State DOT Landscape Projects Transforming Infrastructure

Across the country, state departments of transportation are investing in a variety of landscaping projects to help transportation infrastructure become more “eco-supportive” of native habitats.

[Above photo by TxDOT]

For example, since mid-2023, a team of landscape architects from the Washington State Department of Transportation has worked with the University of Washington’s Botanic Gardens and Seattle Parks to select and plant native flora and create habitats for wildlife on Foster Island – an area that previously served as a construction zone for the 520 bridge project.

In a blog post, WSDOT noted that its work crews spent the last year moving topsoil, boulders, and trees into the former bridge construction zone – as well building irrigation systems and crushed rock paths to mark trails for park visitors.

Those crews are now planting native ferns and Oregon grape plus evergreen, dogwood, and willow trees – among other flora – that will be monitored for the next three years to ensure they thrive.

Crews placed habitat logs in the landscape to provide homes for insects that birds and small mammals will feed on; logs that also provide a great home for frogs and salamanders. The logs serve a long-term purpose, too, WSDOT noted, providing nutrients as they decay and creating fertile new ground for more plants to grow.

Meanwhile, the Texas Department of Transportation is gearing up to support wildflower season along roadways statewide.

The agency has been planting and maintaining wildflowers on highway right of way since the mid-1930s and TxDOT Vegetation Specialist Travis Jez said the agency’s wildflower program works not just in springtime, but throughout the year.

“Our overall objective is to have a regenerative side of the road that takes care of itself and is able to maintain itself,” Jez noted in a statement.

More than 5,000 species of wildflowers and native grasses decorate Texas roadsides. While part of their benefit is for beautification, they’re also important pollinator plants. Monarch butterflies rely on the wildflowers during their migrations, as do 900 other species of butterflies, bees, birds and various creatures, the agency said.

To ensure the habitats are available for the ecosystems they support, TxDOT has a delayed mowing schedule during certain times of the year to let the plants grow strong and tall.

Delayed mowing not only helps the environment, but it also is a cost-effective move that allows TxDOT to focus labor force and funding on other projects for a couple of months, the agency said.

When TxDOT does mow the fields, the agency said that helps disperse seeds into the ground to sprout up the next season. In addition, it helps clear any debris covering the soil to allow for the seeds to make better contact. Depending on the need for more wildflowers in a certain area, TxDOT said it will plant up to 30,000 pounds of seeds each year.

And in Tennessee, a new $3 million-plus state DOT landscaping project will seek to beautify a long stretch of highway in the Chattanooga area.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation said the U.S. 27 landscaping project – awarded to Stansell Electric Company – will include the planting of trees, shrubs, prairie grasses, wildflowers, and a variety of other ground cover crops as well as the installation of an irrigation system.

“This landscaping project is the first of its kind, and we’re delighted it’s been let to construction,” noted Daniel Oliver, Tennessee DOT’s Region 2 assistant chief engineer, in a statement.

Work on this landscaping project is scheduled to begin in mid-2024 and should be wrapped up by December 2025.

“Our partnership with the Tennessee Interstate Conservancy has played a critical role in the advancement of this project,” Oliver added. “Upon completion, the project will beautify an important corridor in the Chattanooga area and enhance the natural scenic beauty of the Tennessee landscape.”

Michigan DOT Talks ‘Complete Streets’ Policies

For the first time in 12 years since its initial adoption by the State Transportation Commission, the Michigan Department of Transportation is reviewing the state’s “Complete Streets” policy.

[Above image by the Michigan DOT]

As part of that review, Amy Matisoff – the tribal liaison at Michigan DOT – is working on a survey to get as much public input and engagement as possible before making any changes to that policy.

As part of the outreach effort for that survey and the overall “Complete Streets” review effort, Matisoff recently sat down with the Michigan DOT’s “Talking Michigan Transportation” podcast.

“I explain ‘Complete Streets’ to folks as creating a transportation environment or transportation system that feels safe and is usable for everyone,” she said during the podcast interview. “It does get complex really quickly when you start talking about the concept of complete streets, because I think what people see in their mind is different than what actually ends up on the ground.”

Matisoff noted that ultimately “Complete Streets” is more an “iteration of a process” and involves a lot of community engagement.

“That’s the part I think sometimes we miss is the front end, which is the engagement component of it,” she pointed out. “People are just thinking about the end goal of whatever is constructed. But engagement is such a key element of finding out what communities and what people need from their transportation system.

Matisoff added that one of “misconceptions” regarding the state’s road network is that Michigan DOT is “supposed to be the one providing all of that to everyone,” whereas in reality the agency is only responsible for about 11 percent of all the roads crisscrossing the state.

“So it is in partnership with our local transportation agencies that we provide [for] every transportation user on the streets,” she pointed out. “Also it’s about doing little things that don’t have to be big and flashy; things that I think a lot of communities are realizing that they can do fairly easily, that doesn’t take a lot of additional cost. So you’re going to start seeing more bike lanes painted or, you know, brighter crosswalks with better lighting; those types of things.”

There is also the “economic development” side of “Complete Streets” that many people overlook, Matisoff added.

“For example, look at the connection to trail systems, particularly in those more rural areas,” she said. “That is critical to communities that need tourism. So the folks that look at a full system, and really include recreation and transportation and the overlap, I think see a lot more benefit.”

Emergency Management & Security Summit Set for November

Business integration firm Critical Ops will be hosting a Transportation Emergency Management and Security Summit & Exchange November 15-16 in Washington D.C. to share insights, best practices, and lessons learned in the field regarding how to improve the resiliency of mobility networks, covering everything from natural disasters to cyberattacks.

[Above image via TRB]

Critical Ops is hosting this summit on behalf of the Transportation Research Board’s National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) to provide a platform for thought leaders, policymakers, and practitioners to collectively shape the future of transportation security.

Chelsea Treboniak, president of Critical Ops, said in a statement that the event will feature a diverse array of presentations, roundtable discussions, workshops, and networking opportunities designed to facilitate collaboration and foster an environment of knowledge-sharing.

“We are excited to host this summit & exchange,” Treboniak added. “In today’s rapidly changing world, it is essential that we come together to share our knowledge and experiences. This summit is a unique opportunity for transportation leaders to stay ahead of the curve and strengthen the resilience of our vital networks.”

More information about this summit is available by clicking here.

FHWA Issues Tribal Grants, Seeks Program Input

The Federal Highway Administration recently issued millions in tribal roadway safety grants while also launching two new efforts to help states, cities, and local governments improve road safety as well. 

[Above image by the FHWA

First, FHWA issued 70 tribes some $21 million to support 93 projects that improve road safety on tribal lands. That funding comes from the agency’s Tribal Transportation Program Safety Fund and the list of grant recipients in this round of grants includes 16 tribes that have not previously participated in the program. 

FHWA noted in a statement that this tribal grant funding supports a range of roadway projects, including the development of safety plans, data analysis activities, pedestrian infrastructure improvements, roadway departure countermeasures, intersection safety, visibility, and “traffic calming” efforts. 

To broaden its roadway safety support efforts, FHWA posted a new Request for Information or RFI to gather feedback from states, cities, and local governments on ways to improve upon “Complete Streets” programs, while also issuing a new waiver ensuring that financial barriers do not prevent states and Metropolitan Planning Organizations or MPOs from engaging in “Complete Streets” efforts. 

FHWA’s RFI – called the “Improving Road Safety for All Users on Federal-Aid Projects” – seeks public comments from state, regional, and local agencies on changes to design standards or other regulations to help develop more “Complete Streets” and “Complete Networks” across the country. Comments are due by March 20. 

FHWA noted that a “Complete Street” is a roadway planned and designed to consider the safe, convenient access and mobility of roadway users of all ages and abilities. This includes pedestrians, bicyclists, public transportation riders, and motorists; it includes children, the elderly, and persons with disabilities, the agency said. 

Meanwhile, FHWA’s “Complete Streets” funding waiver will allow states and MPOs to use federal funding for 100 percent of the expenses associated with certain planning and research activities. 

“Safety is foundational to our work and these efforts are two more critical tools to improve safety for all road users,” said FHWA Administrator Shailen Bhatt in a statement.  

“These resources recognize that safety is a shared responsibility and require input and action from our stakeholders and state partners as we collectively work to build a safe transportation system for everyone,” he explained. “We need multiple layers of protection in place to prevent roadway crashes and minimize the harm caused when they occur.”

WSDOT Coordinates with City to Improve Green Space

The Washington State Department of Transportation, in coordination with the city of Des Moines, will provide a “much-needed makeover” to a popular 14-acre green space along Barnes Creek – an area used by local residents for a variety of outdoor activities.

[Above photo by WSDOT]

The agency described this particular green space in a blog post as a “well-loved unofficial neighborhood trail” where people are often seen walking their dogs, running, or enjoying nature with their families. This natural corridor includes a series of wetlands along Barnes Creek that have been degraded over time by invasive plants. To better protect native plant species and wildlife in the area, invasive species will be removed and wetlands will be enhanced, the agency said.

This project also supports the city’s future plans for trail improvements through this corridor and should also help reduce impacts on wetlands and vegetated areas surrounding streams from the New Expressway Project. That endeavor represents Stage 2 of the State Route 509 Completion Project – an effort to connect State Route 509 where it currently ends at the southwest corner of Sea-Tac Airport to I-5.

WSDOT noted an updated plan for this green space focuses on wetland preservation and enhancement, with the goal to protect what native plants and soil are already there, planting new native plants, and preventing disturbance of the wetland.

Wetland preservation and enhancement at Barnes Creek will revitalize the wetland habitat for wildlife and native plants like Oregon Ash trees and slough sedge plants. To preserve the wetland area, the Barnes Creek natural corridor includes four types of restoration ranging from simple invasive species removal to habitat enhancement and planting new native species.

The stage of the SR 509 Completion Project which includes the Barnes Creek restoration work is scheduled to be awarded to a contractor in 2024. At that point, the contractor will develop a detailed timeline for construction, and – once construction is done – the agency will turn the revitalized green space over to the city.

State departments of transportation across the country are involved in similar efforts to enhance green space for a variety of communities – efforts that include everything from beautification projects to litter removal.

For example, in February 2022, the California Department of Transportation recently awarded $312 million for 126 beautification projects along the state’s highway system – part of the landmark $1.1 billion Clean California initiative.

Developed in close collaboration with tribal and local governments, non-profits, and businesses, those 126 beautification projects include art installations, green space (such as parks or community gardens) and proposals that “improve safety and promote community connections.”

Designed to foster cultural connections and civic pride, Caltrans noted that those projects should generate 3,600 jobs as part of the governor’s multi-year cleanup initiative to remove trash and beautify community gateways and public areas along highways, streets, and roads. The agency added that roughly 98 percent of those beautification projects would benefit historically underserved or excluded communities.

Meanwhile, in August 2022, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation recently joined several fellow state agencies to help launch a new anti-litter campaign entitled “PA Fights Dirty: Every Litter Bit Matters.”

The creation of this campaign is one of the many recommendations made by Pennsylvania’s first-ever Litter Action Plan, released in December 2021. That plan also won a Pennsylvania Governor’s Award for Excellence in May.

Concurrently, in July 2022, Ohio launched a new litter control program launched, one administered by the Ohio Department of Transportation, that seeks to broaden engagement by the business community in its trash removal efforts.

That new Ohio program allows businesses and groups to fund litter removal services along one-mile, one-direction segments of state highways. In exchange for their sponsorship, Ohio DOT displays the name of the business or group on a sign within their sponsored segment.

FHWA Issues ‘Climate Challenge’ Funds to 25 State DOTs

On October 20, the Federal Highway Administration provided $7.1 million in total funds to 25 state departments of transportation involved in the agency’s ‘Climate Challenge’ program. This is the program’s first funding cycle, FHWA said.

[Above photo by the Oklahoma DOT]

The agency launched its Climate Challenge initiative to quantify the impacts of sustainable pavements and to demonstrate ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in highway projects using sustainable construction materials. That effort is part of a broad array of climate-focused programs FHWA kicked off in April.

“As the sector of the U.S. economy that produces the most carbon emissions, transportation must be a central arena for solutions in our fight against climate change,” said Pete Buttigieg, secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, in a statement.

“Sustainable pavement may not sound glamorous, but it’s an example of the kind of creative and important work needed at this moment, and we’re proud to support innovative efforts in this field across the country,” he noted.

State DOTs that received awards include:

  • The Rhode Island Department of Transportation received a $312,000 grant to support a $1 million project to coat a 2,000-foot section of North Road where it crosses Great Creek with permeable pavement. This project seeks to demonstrate the viability of using permeable pavement as a way to mitigate the impacts of coastal flooding on low-lying roads.
  • The Hawaii Department of Transportation received a $312,000 grant to help build a $6 million plastic recycling research facility. Expected to be up and running within two years, the facility seeks to convert waste plastic into new products for use in transportation infrastructure projects.
  • The Maryland Department of Transportation received a pair of grants to investigate the service life and environmental performance of products and materials used in highway projects, such as asphalt and concrete, as well as how dredged material from port construction could create vegetated earth berms to help control erosion at highway project sites.

The Climate Challenge Initiative is part of an FHWA-wide effort announced during Earth Week 2022 to identify innovative ways to reduce greenhouse gas or GHG emissions from the transportation sector. It also supports the new Carbon Reduction Program FHWA rolled out in April that provides $6.4 billion in formula funding over five years for states and localities to develop carbon reduction strategies and other climate change issues.

FHWA’s Climate Challenge program provides funding, training, and technical assistance to help state DOTs and other public sector stakeholders explore the use of Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) and Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). Together, LCAs and EPDs illustrate the environmental impacts of pavement materials and products, including quantifying GHG emissions. These standard practices can inform decisions for highway construction projects, pavement material, and design.

During this cycle of Climate Challenge funding, FHWA plans to host peer exchanges and webinars and develop case study reports to share lessons learned, outcomes, and next steps for further implementation. Over the next two years, participants will receive training and work with various stakeholders including industry and academia to implement projects that quantify the environmental impacts of pavements using LCAs and EPDs.

Louisiana DOTD Initiates Tree Replacement Program

What does a transportation chief do when a group of self-described tree-huggers publicly expresses unhappiness that your highway project will wipe out a grove of oak trees the group planted decades ago?

 [Above photo by the Louisiana DOTD]

If you are Dr. Shawn Wilson, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, you recognize the conflict – and the potential public relations disaster – as an opportunity to enhance your department’s environmental capabilities. In other words, you hug the tree huggers.

“They weren’t happy about having to remove their trees,” Wilson said of Baton Rouge Green, a non-profit organization that manages and maintains more than 4,200 trees along 23 highways in the city. “But we knew it was important to get allies in this effort, and it was an opportunity for us to partner better.”

Wilson – who also serves as the 2021-2022 president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials – said this specific design-build project seeks to realign the merger of interstates 10 and 12 in Baton Rouge. That merge point is the busiest transportation spot in the city, handling 178,000 vehicles a day.

The highway project requires the removal of 256 trees that Baton Rouge Green planted in 2000.

However, instead of simply noting Baton Rouge Green’s opposition to the tree removals during the environmental phase, Wilson invited its executive director – Sage Roberts Foley – to the table. They discussed the design and construction needs of the project, alongside the environmental and financial value of the trees. During the partnering session, each group came to understand the other’s point of view.

“It’s an interesting dynamic,” Roberts Foley explained. “We’re all coming from a technical perspective. We all realize we’re coming from our own area of knowledge, but everybody respects everybody.”

Wilson said the partnership also has reinforced his belief that natural elements – plants, wildlife, and water – must be a bigger part of infrastructure projects.

“Our knowledge base has to go beyond mowing contracts. Imagine if we approached our projects from a climate perspective,” he said. “Why wouldn’t we plant trees? Why wouldn’t we teach our project managers how to prune crepe myrtles?”

Trees not only beautify an area, but they are also workhorses in the battle against carbon dioxide, absorbing about 48 pounds of carbon dioxide or CO2 per year. As the average passenger car emits more than 10,000 pounds of CO2 a year, it takes more than 200 mature trees to eliminate the CO2 emissions of one passenger vehicle.

While trees do not solve the climate change problem, they may be the most popular answer. A May 2022 Pew Research poll found that 90 percent of Americans favor a World Economic Forum movement to plant one trillion trees by 2030.

“We enjoy this quality of life because we have trees to support us,” Roberts Foley said. “They’re doing all this work – trapping carbons, lowering temperatures.”

Eventually, Louisiana DOTD and Baton Rouge Green arrived at an acceptable solution for both groups. The department plans to pay for two trees to be purchased, planted, and maintained in exchange for every tree lost to the Baton Rogue highway project. Roberts Foley said her group will invest in live oak, cypress, and magnolia trees, all of which are native species.

Roberts Foley credited Wilson for reaching out to her group and creating the partnership in the first place.

“There’s no law or rule that says we have to work together on this,” she said. “He’s stepping out into a space that no one said he has to, and he’s allowed us to have access to his leadership to change a few paradigms instead of just starting over every 20 years.”

Wilson called the partnership “a win, win, win…because we are increasing our capacity with a safer, more attractive, and climate-sensitive infrastructure.” However, he also signaled that this is not a one-off concession but the beginning of a new way of doing business.

“We have to make this part of our own process,” he said. “I told my team, ‘This isn’t the last time we’re going to plant trees.’”

FTA Makes $300M in Ferry Grants Available

The Federal Transit Administration is making nearly $300 million available through three competitive grant programs to boost access to rural ferry services, bolster existing and new urban services, and lower emissions across all services by speeding the adoption of zero-emission ferry propulsion technologies.

[Above photo by NCDOT]

The agency noted in a statement that grants are available for those three programs via a single, combined notice of funding opportunity, with the overall funding level coming by way of the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act or IIJA, enacted in November 2021

Those programs include:

  • Ferry Service for Rural Communities Program is a new grant program that seeks to ensure states provide basic essential ferry services to rural areas. For fiscal year 2022, $209 million is available.
  • Electric or Low-Emitting Ferry Pilot Program is a new program that provides grants for electric or low-emitting ferries and associated infrastructure that reduce greenhouse gas emissions by using alternative fuels or onboard energy storage systems. For FY 2022, $49 million is available.
  • Passenger Ferry Grant Program is an established program for funding capital projects that support existing passenger ferry services, establish new ferry services, and repair and modernize ferries, terminals, and related facilities and equipment in urbanized areas. For FY 2022, $36.5 million is available; of that, $3.25 million is set aside to support low or zero-emission ferries.

Many state departments of transportation that operate ferry services are witnessing a strong rebound in passenger demand.

For example, the North Carolina Department of Transportation recently noted that its four-year-old Ocracoke Express passenger ferry nearly matched pre-pandemic ridership levels over the first two months of its 2022 season despite using a smaller vessel.

The new Ocracoke Express ferry vessel carries 129 people versus the 149-person capacity previous model used from 2019 through 2021, noted NCDOT in a statement.

Meanwhile, the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities and the Southeast Conference announced plans to collaborate on a low-emission ferry project in May.

Alternative fuel-powered, low-emission and electric ferries could be a game-changer for Alaska’s Marine Highway System, the agency said, as it starts replacing aging ferry vessels in upcoming years.

NYSDOT Begins ‘Engagement’ for Transformative Expressway Project

The New York State Department of Transportation recently launched the formal public “engagement” process for the “transformative” Kensington Expressway project in Buffalo.

[Above photo by the New York Governor’s Office]

Constructed during the 1950s and 1960s, the Kensington Expressway replaced what had been a tree-lined boulevard – the Humboldt Parkway, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted – with a below-grade highway that severed the connection between the surrounding neighborhoods. The original boulevard connected Humboldt Park (now Martin Luther King, Jr. Park) with Delaware Park.

NYSDOT noted that its $32.8 billion five-year capital plan adopted as part of the state’s fiscal year 2023 budget includes up to $1 billion for reconnecting the east-west neighborhoods across the depressed section of the Kensington Expressway corridor.

That funding also aims to help re-establish the green space originally provided by Humboldt Parkway without compromising the long-term capacity of the important regional transportation link provided by the expressway, which carries 80,000 vehicles per day.

The agency said the engagement process for this project – which involves a series of public meetings – provides community members with an opportunity to learn about the various options considered for the project and to provide NYSDOT with feedback.

The input from those sessions and other upcoming public involvement opportunities will help inform the decision-making process for the project, especially in terms of its environmental review.

“The Kensington Expressway project represents a historic opportunity to reshape Buffalo and reconnect communities that were severely impacted by the highway’s construction more than a half-century ago,” noted Governor Kathy Hochul (D) in a statement.

My administration is committed to delivering on bold infrastructure projects that will help right the wrongs of the past through transportation networks designed to bring communities together, and routes that are friendlier for pedestrians and bikers,” she said. “It’s critical that the community has a voice in how this project proceeds and these scoping sessions will help us inform members of the public about all the options being considered and allow us to listen to their feedback.”

NYSDOT noted that it would consider the comments received at these public “scoping” sessions and respond to them in its Project Scoping Report due later this summer.

Also, the agency plans to launch a new website on the Kensington Expressway Project on June 29, providing another forum for the public to learn about the project.

NYSDOT said it is currently assessing opportunities to create new open public spaces, enhance bicycle and pedestrian safety, and address noise and air pollution, while also assessing enhancements to the local roadways to facilitate safe vehicle operations within reconnected neighborhoods.

Arizona DOT Wraps up Cactus-Saving Project

The Arizona Department of Transportation recently completed a bridge replacement project near Globe, AZ, which triggered the return of an endangered species of cactus transplanted and preserved by the agency during the project’s four-year timeline.

[Above photo by Arizona DOT]

The U.S. 60 Pinto Creek Bridge is also home to the endangered hedgehog cactus, which grows only within a several-mile radius of the site. About a foot high, usually covered in spines and often with red flowers at the top, the species is listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is protected under Arizona law.

When the bridge replacement project began in 2018, a team comprised of biologists from the Arizona DOT and from the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix safely removed 34 cacti potentially affected by the construction work, then nurtured and propagated, replanting 61 total cacti in early March. This relocation effort is the latest step in a long-term partnership between the Arizona DOT and the Desert Botanical Garden to protect hedgehog cactuses that only grow in one tiny area of the state.

“ADOT has a responsibility to respect the environment and to make sure the plants and animals that make Arizona special are protected,” said Josh Fife, Arizona DOT’s biology team lead, in a statement. “We’re proud that the work we did will make sure the Arizona hedgehog cactus will continue to exist in the one special place in the world where they thrive.”

This cacti protection effort took on added importance in the summer of 2021, when wildfires swept through the project site, threatening some of the cacti in that area that were not removed because they were not threatened by construction.

“The plants on site could have easily been destroyed in the fire which is why it was a good thing these plants were taken back to Desert Botanical Garden out of harm’s way,” noted Steve Blackwell, conservation collections manager for Desert Botanical Garden.

“That was an important side benefit of taking cactus out when we did. Another valuable part of this process was that we were able to hand pollinate the plants at the Garden, clone the mother plants and develop a seed bank for future preservation,” he added. “This is a great win for the environment”