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Publication Number:  FHWA-HRT-06-005    Date:  July/August 2006
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-06-005
Issue No: Vol. 70 No. 1
Date: July/August 2006


Guest Editorial

The Evolution of Context Sensitive Solutions

A Photo of Donald R. Cote, Team Leader for Environmental Technical Service Team As noted in one of this issue's articles, "An Orphaned Highway," CBS travel correspondent Charles Kuralt, in his 1979 bookDateline America, identified the most beautiful highway in America as U.S. 212, the Beartooth Highway in Montana and Wyoming. Constructed in the 1930s in rugged mountain terrain, the Beartooth provided an economic lifeline for the region while improving safety and mobility and preserving the scenic characteristics of the area. Beartooth's designers applied some of the principles of "context sensitive solutions" more than half a century before the phrase was coined.

Farther west and a decade earlier, Oregon's Columbia River Highway, completed in 1922, came to be regarded not only as a significant engineering feat but also as a highway that displayed sensitivity to the dramatic and diverse landscape where it was constructed. Both of these highways exemplified harmony with the scenic, aesthetic, historic, and natural resources in their respective areas.

During the mid-20th century, the context within which highways were planned, designed, and constructed shifted to defense considerations, stricter geometric design standards, higher speeds, and enhanced mobility. This context was reflected in the development of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the interstate system. It was not until the last decade of the 20th century that context sensitive solutions, as they are known today, began to be adopted as best practices.

The National Highway System Designation Act of 1995 stipulated that in addition to "safety, durability, and economy of maintenance," projects on the National Highway System "may take into account . . . the environmental, scenic, aesthetic, historic, community, and preservation impacts of the activity." Three years later, the 1998 workshop "Thinking Beyond the Pavement: A National Workshop on Integrating Highway Development With Communities and the Environment While Maintaining Safety and Performance" proved to be a signature event in establishing a firm foothold for context sensitive solutions.

Those events in the 1990s built a solid foundation for the emergence of context sensitive solutions as a national trend and way of doing business in the transportation community. As a result, projects throughout the country now regularly include considerations of how to merge community issues, natural resources, and local values with safety, mobility, convenience, and cost effectiveness. In fact, applying the principles of context sensitive solutions is at the heart of the FHWA "vital few" goal of environmental stewardship and streamlining, which aims to improve the environmental considerations of transportation decisionmaking.

Reconstruction of the Berthoud Pass highway (U.S. 40), described in another of this issue's articles, "Saving Colorado's Berthoud Pass," is an excellent example of the application of those principles to modern transportation projects. In addition to improvements focused on safety and mobility, the Berthoud design incorporates innovative features to protect water quality, preserve historical features, mitigate erosion problems, and provide wildlife crossings.

Examples of project development processes that are sensitive to environmental, cultural, and community issues, while enhancing safety and mobility, range from small rural projects to urban megaprojects and include everything in between. Perhaps the most encouraging sign is that context sensitive solutions have evolved from what might have been viewed as a passing fad into a philosophy that is becoming ingrained within the design and construction community. Context sensitive solutions are here to stay, and the Nation's environment, history, culture, and communities will reap the benefits, now and for generations to come.

Donald R. Cote's Signature

Donald R. Cote

Team Leader Environmental Technical Service Team

Resource Center

Federal Highway Administration