NOAA Research Grants Include Surface Transportation Focus

The National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science – a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – recently issued a notice of funding opportunity for the fiscal year 2021 Effects of Sea Level Rise (ESLR) program; one with two surface transportation focal points.

The ESLR Program is soliciting proposals to evaluate and quantify the ability of natural and nature-based features to mitigate the effects of sea level rise and inundation – including storm surge, nuisance flooding, and/or wave actions. The NOFO focused on two areas: coastal resilience and surface transportation resilience.

It aims to support research to inform adaptation planning and coastal management decisions in response to sea-level rise and coastal inundation via the advancement of models of physical and biological processes capable of evaluating vulnerability and resilience under multiple sea-level rise, inundation, and management scenarios, including evaluation of nature-based solutions. A letter of intent is required prior to submission of a full proposal and those letters are due to NOAA by October 16. For additional information, visit the ESLR website.

CES to Hold Five Annual Meeting Sessions in October

The 2020 annual meeting of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Committee on Environment & Sustainability will take place over five virtual sessions in October.

To register for these free meeting sessions please click here.

CES monitors national trends, promotes research on significant environmental issues, and acts as a forum to disseminate and exchange information and experiences among state departments of transportation and various other AASHTO committees and subcommittees, including the sharing of best practices and other innovations. CES also monitors federal environmental laws, regulations, procedures, and guidance related to air quality, cultural resources, environmental processes, and natural systems and ecological communities; recommending and supporting programs and initiatives to streamline the environmental review process and promote environmental stewardship.

[Above photo courtesy of Missouri DOT.]

In Addressing Climate Change, State DOTs Change Approach

Climate change and the swirling air of unpredictability around its effects are creating new challenges for transportation officials: dealing with damage from extreme storms that can plague the Midwest, the rise of coastal sea levels, and increased wildfire activity in the southwest.

A detailed understanding of climate threats has become essential when constructing a safe, sustainable transportation system. To that end, the Washington State Department of Transportation completed several studies on the subject, including the Climate Impacts Vulnerability Assessment Reportand theClimate Change and Innovative Stormwater Control,which help the department analyze risks and address potential hazards.

Carol Lee Roalkvam, WSDOT’s environmental policy branch manager, noted that her department initially addressed the matter of climate change in 2011 by “conducting a statewide vulnerability assessment for all of our assets, with help from the FHWA [the Federal Highway Administration]. We have relied on that assessment since concerning climate-related threats or vulnerability.”

Photo courtesy WSDOT

She highlighted one large project that included extreme weather considerations: State Route 520, a 13-mile highway that connects Seattle to Redmond and includes the new Evergreen Point Floating Bridge; the longest floating bridge in the world. That bridge, which opened in April 2016, is built to withstand sustained winds of up to 89 mph. “We used the best available science to brace for changes projected for the future,” Roalkvam said of the construction.

Another example is WSDOT’s Fish Passage Barrier Correction Program. To date, the department has completed 345 fish passage barrier corrections, allowing access to approximately 1,155 miles of potential upstream habitat for fish. Eventually, it will guide the replacement of hundreds of small culverts to provide more access to fish attempting to reach habitat. The new fish-friendly culverts are designed to realign and restore stream channels for fish migration while simultaneously providing more resilient water crossings.

Another concern at WSDOT is the issue of sea level rise and its impact on ferry terminals and coastal highways. At the Mukilteo Multimodal Terminal Project, in the town of Mukilteo, the department projected sea level rise out to the year 2100, with the project team also examining the impact of upland stormwater runoff. Examining saltwater and freshwater flooding risks during the lifespan of the terminal were part of the planning.

 There are similar concerns in Utah, where the Utah Department of Transportation just released information concerning a variety of projects that are being built with addressing climate change in mind. The two largest are the U.S. 89 Farmington to I-84 – a $489 million projectthat encompasses converting a 9.5-mile section of U.S. 89 to a freeway by widening the road to three lanes in each direction – and the Bangerter Highway Three Interchanges; a $222 million project that calls for the replacement of existing intersections with freeway-style interchanges along the highway at three new locations.

“We always take into account extreme weather conditions when designing and building our road construction projects,” explained John Gleason, a Utah DOT spokesperson. “In Utah, we see it all: blizzards, ice, flooding, mudslides, and scorching summer heat. We have to use durable and sustainable materials and design our projects to stand up to the elements.”

WSDOT’s Roalkvam thinks planning for such events has been taken to a new level, as she “definitely” sees “an increased understanding among her agency’s technical employees and planners of how their work can influence long-term transportation system resilience, especially related to climate change.”

Hearing Out the [Entire] Community to do it Justice

Imagine a massive highway project in a highly populated area that calls for the removal of several clusters of homes. Or the closing of a community gathering spot or other popular open space.

Such happenstances often require the overview and input of a state’s environmental justice program. They set policy and require that the road’s builders convene with the community to learn more about the impact that not only the finished project, but its construction, will have on the daily lives of local residents.

“In these cases, you have to initially look at what the state department of transportation is trying to achieve,” explained Rashaud Joseph, civil rights office director for the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities. “Where environmental justice programs come into play are with projects that have to do with the holding of public outreach meetings.”

The key in these circumstances is gaining input from the voices of in community, particularly from those who may seem less involved.

Courtesy Alaska DOT&PF

“I try to get across to [the road’s builders] that Alaska DOT&PF has to hold extensive public outreach, so it’s important to let people know where meetings are held and at what time,” he pointed out. “If you’re in a low-income area and have kids to take care of, the DOT in whichever state can’t have the meetings at 10 a.m. and at 4 p.m. on a Tuesday ― in other words, when everyone is at work. That shuts people out.”

Another part of an environmental justice analysis concerns what perhaps unforeseen impact a project has on the community.

“While construction of walkways is required by law, one part of that construction might cut off bus access on a given road that, in turn, requires riders to walk to another stop that’s harder to reach for low-income citizens or those with disabilities,” Joseph said.

That’s part of the reason these programs are tied-in nationally with most environmental departments. “We cross-reference their information,” he added.

Oklahoma is notable for its demographic of Native American citizens. To recognize this diversity, the Oklahoma Department of Transportation implemented procedures throughout the planning, design, and National Environmental Policy Act or NEPA process to ensure “that social impacts to communities and people are recognized early and continually throughout the transportation decision-making process,” said Leslie Novotny, the agency’s environmental project supervisor.

That process at the Oklahoma DOT, she added, includes early identification of minority and low-income populations during reconnaissance studies.

“Projects that affect the community more socially, economically and environmentally, such as a new alignment, will be accessed accordingly; and a plan of action best suited to serve the affected community will be created early on in the planning and design process,” noted Novotny.

That can include mail-out questionnaires, pop-up public involvement booths, and one-on-one meetings with community leaders.

She stressed that projects that may have a lesser impact on the community, such as a road or bridge closure, still require public outreach to ensure the Oklahoma DOT is not adversely affecting vulnerable populations.

The time of year of the projects can even come into play. “These situations are interesting since we only have winter and summer,” Alaska DOT&PF’s Joseph said. “We only have about five months to get our construction projects done, so we always have to see if we have any outlaying issues to examine.” “[The Anchorage] metro area isn’t so big that we have such pronounced issues. We have room out here, so generally, our citizens aren’t opposed to any transportation improvements,” he pointed out.

E-Bike Rule Proposed for National Parks

To increase recreational use on public lands, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed on April 2 a new set of regulations governing the use of electric bicycles or e-bikes within the National Wildlife Refuge System – a move that supports two directives issued by the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Secretary’s Order 3366 to increase recreational opportunities on public lands and Secretary’s Order 3376 directing Department of the Interior bureaus to obtain public input on e-bike use.

The proposed rule also closely follows e-bike policy established by Director’s Order 222 in October 2019 that allows refuge managers to consider the use of e-bikes on any refuge roads and trails where traditional bicycle use is allowed, provided it is consistent with a refuge’s statutory purpose and the refuge manager determines it to be a compatible use.

The agency noted in a statement that the proposed rule defines permitted e-bikes as ‘two- or three-wheeled vehicles with fully operable pedals and a small electric motor of one horsepower or less.”

However, neither traditional bicycles nor e-bikes are allowed in designated wilderness areas and may not be appropriate for back-country trails, USFW added – noting that the focus of this guidance is on expanding the traditional bicycling experience to those who enjoy the reduction of effort provided by this new technology.

The USFW added that a majority of states – listed here – have adopted e-bike policies, with most following model legislation that allows for three classes of e-bikes to have access to bicycle trails.

Sustainability: 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?

DOTs in at least two states – Arizona and Minnesota – have been addressing sustainability issues for a few years now, but each is taking a different approach to altering traditional transportation activities’ impact on the environment.

“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 DOT.

A Minnesota state law – The Next Generation Energy Act – put the onus on the MnDOT 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. 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.”

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

MnDOT 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 MnDOT. Its first meeting is scheduled for March 2020.

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

“There are a number of different approaches to sustainability” said Steven Olmsted, Arizona DOT’s 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.”

ADOT 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.”

Olmsted said 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,” he said “We’ve tried to address the social pillar of what sustainability means in a DOT. At the same time, there really has to be a business case.”

In a recent report ADOT filed on its sustainability efforts, Olmsted and his staff noted that integrating such a program inside a 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 said. “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.”

Sexton with MnDOT 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 said. “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.”

Two DOTs Take Differing Approaches to Sustainability

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?

DOTs in at least two states – Arizona and Minnesota – have been addressing sustainability issues for a few years now, but each is taking a different approach to altering traditional transportation activities’ impact on the environment.

“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 DOT.

A Minnesota state law – The Next Generation Energy Act – put the onus on the MnDOT 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. 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.”

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

MnDOT 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 MnDOT. Its first meeting is scheduled for March 2020.

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

“There are a number of different approaches to sustainability,” said Steven Olmsted, Arizona DOT’s 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.”

ADOT 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.”

Olmsted said 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,” he said “We’ve tried to address the social pillar of what sustainability means in a DOT. At the same time, there really has to be a business case.”

In a recent report ADOT filed on its sustainability efforts, Olmsted and his staff noted that integrating such a program inside a 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 said. “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.”

Sexton with MnDOT 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 said. “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.”