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Federal Highway Administration Research and Technology
Coordinating, Developing, and Delivering Highway Transportation Innovations

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Publication Number:  FHWA-HRT-17-036    Date:  March 2018
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-17-036
Date: March 2018


Federal Highway Administration Research and Technology Evaluation Final Report: Eco-Logical

4. Recommendations

The findings provided in chapter 3 highlight the successes and challenges that the recipients experienced while implementing their Eco-Logical projects. While recipients found success in using the Eco-Logical approach in planning, few pursued the subsequent steps of the approach, and few recipients identified or quantified impacts related to project delivery or environmental mitigation.

Based on these findings, as well as input from recipients (see section 2.3, Evaluation Methodology), the evaluation team developed recommendations pertaining to each evaluation question. The purpose of the recommendations is to help FHWA target its efforts and resources for future support of agencies in their adoption of the Eco-Logical approach.

Recommendation 1: Provide additional support in the form of peer exchanges, webinars, and case studies on the Eco-Logical approach.

Recipients noted that over their years of involvement with the Eco-Logical Program, additional support and resources in targeted subject areas would be helpful in implementing the Eco-Logical approach. Recipients noted that resources to support activities on the following three topics would be beneficial:

Recipients also reported that it was useful to hear about and learn from the experiences of peer agencies when FHWA or other agencies held peer events. Other agencies interested in adopting the Eco-Logical approach would also likely benefit from similar exchanges with peers. FHWA already coordinates a champions group to highlight and track agencies implementing a landscape-scale approach and can draw upon this group to help leverage the benefits of learning about the Eco-Logical approach from their peers.(34) Practitioners promoting the Eco-Logical approach, alongside FHWA, help increase the legitimacy of the on-the-ground implementation of the approach.

FHWA holds regular webinars, produces quarterly newsletters, hosts peer exchanges, and produces case studies on the Eco-Logical approach. (See references 11, 61, 35, 12, and 47–49.) The evaluation confirms that these materials are useful, that agencies are interested in more technical assistance, and that perhaps FHWA should ensure its outreach strategies make practitioners aware of the resources that are already available.

Recommendation 2: Dedicate additional resources to the later project implementation steps (steps 5–9) of the Eco-Logical approach.

Most recipients have completed steps 1–4 of the Eco-Logical approach, as described in finding 3. However, few recipients have completed steps 5–9. The evaluation team recommends that it would be useful to devote more resources and assistance to the later steps of the Eco-Logical approach, which are more focused on the implementation of transportation projects. Transportation planning and project development processes occur over long time scales, and as the Eco-Logical Program reaches beyond its 10th yr, more agencies may have the desire to take on the later steps of the approach.

Recommendation 3: Identify additional opportunities to engage regional-level staff about the Eco-Logical Program to build awareness within signatory agencies and to ensure consistent information is provided to stakeholders about the program and approach.

As described in finding 5, recipients commented over the years that they faced challenges working with regional-level staff from FHWA division offices and regional resource agencies such as USEPA, USACE, and other local organizations. The challenges were related to staff at the regional levels not fully buying into or being aware of the Eco-Logical approach or being unable to provide the level of assistance that the recipients requested due to heavy workloads. Recipients noted that the Eco-Logical approach is a priority for headquarters staff but that this does not necessarily trickle down to staff at the regional level. Regional staff have many responsibilities and may not have time to provide support for the Eco-Logical approach on top of all of their other responsibilities, particularly because there is no legal or funding requirement for the Eco-Logical approach.

Going forward, the evaluation team recommends that FHWA should consider additional opportunities to engage regional-level staff in their program activities. Regional-level staff may provide valuable insight into the process of adopting this approach and may also help in facilitating relationships among these agencies. In addition, it would be helpful to build awareness about different agencies’ programs that have similar goals in order to address the issue of program branding and help agencies identify common ground.

Recommendation 4: Investigate the challenges to obtaining buy-in for the Eco-Logical approach from local level agencies that implement projects and share effective practices in overcoming these challenges.

As noted in findings 5 and 6, recipients reported on the challenges they faced with getting buy-in for the Eco-Logical approach from local level agencies. MPOs and State transportation departments are responsible for considering the impacts of transportation at a regional level, and it is logical that FHWA targets agencies at this level for adopting the Eco-Logical approach. In order to help boost the success of the approach in project implementation, however, it may be beneficial to engage local municipalities to help them consider the impacts of their projects beyond their jurisdictional boundaries. FHWA could also provide technical resources to MPOs and State transportation departments to help them overcome the challenges they face when working with their local stakeholders and document effective practices to share nationwide.

Recommendation 5: Further support agencies in adopting quantifiable performance measures and tracking progress over time in order to justify the benefits of the Eco-Logical approach and advance its adoption.

As noted in findings 8 and 9, there were few quantitative environmental or process impacts reported by recipient agencies. This is partly due to agencies being in the early stages of implementing Eco-Logical. While the program is 10 yr old, the transportation planning and project delivery processes can last decades for a project to move from concept to construction. On-the-ground implementation of the approach gained momentum through the 2007 grants and 2013 SHRP2 IAP funding. The SHRP2 IAP funneled more resources into the program, and FHWA put more of an emphasis on having agencies track environmental and process impacts of the Eco-Logical Grant Program funding, which is evident in the evolution of the annual reports. (See references 13, 15, 19, 23, 34, and 45.)

While it is clear FHWA has put more effort into developing performance measures over the years, recipients still noted that it would be beneficial to have case studies or examples of the cost and time savings as well as environmental benefits that agencies have observed through adopting the Eco-Logical approach. Quantified evidence of the benefits of using a landscape-scale approach would be useful in getting more buy-in from MPOs, State transportation departments, and their partners. In addition, as performance-based planning is becoming a standard practice, it is important for agencies to quantify their progress and justify the value of implementing the Eco-Logical approach.

In 2016, FHWA began developing a business case for the Eco-Logical approach based on the experience of one of the recipient agencies.(34) The business case will help address the need expressed by agencies for studies on the cost effectiveness or economic value of the Eco-Logical approach. The business case, coupled with more case studies or examples of performance measures and metrics to track, will help make a stronger case for adopting Eco-Logical.

Recommendation 6: Use a set of consistent questions or tracking methods to evaluate the progress of recipient agencies from year to year to ensure that overall progress on the Eco-Logical approach can be measured objectively long term.

FHWA gathers information from recipients through annual interviews, which serve the purpose of tracking each recipient’s progress toward implementing their projects and also characterizing the state of the practice of the Eco-Logical approach. The evaluation team used the wealth of information in the interview notes as source data for the evaluation to identify trends, benefits, and challenges faced by the recipients as they implemented their projects (see appendix C for annual report interview guides).

While the interview questions used by FHWA each year are generally similar, the evaluation team found it difficult to analyze trends over time because the question format and emphasis changed slightly from year to year. The interview questions evolved through the years as the themes and topics of the annual reports changed, which is a logical outcome as the program matures and recipients are farther along in their implementation of the Eco-Logical approach. (See references 13, 15, 19, 25, 34, and 45.) However, from the standpoint of long-term evaluation, it was challenging to assess trends over time because the questions changed or the format of the interview was more freeform rather than structured.

Recognizing these issues, the evaluation team recommends ensuring there is a subset of consistent questions or measures that FHWA asks recipients, or other Eco-Logical adopters, each year to enable tracking of trends over time. This may include a balanced approach of offering open-ended questions to gather detail and insight on progress and questions that have discrete answers (i.e., yes/no), which are easier to analyze. As an alternative to directly asking interview participants the same questions, the program could develop a survey for interviewers to evaluate each interview in a consistent way. Consistent tracking and analysis of trends could be a benefit to FHWA in communicating the value of Eco-Logical to agencies interested in adopting the Eco-Logical approach.

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