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”

Minnesota DOT Works to ‘Rejuvenate’ Live Snow Fences

The Minnesota Department of Transportation plans to “rejuvenate” seven so-called “living snow fences” in southwest Minnesota as part of a month-long effort to ensure the 20-year-old plantings can survive for another two decades.

[Above photo by the Minnesota DOT]

The agency noted that a “living snow fence” is comprised of trees, shrubs, native grasses, and/or wildflowers to trap snow as it blows across fields, piling it up before it reaches a bridge or roadway.

“Rejuvenation” work includes pruning healthy trees while removing and replacing any dead trees and shrubs. The agency noted it schedules such work on living snow fences between March and April specifically to reduce interference with the state’s bat and bird populations.

“A living snow fence is more than landscaping and highway beautification, it serves a purpose,” explained Dan Gullickson, Minnesota DOT’s blowing snow control shared services program supervisor, in a statement.

“We use nature to control blowing snow and rejuvenating these living snow fence sites will safeguard the health and vitality of the plantings,” he added.

The Minnesota DOT said living snow fences offer multiple infrastructure benefits, including:

  • Prevent the formation of large snowdrifts and icing on roads.
  • Improve motorist visibility by reducing whiteout conditions due to blowing snow.
  • Control soil erosion and reduce spring flooding.
  • Lessen environmental impact by reducing the need to use salt on the roads during winter.

Alaska Budget Contains Ice Road Maintenance Funds

The fiscal year 2023 state budget proposed by Governor Michael Dunleavy (R) contains maintenance funding for the Dick Nash Memorial ice road that will help tribal transportation departments maintain the frozen Kuskokwim for travel in the 2022/2023 winter season.

[Above photo by the Alaska DOT&PF]

By contrast, in 2021, contributions from community stakeholders covered half of the ice road’s maintenance costs. However, as heating oil delivery and diesel costs are now over $6 per gallon in the region – and the state is experiencing a funding surplus based in part on high oil prices – Governor Dunleavy said in a statement that he believes it is “only right” to provide community relief where possible.

That is why, in addition to the proposed funding in his FY 2023 budget, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities plans to recover any remaining maintenance costs via federal surface transportation funding during the 2022/2023 winter season, Gov. Dunleavy said.

The Kuskokwim ice road – which can stretch up to 300 miles long – serves 17 villages and helps Alaskan rural communities move goods and services during winter months. They are a safe alternative when poor weather prevents airplanes from flying, according to the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, and proved an efficient way to distribute COVID-19 vaccines.

Alaska DOT&PF

Maintaining ice roads goes beyond plowing snow and placing reflectors. For example, the ice road crew serving the Village of Napaimute has developed a cell phone application to measure ice thickness. That application integrates ice-penetrating radar with traditional Native knowledge and local observations into an easy-to-access cell phone data format.

“I had the opportunity to travel the Kuskokwim Ice Road for the first time on a recent visit to the Villages of Napakiak and Napaskiak,” the governor said. “All those hundreds of miles of drivable ice are truly an Alaskan feat … and I heard from many residents about the importance of the road during the winter months for health, safety, commerce, and recreation. I’m glad we have identified funding to cover this expense from existing authorities.”

Nevada DOT Launches Latino Cultural Preservation Project

The Nevada Department of Transportation and contractor Mead & Hunt are working to develop a “multiple property documentation form” or MPDF to help preserve Latino-related properties statewide, with a primary focus on the cities of Las Vegas and Reno.

[Above image via the Nevada DOT]

“This is an exciting new project that will pave the way for similar DOT projects throughout the country to preserve the rich cultural fabric of our communities across Nevada,” explained Cliff Creger, Nevada DOT’s chief of cultural resources, in a statement. “We are seeking input from the public on the important people and places to northern and southern Nevada’s Latino communities.”

He added that the resulting MPDF from that outreach seeks to reflect the way the Latino community defines the importance and use of properties. It also would cover how such properties are directly associated with Latino “themes” as well as their chronological periods in the historic contexts and/or which physical features convey distinctive design features.

The goal of the project is to build relationships within the Latino community, integrate the outreach findings and program into the MPDF, then develop a historical context for future transportation projects in Nevada.

This project also aims to “understand, explore, and propose criteria” to improve the “evaluation eligibility” of historical properties based on the Latino community’s unique past, standards, and values, the agency added. 

“We understand that the architectural history representation of the Latino culture is unique to its own past and can be understood from its own standards and values,” Creger noted.

This particular cultural outreach project undertaken by Nevada DOT is reflective of similar efforts by state departments of transportation nationwide.

For example, the Colorado Department of Transportation debuted a documentary called “Durango 550 – Path of the Ancestral Puebloans” in January to show how the agency worked with archaeologists and regional Native American tribes to document, study, and ultimately share the discoveries unearthed near Durango in southwest Colorado.

That particular archaeological excavation took place in 2018 and 2019 ahead of construction on the US 550-US 160 Connection South project in 2020.

“This documentary shows the unique collaboration of all entities involved, laying the groundwork for a new approach to archaeology, blending western science with traditional cultural beliefs,” explained Greg Wolff, a Colorado DOT archaeologist, in a statement.

In July 2021, the Ohio Department of Transportation helped open the new 54-mile-long Quaker Heritage Scenic Byway that seeks to foster a “new awareness” of cultural and historical diversity in rural southwest Ohio with stops along the way telling the story of Quakers who migrated to the region from the late 18th to the late 20th centuries.

That project helped reveal numerous layers of local history such as Quaker interactions with Native American communities, agriculture and land use, abolitionism, and religious practices – all identified through historical research, digital mapping, and told through “interactive” narratives.

Finally, the latest episode of the Environmental Technical Assistance Program or ETAP Podcast discussed ways state DOT cultural resources programs are exploring to identify and preserve homes built in the 30 years following World War II that may have potential historical significance.