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.
“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.”