Minnesota DOT Releases Fourth Annual Sustainability Report

The Minnesota Department of Transportation recently released its fourth annual Sustainability Report; a 26-page document based on 2019 data that tracks the agency’s progress towards achieving a number of sustainability and climate goals.

[Above photo courtesy of MnDOT.]

Some of the sustainability achievements cited by the agency include: Reducing energy consumption per square foot by 17 percent between 2008 and 2019; issuing a request for proposal for community solar garden subscriptions that will save the Minnesota DOT more than $1.5 million and account for almost 25 percent of total agency electricity use; increasing the number of electric vehicles within the agency’s fleet from four to 29; exceeding the department’s goal in the 2018-2019 winter season for reducing salt usage.

Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher.
Photo courtesy of MnDOT.

[Margaret Anderson Kelliher, the Minnesota DOT commissioner and chair of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Committee on the Environment and Sustainability, recently explained Environmental Technical Assistance Program or ETAP podcast that Minnesota looks for the “triple bottom line” when evaluating sustainability: how sustainability efforts affect the health of people, how it impacts the environment, and how it impacts the economy.]

However, the Minnesota DOT also noted a few setbacks in its report as well. Carbon pollution from transportation, for example, continued to increase between 2018 and 2019 – an uptick attributed to low gas prices, increased freight traffic, people driving more miles, and more purchases of low-fuel efficiency pick-up trucks and sport utility vehicles.  In addition, the agency reported higher fuel consumption by agency fleet vehicles in 2019, mostly by its snowplow trucks due to its winter operations needs

“Transportation is the primary source of carbon pollution in Minnesota and the U.S. and MnDOT is committed to address climate impacts and to work with communities throughout the state to develop a sustainable transportation system of the future,” emphasized Tim Sexton, the agency’s assistant commissioner and chief sustainability director, in a statement. The agency added that impacts to the state’s transportation system and its response to recent events in 2020 – including the COVID-19 pandemic and the civil unrest related to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis – may be addressed in future iterations of its sustainability report.

Maine DOT Shares Insight into Roadside Vegetation Management Program

The Maine Department of Transportation recently provided a behind-the-scenes look at its ongoing efforts to control brush along selected state roads via an “integrated” strategy that marries the use of herbicides with mowing and the hand-removal of young saplings growing too close to the pavement.

“Roadside trees are much easier to control when they are small,” the agency said in a statement. “Trees allowed to grow close to roads prevent proper water drainage and may obscure drivers’ views of large animals such as moose and deer. Controlling roadside vegetation is a key safety and road maintenance activity requiring yearly effort.”

In various locations, the Maine DOT noted it may also extend its vegetation control efforts to areas surrounding guardrails. “Reducing vegetation near guardrails increases safety because it protects our workers from tripping hazards and ticks,” the department pointed out. “Guardrails free of vegetation also function properly and are easier to maintain.”

Photo by Maine DOT

Integrated roadside vegetation management or IRVM is a strategy with a long history within the state DOT community, dating back to the 1970s. Iowa, for example, was one of the first states to establish IRVM programs at the city, county, and state levels with a goal of providing an alternative to “conventional” procedures that relied on the extensive use of mowing and herbicides, which provided often too costly to implement on a regular basis and increased the potential for surface water contamination.

That’s why in Maine DOT’s case, all herbicide treatments for brush, weeds, or invasive plants are selected to minimize impact to surrounding vegetation – deployed at the lowest application rates to protect workers and the environment.

[Selecting the correct herbicide is critical; a lesson the Oregon Department of Transportation learned the hard way as it just wrapped up a five-year effort to remove 2,300 Ponderosa pine trees poisoned by the use of herbicide aminocyclopyrachlor – also known as Perspective – sprayed along a 12-mile stretch of U.S. 20 to kill vegetation that posed a fire hazard.]

Starting in 2004, the department also began an “every-other-year” herbicide application program to help further reduce use of such chemicals, while encouraging municipalities and private citizens living adjacent to state roads to enter into a Cooperative Vegetation Management agreement if they are concerned about herbicide use.

Such agreements outline the municipal or landowner responsibilities for maintaining roadside vegetation; because when roadsides are properly maintained under such pacts, there is no need to use herbicides, the Maine DOT said.

ETAP Podcast: Minnesota DOT’s Margaret Anderson Kelliher

In this episode of the Environmental Technical Assistance Program or ETAP podcast, host Bernie Wagenblast interviews Margaret Anderson Kelliher, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, about her state’s perspectives on environmental sustainability.

Anderson Kelliher, who serves as chair of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Committee on the Environment and Sustainability, explains on the podcast that Minnesota looks for the “triple bottom line” when evaluating sustainability: how sustainability efforts affects the health of people, how it impacts the environment, and how it impacts the economy.

To listen to this podcast episode, click here.

FEMA Issues COVID-19/Hurricane Response Guidance

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has issued a 59-page document that provides Federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial or SLTT officials – along with those of private sector and non-governmental organizations (NGO) – guidance on how to respond to both the COVID-19 pandemic and hurricanes simultaneously.

“As SLTT partners continue to prepare for hurricane season and other emergent incidents, emergency managers should review and adjust existing plans – including continuity of operations (COOP) plans – to account for the realities and risks of COVID-19 in their prioritization of life-saving and life-sustaining efforts,” FEMA said in the document.” All reviews and adjustments to plans should factor-in FEMA’s planned operational posture, social distancing measures, CDC [Centers for Disease Control] guidance, and SLTT public health guidance.”

To ensure that operational decisions are made at the lowest level possible, FEMA is organizing to prioritize resources and adjudicate accordingly, if needed:

  • At the incident level, Federal Coordinating Officers (FCO – in consultation with regional Administrators – will work to address incident requirements using available resources. FCOs will proactively manage and identify risks and communicate new requirements to Regional Response Coordination Center or RRCCs as they arise.
  • At the regional level, the RRCCs will coordinate with FEMA personnel deployed to SLTT emergency operation centers and adjudicate resource requests until operational control is ready to be transitioned to the FCO at the incident level, when designated, and will adjudicate resources within their area of operation and coordinate with other RRCCs and the National Response Coordination Center (NRCC) as required.
  • At the national level, the NRCC will coordinate with the regions on requirements and adjudicate resources to address national priorities.

Pine Tree Poisoning Provides Lessons for Oregon DOT

The Oregon Department of Transportation is approaching the end of a multi-year environmental and public relations ordeal in which a seemingly routine herbicide-spraying project in a national forest poisoned 2,300 towering Ponderosa pine trees that eventually had to be cut down.

By June, the agency should be grinding down the last of the stumps left by its massive 2019 logging of herbicide-poisoned trees along U.S. 20 in the Deschutes National Forest in Central Oregon.

Photo courtesy Oregon DOT

Aside from the wood chips, what will remain are valuable environmental lessons the Oregon DOT is taking to heart.

The problem began when the Oregon DOT contracted with Jefferson County Public Works in 2013 to spray the herbicide aminocyclopyrachlor – also known as Perspective – along a 12-mile stretch of U.S. 20 to kill vegetation that could pose a fire hazard.

In 2014, U.S. Forest Service rangers noticed some trees were stressed, but no one linked it to the herbicide until the spraying was completed in 2015. By then, the damage was done and the Oregon DOT determined the trees – some of which were 36 inches in diameter – were safety hazards and had to be removed.

Environmental groups and residents criticized the agency, its contractor and the U.S. Forest Service for using the herbicide. Although a review of the decision-making process did not fully put the blame on the Oregon DOT, “at best, it wasn’t clear,” explained Joel McCarroll, Oregon DOT’s District 10 manager.

“We took full responsibility. It was not a comfortable decision, but I felt it was an easy decision,” he emphasized. “It just didn’t make sense to lay the blame off on someone else. It was just easier to go forward and get this done.”

Photo courtesy Oregon DOT

To that end, the agency held open houses for public discussion of its remediation plan because “we needed to be transparent with the public – we had more than 2,000 trees that had to come down,” McCarroll noted. “We were very clear about the criteria and the process we were using. And, people were fine. I’ve had people come unglued on me for other things at public meetings, but these crowds were respectful.”

Although Perspective was legal to use, a warning label about its use around pine trees was added before the project ended, but no one caught the change. “We overlooked a warning label, and that’s one of the process-improvement changes we’ve made,” McCarroll said.

In response to the tree killing, Oregon became the first state to prohibit the use of aminocyclopyrachlor in numerous applications on May 9, including along rights-of-way. Additionally, each Oregon DOT district now has an integrated vegetation program, and personnel within the district are cross trained to prevent a loss of institutional knowledge, McCarroll noted.

“Learn from our experience – you still have to have the expertise internally, even if you’re contracting out spraying,” he explained. “If you’re dealing with highways that are on federal lands, make sure the decision-making is clear. And it’s important to be public about your process.”

ETAP Podcast: Interview with The Ray’s Allie Kelly

The inaugural episode of the Environmental Technical Assistance Program or ETAP Podcast includes an interview with Allie Kelly executive director of The Ray – a corporate venture devoted to roadway technology testing. She talks about her group’s work with the Georgia Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration as part of a “public-private-philanthropic partnership” or P4 charter to collaborate on ways to better use an 18-mile-long portion of Interstate 85 The Ray manages as a “living transportation laboratory.”

“The infrastructure changes we need to make for autonomous and connected vehicles is pretty clear,” she explained during the podcast. “Clear signage and lane markings are critical as are technologies for managing the data streams coming from connected vehicles in real-time to understand where dangerous crashes are located and how to better protect work zones, among other benefits.”

It’s about developing highway infrastructure that is cleaner, smarter, and more efficient, Kelly noted. “We’ve been working with the Georgia Department of Transportation for five years and the formal [P4] charter agreement we signed in 2019 is helping us develop larger projects, such as a group of solar panels on the highway right-of-way managed by Georgia Power that helps reduce expenditures on right-of-way maintenance.” To access more of Ray’s ETAP podcast commentary, click here.

Sustainability: The State DOT Perspective

The idea of tackling sustainability from a state department of transportation perspective can evoke as many questions as ideas: what should be done, who should do it, and how can anyone tell if it’s working?

In at least two states – Arizona and Minnesota – state DOTs have addressed sustainability issues for a few years now, but each is taking a different approach to how they’re attempting to alter the impact of traditional transportation activities on the environment.

Tim Sexton, Assistant Commissioner and Chief Sustainability Officer, MnDOT

“Climate change is happening in Minnesota, and we want to do our part,” explained Tim Sexton, assistant commissioner, and chief sustainability officer of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

A Minnesota state law – The Next Generation Energy Act – put the onus on the Minnesota DOT to lead the state’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote transit, biking and walking.

“There was some work done here prior to 2014, but it was not coordinated between departments,” Sexton said. And though the department lacked specific resources dedicated to the effort, “we started a high-level strategic planning committee on sustainability, and we saw it as an opportunity to be more strategic,” he added.

The committee created an initiative – called Pathways to Decarbonizing Transportation – and began working with experts to create sustainability models and held a series of meetings around Minnesota to get public feedback. Out of that exercise, the Minnesota DOT developed incentives of up to $250 in toll credits for new electric vehicle buyers and planned a $2 million clean transportation funding pilot program.

The agency also created a Sustainable Transportation Advisory Council; an 18-member group of executives from the public, private, and non-profit sectors tasked with overseeing and evaluating Minnesota’s sustainability efforts and making recommendations to the Minnesota DOT.

While Minnesota focused on the user-end of the sustainability spectrum – reducing greenhouse gas emissions and promoting greener transportation modes being the main efforts – Arizona directed its efforts into its core functions.

“There are a number of different approaches to sustainability,” said Steven Olmsted, Arizona DOT’s National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA assignment manager. “If you look at the material from AASHTO, it runs the gamut. We’re still adding a lot of new highways because of our growth so it made sense to look at sustainability from that point of view.”

The Arizona DOT began partnering with construction groups and industry and “really tied the effort to design engineering, construction and maintenance,” Olmsted said. “We’ve also gotten into design guidance and scoping considerations.”

He noted that many sustainability efforts can be justified from an economic standpoint, “but it still remains that you must make a qualitative business case.

“At the end of the day, we are not going to spend ten times the cost of a unit just to be sustainable,” Olmsted explained. “We’ve tried to address the social pillar of what sustainability means in a [state] DOT. At the same time, there really has to be a business case.”

In a recent report filed by the Arizona DOT on its sustainability efforts, Olmsted and his staff noted that integrating such a program inside a state DOT is “a particularly complex undertaking” and “a daunting effort.”

“It’s not for the faint of heart; I guess I’m a glutton for punishment,” Olmsted noted. “But at some point, one person or a group of persons has to decide, ‘What’s the lowest hanging fruit where we can gain some traction?’ That’s how you get started.”

Minnesota DOT’s Sexton agreed that “there’s a ton of opportunities for states to take advantage of lowering emissions and saving money,” but he said the issue goes beyond dollars and cents. “We really view this as a crisis,” Sexton emphasized. “This is a scientific issue and a moral or even an existential issue. We want our kids to enjoy the wonderful things Minnesota has to offer. There’s a culture in Minnesota that is committed to our environment. For us, it’s not a political issue.”