The Stream by AASHTO: Solar Eclipse Preparations

The latest episode of the “The Stream by AASHTO” podcast – formerly the Environmental Technical Assistance Program or ETAP podcast – is the first of a two-part series exploring effective transportation management tactics ahead of and during a solar eclipse.

[Above image by AASHTO]

“The Stream by AASHTO” podcast is part of a technical service program for state departments of transportation provided by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. It explores a wide array of environmental topics that affect transportation and infrastructure programs.

The first episode of this two-part series on solar eclipse preparations features insights from Michael White, assistant director of the Safety and Emergency Management Division within in the Missouri Department of Transportation.

White digs into the significance of preparation, planning, training, and effective communication conducted by his division ahead of the solar eclipse event scheduled to affect the United States on April 8. He also offers perspectives on advancing safety protocols and bolstering resilience to ensure operational continuity during such celestial events.

To listen to the full podcast on this topic, click here.

WSDOT Project Deters Wildfire Debris Flows

The Washington State Department of Transportation is wrapping up a project aimed at deterring debris flows along U.S. 2/Stevens Pass Highway from “burn scars” left behind by the 2022 Bolt Creek Fire, which burned nearly 15,000 acres in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

[Above photo by WSDOT]

The agency noted in a blog post about the project that wildfires can change the landscape, turning dense trees and vegetation into large areas with ashes and dry soil – areas known as burn scars.

“If it rains a lot or snow on the ground melts really fast, these burn scars can produce fast-moving landslides called debris flows,” WSDOT said. “These can be dangerous and might harm people and property within their path.”

After the Bolt Creek wildfire, WSDOT personnel studied the area and found two areas near the burn scar – about four miles northwest of Skykomish – that posed a “higher risk” of debris flows of mud and loose rock potentially affecting U.S. 2.

“We had to close U.S. 2 east of Gold Bar several times because of the active fire and debris falling onto the highway,” WSDOT noted. “The fire also left a burn scar that will take several years to recover.”

To mitigate the impact of such debris flows on the roadway and surrounding area, the WSDOT built a series of walls, berms, and fences along certain sections of U.S. 2 to protect both the roadway and its stormwater culverts.

WSDOT built two debris fences – one 60 feet long and the other 110 feet long – above specific culverts to help stop detritus from blocking roadway culverts if debris flows occur happens.

Along another section of the roadway, WSDOT built six-foot-tall wall, called a berm, made of natural materials. This berm will guide any potential debris flows away from U.S. 2 to a lower natural “catch” area near the highway. The berm is 94 feet long and required nearly 300 tons of material to build. In spring 2024, the agency said it will add native plant seeds to further help stabilize the berm area.

“Our maintenance crews will keep an eye on the highway along the burn scar, looking for downed trees and limbs, clearing ditches and culverts and looking for any early warning signs of a potential debris flow,” WSDOT noted. “Hopefully, the berm and the fences are never tested by a debris flow, but … we have taken the necessary steps to reduce the risk and keep U.S. 2 open while the area recovers from the Bolt Creek Fire.”

Wyoming DOT Completes Dry Piney Wildlife Crossing

The Wyoming Department of Transportation recently completed a long-awaited project aimed at reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions along the Green River in western Wyoming.

[Above image by Wyoming DOT]

The agency released a video detailing how wildlife crossings built as part of its $15.1 million Dry Piney project will help reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions.

The Dry Piney project – a joint effort between the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the Wyoming DOT – includes nine underpasses and 16.7 miles of eight foot-high fencing on both sides of Highway 189 in the western part of the state to protect big game animals, primarily mule deer.

Construction of wildlife crossing infrastructure is getting a national boost via a new pilot project launched by the U.S. Department of Transportation in April; an effort funded by the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act or IIJA.

That pilot program – dubbed the “Wildlife Crossings Pilot Program” and managed by the Federal Highway Administration – will make grant funding available to states and communities to construct wildlife crossings over or below busy roads, add warning signs for drivers, acquire mapping and tracking tools, and more.

Above Image by FHWA

FHWA is making a total of $350 million available over five years, including more than $111 million in grants through its first round of funding in 2023. The agency also noted that roughly 200 people are killed – and many more are injured – annually in the United States in more than one million collisions involving wildlife and vehicles.

recent blog post by the Pew Trusts highlights how the growing success of wildlife crossings – bridges, underpasses, and culverts designed to help animals avoid vehicle traffic – across the U.S. is drawing a surge of interest from policymakers seeking to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions and protect animals.

Meanwhile, state departments of transportation have already been working on a variety of wildlife-vehicle collision prevention initiatives over the last several years.

For example, to date, Colorado DOT said it has built more than 60 wildlife mitigation structures crossing above or under highways throughout the state. Additionally, it has installed 400 miles of high big game fencing along state and U.S. highways or next to the interstates.

In August 2022, the agency completed a wildlife overpass and underpass on U.S. Highway 160 in the southwestern part of the state; a stretch of road where more than 60 percent of all crashes are due to wildlife-vehicle collisions.

Concurrently, a research document released in July 2022 by an international pool funded study led by the Nevada Department of Transportation provides an “authoritative review” of the most effective measures to reduce animal-vehicle collisions, improve motorist safety, and build safer wildlife crossings.

KYTC Transforms Fallen Trees into Valuable Mulch

A recent video from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet illustrates how it worked with the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet and other state agencies on a “debris-to-mulch” project that turned thousands of trees downed by major flooding across Eastern Kentucky earlier this year into beneficial mulch.

[Above image via the KYTC]

For the first few weeks after the flooding, KYTC crews focused on removed debris while re-opening several roads and bridges – repairing and replacing damaged bridges with temporary structures.

That work removed more than 403,000 tons of debris from waterways and rights-of-way in Eastern Kentucky as part of the agency’s flood cleanup efforts. The initiative eliminated debris from 48 damaged vehicles while clearing 615 miles of streams and creeks.

Nearly 100,000 tons of wood debris were sent to one of two Kentucky mulching facilities for re-use as part of this program, KYTC noted in the video.

That wood debris ultimately produced about 160,000 cubic yards of mulch; equivalent to almost 2.1 million bags of the mulch product typically sold in home improvement stores, the agency said.

Caltrans to Help Build Highway/Rail Wildlife Overpass

The California Department of Transportation, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), and passenger rail provider Brightline West plan to jointly design and construct three wildlife overcrossings across Interstate 15 and the future Brightline West high-speed rail system connecting Las Vegas and Southern California.

[Above photo by Caltrans]

Those overcrossings seek to provide a sustainable and safe path for wildlife – especially for bighorn sheep – over the existing northbound and southbound highway lanes and the future 218-mile high-speed rail system to be built within the median, explained California Governor Gavin Newsom (D).

“Roadways and rail lines must be designed to connect, not divide,” he said in a statement. “This project will not only protect the precious wildlife and habitat of the Mojave Desert region but will also get people between Las Vegas and Southern California safely and efficiently – preserving one of the most popular corridors in our state.”

Beyond building those three wildlife overcrossings, the Brightline West project aims to maintain or improve more than 600 culverts and large-scale crossings under I-15 that exist today as well as restore and install desert tortoise fencing and directional wildlife exclusionary fencing.

Over the past year, Brightline, Caltrans and CDFW said they have worked together to develop a coordinated plan to fund, design, construct and maintain these wildlife overcrossings. The parties intend to fund the overcrossings using a mix of Caltrans, CDFW and Brightline West capital resources, while also seeking federal dollars.

Concurrently, a recent blog post by the Pew Trusts highlights how the growing success of wildlife crossings – bridges, underpasses, and culverts designed to help animals avoid vehicle traffic – across the U.S. is drawing a surge of interest from policymakers seeking to reduce wildlife-vehicle collisions and protect animals.

State departments of transportation across the country continue investing in a variety of wildlife crossing projects.

For example, to date, Colorado DOT said it has built more than 60 wildlife mitigation structures crossing above or under highways throughout the state. Additionally, it has installed 400 miles of high big game fencing along state and U.S. highways or next to the interstates.

In August 2022, the agency completed a wildlife overpass and underpass on U.S. Highway 160 in the southwestern part of the state; a stretch of road where more than 60 percent of all crashes are due to wildlife-vehicle collisions.

Meanwhile, a research document released in July 2022 by an international pool funded study led by the Nevada Department of Transportation provides an “authoritative review” of the most effective measures to reduce animal-vehicle collisions, improve motorist safety, and build safer wildlife crossings.

With as many as two million collisions with large mammals in the United States leading to approximately 200 human deaths every year, the review compiled, evaluated, and synthesized studies, scientific reports, journal articles, technical papers, and other publications from within the United States and beyond to determine effectiveness of 30 different mitigation measures.

Video: How KYTC Biologists Restore Streams, Wetlands

A recent video released by the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet highlights how the agency’s biologists work to restore and improve streams and wetlands involved in state transportation projects.

[Above image via KYTC]

KYTC has worked closed with the Federal Highway Administration as well as other federal, state, and local agencies to identify and resolve environmental challenges on transportation projects. That results in more efficient environmental processes, thereby reducing time and funds to be expended on transportation projects, noted KYTC. 

KYTC noted that it works with a wide range of groups to tackle such mitigation projects, including the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, the American Indian Tribal Outreach program, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, among others. Each of those “partnering efforts” discusses particular challenges common to transportation projects and provide resolutions beneficial to the environment.

State departments of transportation across the country tap into a variety of “biological resources” to minimize the environmental impact of infrastructure projects under their purview.

For example the Arizona Department of Transportation detailed in April 2022 how “biomonitor” teams from Northern Arizona University or NAU help the agency’s crews find and relocate endangered species – including snakes, birds and fish – from construction sites.

Specifically, those biomonitor teams train construction workers and others involved in transportation projects to identify any endangered species and what to do if they come across one. The teams also monitor construction activity and help safely remove any endangered species out of harm’s way.

Meanwhile, July and August every year, the North Carolina Department of Transportation temporarily lowers speed limits from 55 mph to 20 mph on the William B. Umstead Bridge – locally known as the old Manns Harbor Bridge – at dusk and dawn during the roosting period of purple martin bird flocks.

NCDOT noted in August 2022 that it has collaborated with the Coastal Carolina Purple Martin Society since 2007 to educate the public about the purple martin flocks, to protect both the birds and motorists.

From late July through August, the west end of the bridge becomes home to as many as 100,000 purple martins as they prepare for their annual migration to Brazil. The birds roost under the bridge at night, departing at dawn to feed and returning at sunset. The flock is so large during its peak that it is visible on radar.

FHWA Launches Seventh ‘Every Day Counts’ Initiative

The Federal Highway Administration recently kicked off the latest round of transportation innovations through its Every Day Counts or EDC program.

[Above image by FHWA]

The agency noted that EDC is a successful state-based program that helps identify and rapidly deploy proven, yet underused, innovations that facilitate greater efficiency in project delivery at the state, local and tribal levels – saving time, money, and other resources to ensure transportation infrastructure is built better, faster, smarter, and more equitably. It began soliciting ideas for the seventh round of this program, known as EDC-7, back in March.

The FHWA and the Federal Transit Administration are promoting this year’s innovations to help improve project delivery across highway, rail, and transit agencies at the state and local level.

“For over 10 years the Every Day Counts program has rapidly deployed proven technologies and processes that can be implemented at the national scale,” said Acting FHWA Administration Stephanie Pollack in a statement.

Acting Administrator Pollack

She added that this year’s EDC-7 innovations would improve safety for all road users, build a sustainable infrastructure for the future and grow an inclusive workforce.

Notably, FHWA and FTA selected several EDC-7 innovations with multimodal state transportation agencies in mind that should interest transit and rail agencies, too.

“Many of the innovations announced today as part of this forward-thinking program will help make the nation’s transit systems safer, greener, and more equitable,” said FTA Administrator Nuria Fernandez. “We look forward to promoting the findings from these initiatives — from reducing greenhouse gas emissions to leveling the playing field for small businesses to compete for design-build contracts — throughout the transit industry.”

This year’s EDC-7 innovations include:

  • Nighttime Visibility for Safety: The nighttime crash fatality rate is three times the daytime rate. Enhancing visibility along corridors, intersections, and pedestrian crossings can help reduce fatalities. This initiative promotes traffic control devices and properly designed lighting to improve safety for all users, including pedestrians, cyclists, and people who use public transportation and passenger rail services.
  • Next-Generation Traffic Incident Management: Over six million crashes a year in the U.S. put responders and other vulnerable road users at risk. Next-Generation Traffic Incident Management programs promote emerging technologies such as emergency vehicle lighting and queue warning solutions. These and other tools can advance safety and operations to help keep crash responders safe and mitigate traffic impacts after a crash.
  • Integrating Greenhouse Gas Assessment and Reduction Targets in Transportation Planning: Transportation is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the U.S. This initiative provides resources to help agencies, regardless of transportation mode, quantify greenhouse gases, and set goals to decrease motor vehicle, construction, and lifecycle emissions through planning and project development.
  • Enhancing Performance with Internally Cured Concrete or EPIC: Cracking in concrete is a limiting factor in achieving long-term concrete performance. Such internal curing can mitigate shrinkage, and cracking, and extend the service life of concrete bridge decks, as well.
  • Environmental Product Declarations or EPDs for Sustainable Project Delivery: Construction materials such as concrete and asphalt have environmental impacts during their life cycle, whether the transportation facility supports passenger vehicles, transit vehicles, or railroad cars. EPDs document those impacts. This tool helps states support procurement decisions and quantify embodied carbon reductions for “sustainable pavements” via lifecycle assessments.
  • Rethinking Disadvantaged Business Enterprises or DBEs in Design-Build: Many design-build contracts do not adequately provide opportunities for disadvantaged businesses. New practices are available to support the effective integration of program requirements to help DBEs compete for design-build contracts for highway and transit projects.
  • Strategic Workforce Development or SWD: The demand for highway workers is growing due to the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act or IIJA, and emerging technologies require new skills. Thirty-two states are using SWD protocols to promote career opportunities in transportation, with six of those states having institutionalized SWD processes in their workforce programs. A continued focus on taking this nationwide will help stakeholders across the country improve their ability to identify, train, and place highway construction workers, FHWA said, with the focus on SWD expanding to rural and tribal communities to increase career opportunities.

Every two years since 2011, FHWA has worked with state departments of transportation, local governments, tribes, private industry, and other stakeholders to identify a new set of innovations to champion that merit accelerated deployment. The first six rounds of EDC have yielded several innovative project delivery technologies, including prefabricated bridge systems, design-build contracting, project bundling, e-construction, safety initiatives, and more.

FHWA credited the program’s success largely on its close collaboration with states and local partners through a process whereby states select innovations they want to pursue, then establish performance goals for the level of implementation and adoption they want to reach over the upcoming two-year cycle. After finalizing the selection and performance goals, implementation of those innovations begins with the support and assistance of diverse technical deployment teams established for each innovation, including federal, state, and local experts.

In addition, FHWA noted that the Accelerated Innovation Demonstration program and State Transportation Innovation Council Incentive program administered by the agency could complement EDC by providing additional funding and resources to help the surface transportation community accelerate the adoption and standardization of innovative technologies in their programs.

Illinois DOT: Using Mowing to Protect Landscapes

The Illinois Department of Transportation recounted in a recent blog post how it changed its mowing practices over the years to better protect roadside landscapes that are vital to pollinators and native planet life.

[Above photo by the Illinois DOT]

The agency has adopted mowing policies to protect the habitat and migratory patterns of the monarch butterfly and other pollinators that use it as a food source. That policy allows for mowing of the state’s roads in a four-year rotation during the summer. Interstate medians are mowed one year, westbound and southbound interstate right-of-ways are mowed the second year, eastbound and northbound interstate right-of-ways are mowed the third year, and non-interstate routes like Illinois 54 are mowed the fourth year. Then the cycle starts over.

However, Andy Stahr, Jay Keigher, and Kip Rutledge – who work for Illinois DOT’s District 3 – enhanced that program by further limiting roadside mowing along Illinois 54, which runs along a railroad right-of-way in Ford County. That encouraged the spread of native prairie plants onto Illinois DOT’s roadsides.

“We didn’t sow native seeds here,” explained Keigher, a maintenance field engineer for yards at Illinois DOT. “These plants spread from the existing remnant prairie on the railroad property. This wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for our new mowing policy. We would’ve mowed 30 feet wide through here and we used to do that. Since we stopped doing that, I’ve seen more and more plants like these moving up our slopes and onto our backslopes.”

However – great as it is to have the railroad’s prairie spread onto Illinois DOT’s land, noted Stahr, a roadside management specialist for the agency – that doesn’t mean the job is done. While it means keeping roadside mowing to a minimum, it still means doing work to maintain what’s now considered a developing prairie.

“It’s going to be a constant problem because you have weeds coming in every direction,” Stahr added. “You’re always going to have spots where Canada thistle pops up. That’s why you can’t completely step away from it. Every once in a while you’re going to see a patch of something and you’re going to have to go in and herbicide it out and you got to reseed that little patch.”

Keigher emphasized that a lack of maintenance threatens this effort. For example, invasive Russian olive trees will block the sun and kill existing plants if left unchecked. That tree also can attract birds that transport invasive seeds through their excrement and re-contaminate the prairie with non-native and invasive plants.

Thus such invasive plants and trees must be mowed down to the ground and destroyed. “You can’t just quit,” Keigher said. “You have to keep maintaining that.”

The goal is to re-develop a prairie ecosystem that is self-sustaining – a three to five year process, Stahr noted.

“Reconstruction means applying herbicide to kill all existing vegetation at the site and scarifying the soil. Then it is managing the land for up to two years by mowing,” he explained.

“Seed also are drilled into the ground to establish a deep root system. Once it’s seeded, we really don’t have to do anything else to make it grow other than keep the vegetation and weeds down for that first year,” Stahr pointed out. “You may be able to let it go the second year if you get a great response. It’s usually the third year that you can let it go and you’ll see everything start to bloom.”

Done right, the prairie polices itself against invasive plants, he said.

“There’s only so much space in the root system,” Stahr noted. “Once you get all these plants living together in such density like this, they interlock their root systems so aggressively that when a weed seed lands in here, there’s nowhere to germinate and grow. That’s why they’re so low maintenance when you get them established.”

While Keigher would love to see every roadside receive this treatment, he prefers to do smaller quarter-mile prairie sections at a time.

“We’re expanding at the rate where we can maintain it,” he pointed out. “We just can’t do it all because we don’t have enough time to take care of it. It’s a lot. We wanted to make sure we’re successful at it before we bite more than we can chew.”