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|Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 75 · No. 3 > In Pursuit of Sustainable Highways|
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-12-001
In Pursuit of Sustainable Highways
by Benjamin W. Cotton
A new self-evaluation tool, an expert working group, and research on new paving systems are among the ways FHWA is helping transportation agencies meet present and future needs.
In the transportation industry, projects and systems serve many different and sometimes competing objectives, including safety, mobility, environmental protection, livability, and asset management. A sustainable approach seeks to meet all of these needs while hitting economic targets for cost-effectiveness throughout a highway's life cycle.
For the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), a sustainable approach to highways means helping decisionmakers make balanced choices among environmental, economic, and social values—the triple bottom line of sustainability—that will benefit current and future road users. A sustainable approach looks at access (not just mobility), movement of people and goods (not just vehicles), and provision of transportation choices, such as safe and comfortable routes for walking, bicycling, and transit. Sustainability encapsulates a diversity of concepts as well, including efficient use of funding, incentives for construction quality, regional air quality, climate change considerations, livability, and environmental management systems.
Over the years, highway agencies have been adopting sustainable methods to comply with State or local regulations, to address environmental issues related to specific projects, or to meet other project or agency goals. Until recently, however, national-level guidance on just what it means to be a sustainable highway did not exist. That's why FHWA set its sights on developing the Infrastructure Voluntary Evaluation Sustainability Tool (INVEST), a Web-based collection of best practices that enables transportation practitioners to evaluate the sustainability of their projects.
Development and pilot testing of the new self-evaluation tool, establishment of a sustainability working group, and creation of a Sustainable Pavements Program are among the efforts underway at FHWA to help State and local agencies document and improve the sustainability of the Nation's roadways.
Developing a Self-Evaluation Tool
How do you know if your highway project is sustainable? To help highway agencies answer this question, in 2010 FHWA began developing INVEST. Using this Web-based self-evaluation tool, transportation practitioners will be able to integrate sustainability best practices into their roadway projects and evaluate their projects against existing sustainability best practices, known as criteria in the tool's evaluation system.
Use of INVEST is voluntary and is not intended to rank highway projects or compare transportation agencies against each other. Rather, FHWA designed the tool to educate and offer support to those agencies interested in incorporating sustainable practices into their highway programs. Although measuring sustainability is an imperfect science, the tool can help agencies do the following:
The tool is structured around a scoring function that enables State, regional, and local transportation agencies to accumulate points based on sustainability efforts at a programmatic level or as incorporated into a specific transportation project. Criteria are grouped into three modules—System Planning, Project Development, and Operations and Maintenance—with the recognition that sustainability objectives evolve throughout the life of a highway. System Planning criteria focus on an agency's efforts to incorporate sustainability into the highway planning process; Project Development criteria target specific highway construction projects; and Operations and Maintenance criteria identify sustainable measures that an agency can incorporate throughout a highway's serviceable life. Each category is scored independently from the others, allowing agencies to apply the tool in ways that are relevant to current policies, programs, and projects, while shelving those components of the tool that are not immediately applicable.
The Project Development module, for example, can be applied in its basic format, which includes 20 criteria, or in its extended format, consisting of 30 criteria. The basic scorecard is applicable to projects such as small reconstruction jobs and bridge replacements that do not expand the capacity of the roadway; preservation projects for extending the service life of existing facilities and for safety enhancements; and initiatives to restore pavement structure, ride quality, and spot safety. The extended scorecard is intended for larger projects with more significant changes and investments and, therefore, more opportunities to apply sustainable solutions. These include construction projects for a new roadway facility or structure, as well as major reconstruction projects that add travel lanes to an existing roadway or bridge. The tool automatically tallies the score and assigns the project a bronze-, silver-, gold- or platinum-level status based on the project's sustainability characteristics.
FHWA developed INVEST with substantial input from State departments of transportation (DOTs) and industry trade organizations, including the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). Already, FHWA has presented INVEST at numerous conferences and seminars, and the project team has held multiple webinars to demonstrate the tool's functionality and how it can benefit decisionmaking and project outcomes.
"The feedback received from AASHTO and other stakeholders was instrumental in helping us clarify our intentions, focus the tool, and simplify the criteria and scoring process," says FHWA Associate Administrator for Planning, Environment, and Realty Gloria Shepherd.
Pilot Testing the Tool
FHWA released the pilot version of INVEST in three stages, available online at www.sustainablehighways.org. The Project Development module was released in April 2011, the Operations & Maintenance module in July 2011, and the Systems Planning module in September 2011. The pilot version will be active throughout 2011 with several State, regional, and local agencies testing the tool's application on their projects and programs. FHWA emphasized the importance of testing the tool's versatility on projects ranging from bridge construction and intersection improvement to highway expansion and pavement restoration.
"FHWA is excited about our progress with the pilot test version of INVEST," says FHWA Executive Director Jeffrey Paniati. "[The pilot] is a great opportunity to test the tool on real-world highway projects and refine the scoring system based on the results. We look forward to making our findings available to our partners and stakeholders once the pilot test phase of the project is complete."
Sustainability Working Group at FHWA
In addition to developing the self-evaluation tool, in the summer of 2010, FHWA convened a sustainability working group to build capacity and encourage communication and coordination on sustainability concepts and practices within the agency. The group consists of engineers, scientists, planners, and economists with expertise in planning, design, construction, pavement, stormwater management, natural resources, and livability. It meets regularly to coordinate activities, foster increased application of sustainability principles, and provide guidance to FHWA on developing best practices and establishing standardized sustainability measures.
As with many initiatives at the national level, one of the biggest challenges facing FHWA's sustainable highways program is developing a system of best practices that is applicable to transportation agencies across the country. Given vast variations in climates, habitats, geological characteristics, and availability of construction materials throughout the United States, certain sustainable practices may be valuable to some highway projects but inconsequential to others.
For example, snow and ice control will vary significantly among regions, and sustainable techniques that work in ice-prone northern Texas are likely quite different from those effective in the snow belt of upstate New York. The sustainability working group works to shed light on these potential discrepancies, bringing together viewpoints from across the Nation to ensure that FHWA's programs and tools are flexible enough to accommodate the full range of highway needs across the country.
Another challenge stems from the differences in urban and rural corridors. Bicycle and pedestrian facilities in urban areas, for example, are often different from those appropriate for rural areas; that is, a wider roadway shoulder may be appropriate in a rural area, while a sidewalk would be necessary in an urban area. In addition, the number of people affected by planning decisions regarding walking and bicycling access in roadway development is likely to be much greater in urban corridors than in rural ones. Similarly, dedicated wildlife crossings will not apply to many urban projects but are an important consideration in rural areas with high rates of collisions involving wildlife. FHWA's aim, therefore, is to provide universal metrics for measuring sustainability and to encourage participation by all who are interested.
Sustainable Pavements Program
Another related effort is FHWA's new Sustainable Pavements Program, initiated in fall 2010 to advance the knowledge and practice of sustainability in the pavements and materials area. The integrated program covers asphalt, concrete, granular, and recyclable materials used in pavement systems and promotes research into new sustainable materials and processes.
The goal is to support FHWA's livability and sustainability goals by raising the awareness and visibility of sustainability considerations in the design, construction, maintenance, and rehabilitation of pavement systems. Program objectives include developing guidelines for designing and constructing sustainable pavement systems; evaluating materials, processes, technologies, and tools to aid in the evaluation, design, and construction of sustainable pavement systems; and conducting technology transfer and deployment activities.
FHWA established a technical working group to provide input and feedback on pavement and material sustainability. The working group is composed of representatives from State DOTs, other government agencies, academia, and industry. "We are hopeful that we can address many sustainability issues faced by practitioners through open communication and information sharing," says Gina Ahlstrom, a pavement engineer at FHWA.
Many of the Sustainable Pavements technical working group members also played a role in the development of the pavement-related components of FHWA's INVEST tool.
Looking to the Future
For years, FHWA has supported research, development, and implementation efforts at the forefront of the sustainability movement. Now, with the creation of its sustainable highways program, FHWA hopes to consolidate those efforts under one umbrella.
As interest in sustainability principles and best practices among DOTs and the transportation industry continues to grow, FHWA will work to integrate INVEST into relevant future webinars, conferences, and National Highway Institute training courses. FHWA officials expect that the sustainable highways program will play a significant role in facilitating the creation and maintenance of the Nation's highway infrastructure in the years and decades ahead.
Benjamin W. Cotton is a community planner with the Transportation Planning Division at the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, MA. He has a B.A. from Kenyon College and a master's of city and regional planning from Clemson University.
For more information, visit www.sustainablehighways.org, or contact Connie Hill at 804–775–3378 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or Heather Holsinger at 202–366–6263 or email@example.com. Benjamin Cotton may be reached at 617–494–2608 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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