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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 67 · No. 1 > A Natural Balance

July/August 2003
Vol. 67 · No. 1

A Natural Balance

by Cynthia J. Burbank

During decades of controversy, FHWA and its State and local partners consistently included environmental stewardship as a goal of transportation projects.

The 1962 publication of Rachel Carson's classic, Silent Spring, about the effect of chemicals on ecosystems, especially bird populations, usually is cited as the start of the modern environmental movement. For the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the wake-up call came a few years earlier.

Once construction of the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways began shortly after enactment of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, citizens and local officials from coast to coast began letting FHWA know that they would not accept adverse impacts from the new highways. FHWA was forced to broaden its mission from that of providing highways to meet traffic demand to one that includes reflecting the cultural, economic, environmental, and social needs of U.S. cities and sensitive rural areas.

Road between Mountain Green and Huntsville, UT, Photo courtesy of Utah DOT.
The Utah Department of Transportation, when constructing an improved road between Mountain Green and Huntsville, UT, threaded the highway to avoid as many seeps, springs, and peat bogs as possible. Photo courtesy of Utah DOT.

Since the start of the interstate era, FHWA has evolved into a different kind of agency than it used to be. Early on, the question was: How can we build interstate highways fast enough to complete the program by the early 1970s? By the time that President Richard M. Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) on January 1, 1970, FHWA had to answer a very different question: How can we build our highways while minimizing or eliminating damage to the environment? Then, by the 1990s, FHWA expanded its mission to include protecting and enhancing the environment.

The Good News

Over the past 30 years, FHWA cooperated with State transportation officials to add a number of environmentally sensitive interstates to the system. (See "New Wonders of the World" on page 3.) In addition, the agency joined with State and local officials to complete thousands of environmentally sensitive projects on highways that are not part of the interstate system.

Other good news: Urban highways carry more people to and from work every day than any other means of transportation in history. At the same time, they have accommodated significant increases in population and motor vehicles over the years.

The Nation's air quality has improved steadily since the early 1970s in every category, across the board, in virtually every part of the country. A majority of the areas designated as nonattainment (that is, areas that do not meet air quality standards) since 1990 now meet national air quality standards. Air quality monitoring data through 2001 show that 77 out of 78 carbon monoxide nonattainment areas, 73 out of 85 coarse particulate matter (PM10) areas, and 69 out of 101 ozone areas no longer show air pollution levels that exceed the national ambient air quality standards. Even in areas where air quality is rated "severe," it is still better today than it was in 1970.

Since 1991, governments at all three levels spent a total of more than $3.7 billion on transportation enhancements, such as provision of facilities for bicyclists and pedestrians, scenic byways, and preservation of historic transportation structures and facilities.

In part because of transportation enhancements, Federal-aid funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects increased from $3 to $4 million per year in the 1980s to an annual expenditure of approximately $415 million today. These figures reflect decisions by State and local officials around the country to make bicycling and walking a larger part of our transportation network.

What's more, FHWA is partnering with the State transportation departments and environmental organizations to promote context-sensitive solutions. This concept—transportation improvements that are designed in cooperation with communities and stakeholders to "fit" the values and needs of adjacent neighborhoods and environmental features—is transforming how highway projects are conceived.

State and local transportation agencies and FHWA have learned how to build highways to protect and enhance our waterways, minimize harm to endangered and threatened species, reduce impacts to ecosystems, and moderate the effects of traffic noise.

Wetlands acreage affected by Federal-aid highway projects today is replaced at a rate of 2.7 acres (1 hectare) to 1 acre (0.4 hectares), well above the target level of 1.5 acres (0.6 hectares) for each acre lost. Since 1996, the Federal-aid highway program has provided a net gain of more than 20,000 new and restored acres of wetlands nationally.

All this was accomplished while pavement and bridge conditions improved, traffic volumes tripled, and U.S. highways became safer than ever.

In short, FHWA and its partners in State and local governments achieved a 30-year legacy of meeting highway transportation demands with environmental sensitivity. But the past three decades also were a learning process for FHWA and its partners—not too surprising, really, since our Nation as a whole and the world were experiencing a similar learning curve.

New Wonders of the World

Although the interstate system is sometimes criticized for its "cookie-cutter" look, many interstates feature one-of-a-kind designs carefully blended into the environment. The following interstates are among those that overcame technical and environmental challenges to emerge as wonders in their own right:

  • Parks planted over depressed sections of I-10 in Phoenix, AZ, and I-90 in Seattle, WA.
  • World-class scenic byways on I-70 through Glenwood Canyon in Colorado, I-90 across Washington State, and H-3 in Hawaii.
  • Signature bridges such as the Sunshine Skyway across Tampa Bay, FL, and the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge in Boston, MA.
  • World-famous tunnels on I-70 in Colorado and I-95 in Baltimore, MD.
  • Highways that highlight recreation (the Chain of Lakes along I-80 in Nebraska), outstanding geography (I-70 through Colorado's Hogback and I-68 through Sideling Hill in Maryland, I-15 through the Virgin River Gorge in Arizona and Utah, I-10 across the Atchafalaya Swamp in Louisiana), and coexistence with endangered species (panther crossings on I-75/Alligator Alley in Florida).
  • Urban highways suited to the location (I-35E in St. Paul, MN; I-66 inside the Capital Beltway in northern Virginia; and I-476, the Blue Route, in the Philadelphia area of Pennsylvania).

Pedestrian, bike trail, planter walls, seating access ramp in public area in  Emeryville, CA
The environmental document for I-80 through Emeryville, CA, called for development of public open space and the amenities pictured here: a multiuse pedestrian and bicycle trail, concrete planter walls with ample seating, and an access ramp meeting current requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

National Environmental Policy Act

The importance of NEPA to the history of the Federal-aid highway program—and its future—is difficult to exaggerate. FHWA worked with the States during the 1960s to address mounting concerns about highway development, especially in cities. In the 1970s, all parties accepted NEPA as a reasonable framework for taking up the issues specific to each project. The legislation also provided the framework for addressing other Federal environmental laws, which total more than 40 today.

When the highway community realized that it would be required to comply with NEPA, the highway builders had a hard time accepting that business as usual would have to change. As a former Illinois highway official recalled, "You were dealing with engineers [who], for one, didn't have any environmental training in their formal education; and they were told for so many years "get that thing built." After NEPA, he said, the engineers were saying "get that bit out of my mouth, let me get this thing done."

Some controversial highway projects, including more than 547 kilometers (340 miles) of interstates, were eliminated mainly because they were unable to pass the NEPA test. Other controversial highways were built, but in ways that mitigated or eliminated the social, environmental, and economic concerns identified during the NEPA review.

Experience taught the highway community an increasing number of ways to reduce the "footprint" of highway and bridge projects while enhancing the environment in many cases.

As the comment about getting the "bit out of my mouth" suggests, the big fear was that NEPA and the growing number of environmental requirements would create red tape that would block needed highway projects. For that reason, finding ways to streamline the NEPA review became a priority. In fact, when FHWA and the Urban Mass Transportation Administration—now the Federal Transit Administration (FTA)—released their joint NEPA regulation in September 1987, they announced that it would "streamline environmental requirements" and "eliminate some of the red-tape and time-consuming legal processes" involved in NEPA compliance.

Experience with timing under the FHWA-FTA regulation was mixed. For example, 97 percent of projects are advanced relatively quickly without a full environmental impact statement (EIS). Thousands of projects every year require little or no NEPA review because they qualify as categorical exclusions. That is, they fall into a category of projects that, based on experience with similar actions, does not involve significant environmental impacts.

On the other hand, environmental impact statements for major projects can take 5, 6, 7 years or even longer. FHWA thinks that is too long. Stakeholders—whether they are for or against a proposed project—deserve an end to the process sooner rather than later.

The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, approved in 1998, made environmental streamlining a national priority. This renewed national emphasis resulted in a series of initiatives that are helping FHWA and its partners identify ways of streamlining the NEPA process. Elsewhere in this issue, Ruth Rentch ("Nurturing an Environmental Perspective" on page 6) and Kreig Larson ("The Road to Streamlining" on page 10) discuss these initiatives. In addition, Fred Skaer describes how the U.S. Department of Transportation is implementing President George W. Bush's Executive Order on Environmental Stewardship and Transportation Infrastructure Project Reviews issued September 18, 2002 ("Executing the Executive Order"on page 14).

One of the lessons to emerge from years of experience with NEPA is that highway builders must "think beyond the pavement." As Federal Highway Administrator Mary E. Peters says, "A transportation facility is an integral part of the community's fabric, and it can help define the character of the community or it can destroy it."

This realization, one of the legacies of NEPA, is reflected in the changing mix of personnel in highway agencies today. Although engineers remain a strong force, State departments of transportation (DOTs) also hire arborists, archaeologists, biologists, botanists, ecologists, landscape architects, noise specialists, planners, and other specialists who are essential to the NEPA reviews. As a result, State DOTs now may have as much or more environmental experience in certain areas as do their environmental counterparts in other State agencies.

Drainage work for Route 99 in northern Rhode Island resulted in the State’s creation of a freshwater wetland used by waterfowl, wading birds, muskrats, songbirds, and other wildlife.
Drainage work for Route 99 in northern Rhode Island resulted in the State’s creation of a freshwater wetland used by waterfowl, wading birds, muskrats, songbirds, and other wildlife.

The final design of the I–35E parkway in St. Paul, MN, integrated the road into the urban environment. Noteworthy features shown here include textured retaining walls with planting terraces, ornamental design of railings and lighting, and other streetscape elements.
The final design of the I–35E parkway in St. Paul, MN, integrated the road into the urban environment. Noteworthy features shown here include textured retaining walls with planting terraces, ornamental design of railings and lighting, and other streetscape elements.

Context-Sensitive Solutions

The emergence of context-sensitive design in recent decades reflects the evolution of transportation demands and solutions. In the past, projected traffic demands or "throughput" per lane sometimes dictated solutions that harmed the natural and built environments. Context-sensitive design focuses attention on techniques for considering the total context of a transportation project. This approach involves a collaborative, interdisciplinary effort by all stakeholders to develop a transportation facility that fits its physical setting and preserves scenic, aesthetic, historic, and environmental resources, while maintaining safety and mobility.

The phrase "maintaining safety and mobility" is critical. Our Nation is growing—in population, jobs, leisure activities, and travel demand. FHWA and its State and local partners must increase U.S. surface transportation capacity through expanded transit, bicycle and pedestrian facilities, smarter operations—and, yes, through expanded highway lane capacity. Through context-sensitive design, FHWA and its partners can improve existing facilities; incorporate biking, walking, and transit improvements; and expand operational and infrastructure capacity, while retaining, even enhancing, the fabric and character of the surrounding environment.

The planned reconstruction of US 93 through Montana's Flathead Indian Reservation illustrates how context-sensitive design can lead to unexpected solutions. In the Montana project, transportation and tribal officials reached agreement on highway improvements that meet modern needs while respecting Native American culture. "We got away from this notion that the road is the important thing. The road is the visitor. You've got to be mindful that there's a history to be respected. What matters is not how you can go through things, but how you can make the highway fit," says consultant Jim Sipes. (For more information on the US 93 project, see "A Hallmark of Context-Sensitive Design," Public Roads, May/June 2002.)

Although context-sensitive design employs techniques developed over the years, the current initiative pulls those practices together to help transportation agencies think in a new way about how to meet old problems. The current concept emerged through the work of the member States of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), particularly the Maryland DOT, in cooperation with Federal agencies (FHWA, FTA, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), and a wide range of environmental, planning, and preservation groups, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Surface Transportation Policy Project, and Scenic America.

Maryland showcased context-sensitive design during a conference in May 1998. Since then, AASHTO, FHWA, and its partners have participated in several national and international meetings on context-sensitive design. Today, five pilot States—Connecticut, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, and Utah—and the FHWA Federal Lands Highway Office are using the concept to balance transportation needs with the environmental and aesthetic concerns of communities. The experience in these efforts is providing important lessons that are spreading to other States.

Lori Irving, in her article on "A New Approach to Road Building" (page 18), describes some of the efforts underway to spread the word about context-sensitive design. In many ways, however, the projects themselves are the best advertisements.

Spur connecting I–40 with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee

This spur connects I–40 with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. FHWA lowered the roadway grade to accommodate two-lane eastbound traffic, solving a problem of limited vertical clearance through the existing tunnel.


Pedestrian bridge on the campus of the University of N. Dakota
The North Dakota State Highway Department built a pedestrian bridge on the campus of the University of North Dakota, using the deck of the old bridge and raising the roadway to provide an aesthetically pleasing way for students to pass safely from one side of University Avenue to the other.

A New Balance

The launch of the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways in 1956 inspired several generations of engineers to work on what has been called the "greatest public works project in history." The controversies that soon emerged on individual projects and their effects on U.S. cities and the environment came as a shock.

With the interstate program essentially complete, many decades of controversies haunt the ongoing debate about the American 21st century transportation system. One result of those stormy years is that FHWA and the State DOTs embraced the environmental ethic that began to emerge in the 1960s. The integration of transportation modes, the value of bicycling and walking, the preservation of ecosystems, the importance of public involvement, the improvement of air quality, the restoration of historic and cultural resources—these concepts and more became a routine part of meeting transportation demand.

The debate over the effects of transportation decisions on U.S. society will continue. Controversies over individual projects are inevitable. The transportation community can never stop learning. But as engineers and others continue to develop the transportation network that America needs to meet the challenges of the 21st century, environmental stewardship will continue to play a guiding role in FHWA's work.


Cynthia Burbank is associate administrator for planning, environment, and realty for FHWA. Prior to joining FHWA in 1991, she held positions in the Federal Aviation Administration, FTA, the Office of the Secretary of Transportation, and the U.S. Navy. Her multimodal experience also includes working for Amtrak, the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles, and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, and a volunteer role with the Washington Area Bicyclists Association. She attended Duke University and Boston University, and received a bachelor's degree in economics from Georgetown University, Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude.

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