of the Agency's interest in acquiring the real property and the basic protections provided to the owner by law. The appraisal process provides another opportunity for ROW practitioners to be in contact with landowners. Properties are reviewed, offers are made, and negotiations can follow.

2.2 Visualization

Visualization is any process, technique, or method used to convey complex technical information in a comprehensible, dynamic, visual manner. Generally, information is compiled from photographs, maps, geographic information systems (GIS), computer-aided design (CAD) software, and other resources and then combined with computer graphics to create accurate depictions of what a place might look like after changes are implemented. Visualization tools include:

Although these techniques range in level of technological sophistication required (visualizations increasingly involve the use of computer-based tools and display methods), they share a major similarity: each provides a method for graphically presenting the potential impacts of a proposed project on the existing conditions around the project. All of the tools can effectively communicate before and after site conditions, specific project designs and details, or impacts to a project area. 2

For the purpose of this report, the project team used the terms visualization, visualization technology, and visualization technique synonymously. The team also differentiated between "traditional" and "advanced" methods of visualization, though the term "traditional" should not suggest that advanced skills or expertise are not needed to develop them. For these purposes, "traditional visualization" refers to two-dimensional (2-D) images or three-dimensional (3-D) models that can usually be created without highly specialized computer hardware, software, or expertise. In this study, "advanced visualization" means any computer-generated visualization that displays information in at least three dimensions. Some advanced visualizations are four-dimensional (4-D), with "time" being the fourth dimension represented. Advanced visualization typically involves the addition of "realism" to the presentation, including the display of people, vehicles, and textures, such as what the pavement or vegetation might look like.

2.3 Potential Uses of Visualization in Transportation Project Delivery

Transportation agencies have used visualizations in a variety of ways, especially in light of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) requirement that state DOTs and metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) employ visualization techniques to facilitate public involvement during the planning phase of project delivery. Recently, state DOTs have cited improved public involvement as one of the primary reasons for developing visualizations (NCHRP 2006 and FHWA 2009). Other common applications of visualization in transportation are for alternatives analysis, environmental review, and design evaluation (Volpe Center 2007 and 2009).

Historically, use of visualization in the ROW acquisition practice has been less prevalent or has focused on traditional techniques, such as 2-D graphic images and overlays of roadway engineering and ROW plans on aerial photographs. In cases where advanced visualizations have been used, ROW officials have found that the same hardware and software used to create visualizations for other stages of transportation project delivery (and often the same visualizations) can be used for ROW acquisition purposes—potentially opening the door for visualization cost-sharing agreements among disciplines. Figure 1 summarizes some of the current uses of visualization throughout the transportation project delivery process. As shown, there are also opportunities for visualization use during each stage of the ROW acquisition process, such as in ROW planning, appraisal, acquisition, relocation process, and property management.

Flow chart describing how visualization can be utilized during transportation project delivery. Within the Final Design ROW Acquisition phase of project delivery, visualization play a role in various stages, including ROW planning, appraisal, relocation, and property management.

Figure 1. Potential uses for visualization throughout the transportation project delivery process.
There are opportunities for any ROW acquiring agency to use visualization throughout project delivery, including the planning, the NEPA process, final design, ROW acquisition, construction, and operations phases. There are often opportunities for transportation agency personnel to use visualizations created for one stage of project delivery for other stages as well. The base data (e.g., ground photography, and aerial images, among others) used to develop a visualization are often useful to practitioners in disciplines other than those for which the visualization was initially developed.

Table 1. Examples of Traditional and Advanced Visualization Techniques

Traditional visualization ("low-tech" visualization) Visualization Tools Description Relative Cost
2-D graphic image A graphic representation rendered by hand or with a computer. Two-dimensional graphic images include sketches, drawings, maps, or artist renderings. Lower cost
2-D graphic overlay A transparent graphic representation overlaid onto another graphic image with a computer. Two-dimensional graphic overlays include simulated photos and maps or plans overlaid with aerial photography. Lower cost
Physical model A physical model, typically constructed by hand and that can be physically manipulated, that depicts an existing condition or a proposed change. Physical models are portable, easily manipulated, and a tactile visualization alternative to electronic media. Moderate to higher cost
Advanced visualization ("high-tech" visualization) Interactive 3-D (virtual-reality) model A computer-generated virtual-reality 3-D surface model in which any location and view can be navigated to interactively by the user. The interactive 3-D model can be a simple wireframe or a textured "mesh" surface. Photographic images can be draped on the surface, and above-ground features can be added into the model. Modeling tools are integrated within common CADD programs allowing simple 3-D models to be generated at low to moderate cost. The 3-D models can be imported into Adobe Acrobat 3-D PDF documents and navigated interactively using tools within Adobe Reader. The 3-D models can also be imported into global map viewing programs such as Google Earth. Low to moderate cost for simple models; higher cost for more complex
3-D image or video A rendered graphic image that depicts several angles, or perspective views, of a proposed change. Three-dimensional images or videos include animations, computer-modeled images, interactive GIS, photo manipulations, and computer simulations. Specialized software can add effects and elements of realism, such as lighting, perspective, and shading. Higher cost
4D video, or computer animation A series of closely spaced 3-D graphic images of a surface model following a designated orientation and path and joined to create a moving image. Four-dimensional videos include the passage of time. These tools are used to simulate the dynamics of traffic operations and transportation facilities in actual service from a road user's perspective. Highest cost

Black and white right of way plan drawing of a highway in Minnesota.

A color aerial photograph with a ROW plan overlaid in a GIS software program. On the ROW plan, one edge of the road pavement has been manually marked in the GIS with a green dot; a transect perpendicular to the road has been manually drawn in the GIS with a red line between the DOT's property lines, which have also been manually drawn in blue.

Figure 2. Traditional Visualization: 2-D Graphic and 2-D Overlay
Black and white ROW plan drawing (top), Source: Mn/DOT. A color aerial photograph with a ROW plan overlaid in a GIS software program. On the ROW plan, one edge of the road pavement has been manually marked in the GIS with a green dot; a transect perpendicular to the road has been manually drawn in the GIS with a red line between the DOT's property lines, which have also been manually drawn in blue (bottom), Source: USDOT Volpe Center.

Aerial photo and plan drawing with 3-D model components of proposed infrastructure.

Figure 3. Advanced Visualization: 2-D Graphic with a 3-D Overlay
Aerial photo and plan drawing with 3-D model components of proposed infrastructure. Source: FDOT.

Image from a photo simulation of proposed overpass condition on I-87 in New York.

Image of exsiting and proposed conditions in a 3-D split-screen, fly-over visualization from North Carolina DOT.

Figure 4. Advanced Visualization: 3-D Image or Video
Photo simulation of proposed overpass condition on I-87 in New York (top), Source: NYSDOT.
Existing and proposed conditions in a 3-D split-screen, fly-over visualization (bottom), Source: NCDOT.

Screen capture from a 4-D video for a pilot project on US Highway 12 in Minnesota. The video includes parcel data, highway and building images, roadway infrastructure, and moving vehicular traffic. Yellow lines represent parcel boundaries; green lines represent existing ROW boundaries; red and blue lines represent future ROW boundaries after acquisition.

Figure 5. Advanced Visualization: 4-D Video
Screenshot from a 4-D video for US Highway 12 pilot project in Minnesota. The video includes parcel data, highway and building images, roadway infrastructure, and moving vehicular traffic. Yellow lines represent parcel boundaries; green lines represent existing ROW boundaries; red and blue lines represent future ROW boundaries after acquisition. To see the video, visit Source: Mn/DOT.

Table 2. Example Visualization Software Programs*

ArcGIS Family of programs that is used to compile, manage, analyze, and display geographic information; allows the user to create and store many layers of geographically-related information.3
AutoCAD Used to build 2-D plans and 3-D structures with exact measurements to create 3-D computer-modeled visualizations.
CommunityViz CommunityViz is GIS software designed to help users visualize, analyze, and communicate about important community planning decisions.
CORSIM "Corridor Simulation Model" developed by FHWA; micro-simulation program commonly used for modeling vehicle traffic operations.
Google Earth Google Earth is a virtual globe, map, and geographic information program that displays satellite images of varying resolution of the Earth's surface, allowing users to see things like cities and houses looking perpendicularly down or at an oblique angle, with perspective. Google Earth offers a "street view" perspective for many roads, allowing users to view locations as they would appear in person at the location being viewed.
MicroStation MicroStation is a CAD software product for 2- and 3-D design and drafting, developed and sold by Bentley Systems.
PARAMICS Software program used to model the movement and behavior of individual vehicles and transit on local arterial and regional freeway networks.
PDF (Adobe) File format to view, package, and share 2-D and 3-D design data. A 3-D PDF provides an image view that allows users to rotate, zoom, and pan an object within the PDF file itself (which may be accompanied in the same file by 2-D text or images).
Photoshop (Adobe) Photo-editing software program used to alter and enhance raster images (photographs, 3-D model stills, illustrations, scans, etc.); used to incorporate stills from 3-D models into photographs.
SketchUp 2-D and 3-D modeling program that lacks the photo-realistic end result of 3-D Studio MAX but allows for experimentation.
SYNCHRO and SimTraffic Software suite, with some animation capabilities, used to analyze transportation models that include traffic movement and behavior on surface roads and freeways.
TransCAD GIS and transportation modeling in one platform; used for travel demand modeling, mapping, visualization, and analysis. Note: Genesee Transportation Council (GTC) uses TransCAD for its travel demand model.
3-D StudioMAX Renders stills or animations from AutoCAD and other 3-D models; applies photo-realistic material surfaces to images and animations.
VISSIM 3-D "microsimulation" programs that can be used to model movement and behavior of small surface roads and complex, large-scale transit systems.
*This is not a comprehensive list of visualization software programs, but instead is intended to provide basic information on some of the more common applications. The type and scale of a project will determine the type of visualization used.

1 The entire process and requirements are articulated in 49 CFR 24 Subpart B "Real Property Acquisition," which can be found at The FHWA Project Development Guide is also a useful reference for the highway ROW acquisition process and includes information on relevant laws, policies, and best practices for ROW acquisition. It is available at

2 For more information see FHWA's Visualization in Planning website at Additionally, the January/February 2010 issue of Public Roads ( offers more information on 3-D, 4-D, and dynamic (animated or real-time simulation) technological tools for design visualization.

3 Caltrans provided the project team with material on operations and the use of GIS, See Appendix G.

Updated: 9/5/2014
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