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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 67 · No. 1 > Centering on Environmental Excellence

July/August 2003
Vol. 67 · No. 1

Centering on Environmental Excellence

by Kris Hoellen

AASHTO is helping State DOTs and others make environmental stewardship and streamlining part of their mission and everyday activities.

Our customers demand that our projects and activities fit, look good, have balance, and are sensitive to the human and natural environment," says Secretary James C. Codell III of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. "Therefore, we must continue to change our culture to one that has an environmental ethic and assumes an environmental stewardship role. It is the correct approach . . . the right thing to do. . . the common sense thing to do, and our customers deserve this type of treatment."

Smart Road Bridge over Wilson Creek near Blacksburg, VA

At 53.5 meters (175 feet) above Wilson Creek near Blacksburg, VA, the Smart Road Bridge is Virginia’s tallest bridge. Shown here soaring above a farm and against a backdrop of mountains, the bridge incorporates visual characteristics suggested by a citizens’ advisory committee from the New River and Roanoke valleys. Photo courtesy of AASHTO.

With these words, Codell announced the adoption of a new environmental policy for his transportation agency. The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet is not alone in recognizing that its customers, the traveling public, increasingly are demanding and expecting transportation projects that not only improve mobility, but also protect and preserve the environment and help create healthy and vibrant communities.

To assist State departments of transportation (DOTs) with meeting these goals, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), with the assistance of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), launched the AASHTO Center for Environmental Excellence in 2002. The center design will serve as a one-stop resource for transportation professionals seeking technical assistance, training, information exchange, partnership-building opportunities, and quick and easy access to environmental tools.

The center will encourage environmental stewardship by State DOTs and promote innovative ways to streamline the delivery of projects in a manner that can be replicated easily throughout the country. To accomplish this, the center has five primary goals:

  • Increase the capacity of State transportation agencies to deliver environmentally sound transportation projects and programs.
  • Promote environmental leadership and stewardship in transportation.
  • Effectively and efficiently mainstream environmental considerations into transportation planning, design, construction, maintenance, and operations.
  • Build productive partnerships and working relationships among AASHTO members and their transportation partners.
  • Serve as a resource for expert transportation and environmental knowledge and information exchange among transportation and environmental agencies and interest groups.

Stewardship and Streamlining Defined

Although the transportation industry has no single definition of environmental stewardship, individuals and agencies involved in transportation are developing their own working definitions based on their experiences, interests, and unique needs. AASHTO believes that stewardship is not about enacting new laws or regulations, but about State DOTs making a renewed commitment to include environmental protection and enhancement as an integral part of their missions.

This commitment includes but is not limited to making decisions based on an understanding of the consequences of those choices on the natural, human-made, and social environments. It also means instilling and promoting environmental protection and enhancement in organizational and individual attitudes, ethics, and behaviors; supporting environmental conditions, aesthetics, and quality of life when possible; and integrating environmental protection as a core business value.

Generally, environmental streamlining is defined as a process in which transportation and environmental agencies work together to establish realistic schedules for project development and to ensure that the agencies adhere to those timetables, while fully complying with environmental responsibilities. Environmental stewardship and streamlining work in tandem because State DOTs understand that promoting environmentally sound practices should lead to faster approvals of projects, resulting in improved quality of project deliveries and the environment.

The Center's Services

Based on an assessment of the needs of State DOTs, the center is designed to provide three basic services for transportation professionals: information sharing; training, problem solving, and partnership building; and technical assistance. Although the center tailors much of the work to State DOTs, all stakeholders associated with the delivery of transportation projects, including Federal and State agencies, other transportation organizations, the environmental community, and the public, should benefit from the center's resources. Many of these resources will be available publicly on the Internet.

AASHTO expects that the center will support the FHWA strategic goal of protecting and enhancing the natural environment and communities affected by highway transportation.

Information Sharing

The philosophy of the center, and AASHTO in general, is that States tend to learn best from other States' previous experiences. Therefore, a primary function of the center is to serve as a one-stop resource for State DOTs that want to access the latest transportation tools, along with information on the best practices for environmental streamlining and stewardship used by other State DOTs.

The focal point of the center's information-sharing activities will be an Internet-based clearinghouse and referral center accessible through AASHTO's Web site at www.aashto.org. AASHTO will tailor the site to meet the needs of State transportation agencies. The site will contain information on programmatic approaches to environmental stewardship and streamlining, publications on environmental best practices, and other materials, including contact information for various streamlining and stewardship projects and resources.

In addition, the Web site will serve as a referral center by listing important Internet links to other sites that could benefit State DOTs. The goal of the Web site is to save transportation professionals' time and resources.

State Route 430 in Delaware

Safety, environmental, and aesthetic considerations were key
aspects of this project on State Route 430 in Delaware, which
involved replacing a deteriorated timber structure with three
multiplate pipes to accommodate stream flow beneath the roadway.

Other Information Initiatives

In addition to the information-sharing Web site, the center undertook three other initiatives related to information exchange. The first was to launch a competition on stewardship best practices to recognize State DOTs that use innovative ways to add environmental stewardship on a case-by-case basis, on a programmatic level, or through institutional or organizational changes. AASHTO will announce the award winners during its annual meeting, scheduled for September 5-9, 2003. AASHTO also will produce a report highlighting the best practices of each award winner.

Second, the center plans to implement and expand the AASHTO Stewardship Demonstration Program. Started by AASHTO in October 2001, this voluntary program invites State DOTs to register examples of stewardship on the program's Web site (www.stewardship.transportation.org).

In 2002, the center took responsibility for this program and plans to expand it from simply tracking projects to showcasing and sharing project information with member States and other interested individuals and organizations. Visitors to the site will be able to read project descriptions, download evaluations and reports on results, and follow progress as the center updates the information on individual projects.

In conjunction with the Stewardship Demonstration Program, the center will hold Internet-based teleconferences on various topics related to environmental stewardship. For example, at a center teleconference in April 2003, professionals from State DOTs heard leading-edge practitioners from across the country discuss not only why they incorporated stewardship into their missions, but also how they incorporated those changes into their missions and daily operating procedures.

Finally, the center is producing a report outlining the positive environmental and societal benefits achieved through transportation projects. The report will serve as an educational tool for the public. The impetus is to communicate the positive impacts associated with transportation projects. Adverse effects are well documented and fairly well understood, but the same cannot be said for the many environmental and societal benefits gained from repairing and constructing highway projects.

Few people realize, for example, that the transportation industry is the largest recycler in the United States through pavement remilling, fly ash usage in concrete, and crumb rubber (from used tires) utilization in pavement design and road maintenance. Nor is it commonly understood that the greatest chance for achieving a net gain in wetlands is in connection with highway projects. AASHTO believes that transportation agencies should document and share with the public all of the environmental impacts (both positive and negative) connected with the transportation industry.

Pile of crumb rubber

In 2002, TxDOT paid $500,000 to process nearly one million tires’ worth of rubber into fuel, crumb rubber, or other rubber products and used more than one and a half million tires’ worth of crumb rubber in various paving designs and road maintenance.

Training, Problem Solving, Partnership Building

The second major component of the center's activities focuses on training, problem solving, and partnership building. During 2003 and 2004, the center will launch a three-part training initiative to introduce State DOTs to the concept of environmental management systems (EMS) and promote the use of these systems as a tool for enhancing environmental stewardship.
First, on August 10-13, 2003, the center will sponsor an EMS workshop for State DOTs. Sessions will focus on the theory behind the EMS, the expected benefits from their implementation, methods for quantifying and documenting the expected benefits, potential organizational and institutional hurdles associated with EMS implementation, and lessons learned from States that have already started the EMS process. The center encourages representatives from the environmental and maintenance divisions of State DOTs to attend the workshop.

In the second training initiative, the center is developing draft EMS templates tailored toward the various functions performed by State DOTs to help interested States develop their own systems. AASHTO hopes to encourage State DOTs to pilot the templates, alter them as appropriate, and provide feedback to AASHTO on their utility.

Finally, the center is recruiting EMS professionals to join its team of technical experts to assist States that either decide to pilot a template or develop their own EMS.

In addition to the EMS initiative, the center is creating a CD-ROM on how to negotiate and structure programmatic agreements. This how-to tool will feature samples of language contained in actual cultural and natural resource agreements, along with recommendations on when, why, and how to develop a programmatic agreement. Lessons learned from States that have these agreements will be included on the CD, which will be distributed to all 50 States.

While these activities primarily are targeted at training for State DOTs, the center also will focus on problem-solving and partnership-building exercises for the agencies and organizations that work with State DOTs on transportation issues. Topics to be covered in these activities include air quality, the creation of biological databases, and historic preservation.

Pedestrian and bicycle trail along Cascade Creek in Rochester, MN

This pedestrian and bicycle trail along Cascade Creek in Rochester, MN, connects four previously built trail segments, linking several city park facilities and providing a scenic, off-road link to downtown businesses.

Technical Assistance

The center's third service—technical assistance—is designed to help State DOTs with immediate project issues and long-term program needs involving the institutionalization of environmental stewardship practices and environmental streamlining approaches. The center is developing a national, prescreened team of on-call experts who will be available to serve the environmental needs of transportation agencies and the transportation needs of environmental agencies.

Drawn from Federal, State, and local government agencies, consulting firms, academia, and including qualified environmental specialists retired from transportation and environmental agencies, the team will be available on short notice to address a State DOT's needs. The multidisciplinary teams will provide technical assistance that otherwise would not be available expeditiously through normal contracting procedures.

The expert teams also will provide State DOTs with information and guidance on strategic planning for the many challenging issues and topics facing transportation and environmental regulatory agencies, such as endangered species, land use planning, wetlands and water quality, and management of cultural resources.

To date, the center has provided experts to help State DOTs with a number of projects. They are helping develop databases on historic bridges, providing workshops on partnership building, and assessing the overall stewardship ethic of States requesting that assistance.

According to John Horsley, executive director of AASHTO, "The center is a continuation of AASHTO's efforts to find new ways to assist State transportation agencies in improving public trust, credibility, environmental performance, and ultimately program delivery."

AASHTO and State DOTs recognize that opportunities exist for making environmental stewardship part of every step in the delivery of transportation projects, from planning and design to construction, operations, and maintenance. The AASHTO Center for Environmental Excellence will assist States with this incorporation of environmental stewardship into their everyday activities.

Oversized culvert installed over Ludvick Lake Creek on a rural road in Mason County, WA
This oversized culvert installed over Ludvick Lake Creek on a rural road in Mason County, WA, features log weirs upstream and downstream that improve fish passage for adult coho salmon.

Kris Hoellen is AASHTO's director of environmental programs. Prior to joining AASHTO, Hoellen served as a senior program officer for the Transportation Research Board (TRB), where she was appointed the study director for two National Research Council studies. The first study focused on the development of a national agenda of energy, environment, and planning research for surface transportation; the second explored the scientific and regulatory bases for establishing environmental windows for dredging projects for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Prior to joining TRB in 1999, she served for 9 years as the legislative director for the Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials, a trade association representing the waste divisions of the State Environmental Protection Associations. Hoellen began her career working in the television industry as an associate director of marketing. She received a bachelor's degree from Emory University and a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University.

For more information, contact Kris Hoellen at 202-624-3649.

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