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.”

Can Highway Construction Achieve “Net Zero” Carbon Emissions?

What does it mean to be “net zero” in the transportation world today?  When talking about carbon emissions, it refers to achieving an overall balance between emissions produced and emissions taken out of the atmosphere.

For example, the building industry has been working toward “net zero” infrastructure for years.  According to the World Green Building Council, buildings are currently responsible for 39 percent of global energy-related carbon emissions: with 28 percent coming from operational emissions – from the energy needed to heat, cool, and power the structures – and the remaining 11 percent from materials and construction. 

Though highway roads and structures do not have the same level of operating emissions as a building, “embodied” carbon from the construction process significantly adds to transportation’s carbon footprint. Embodied carbon is the carbon footprint of a material. It considers how many greenhouse gases (GHGs) are released throughout the supply chain. This includes the extraction of materials from the ground, transport, refining, processing, assembly, in-use and finally its end of life recycling of disposal.  

The building industry now believes that embodied carbon in projects can be reduced 10 percent to 20 percent without increasing capital costs. One new study out of Sweden believes net-zero carbon emissions in construction supply chains can be reached by 2045.

Photo courtesy Hawaii DOT

But what exactly does this mean for highway and bridge construction? Many believe that policy is the starting point for significant reductions in carbon in highway projects. Globally, many countries are already requiring “net zero” infrastructure design. In Sweden, for instance, large transport infrastructure projects (roads, rail, tunnels) are required to calculate and report embodied carbon and monetary incentives awarded if embodied carbon is below a specified target. 

Some state departments of transportation are already working toward similar goals. For example, the Hawaii Department of Transportation started a testing project in 2019 using a concrete mix injected with waste carbon dioxide (CO2). The CO2 is mixed into the concrete using CarbonCure technology. The resulting product traps carbon dioxide in mineral form within the concrete and improves the comprehensive strength of the material. 

The test project involves a pour of 150 cubic yards of carbon-injected concrete next to an equivalent pour of standard concrete mix on an access road for the Kapolei Interchange. This test will allow the Hawaii DOT to do a side-by-side comparison of the carbon reducing mix versus a standard mix to determine specifications for the use of carbon-injected concrete for road projects in the future.

“We’ve seen the benefits to CO2 mineralized concrete and will be using it when appropriate in Hawaii’s road and bridge projects,” explained Ed Sniffen, Hawaii DOT’s deputy director for highways. “The availability of environmentally friendly materials such as carbon injected concrete is necessary for us to move forward in reducing the carbon footprint of our construction projects.” 

In an interview with Smart Cities Dive, Sniffen added that the carbon-injected material has turned out to be stronger and more workable, with no increase in cost over traditional concrete. “The overall carbon savings is significant,” he said. “We reduce it overall about 1,500 pounds into the environment. Now, that doesn’t sound like a lot, but really, that equals up to one car driving 1,600 miles continuously. So, it builds up quite a bit.”

How can such “embodied” carbon in highway construction be reduced? In general, highway designers can use Life Cycle Analysis based tools to determine the environmental footprint of a whole project and search for ways to reduce life cycle GHG emissions and other impacts through strategies such as:

  • Ensuring efficient use of materials (i.e. “right-sizing”)
  • Selecting materials with more efficient manufacturing processes
  • Minimizing transportation impacts through use of local materials
  • Using robust materials that require less maintenance, repair, and refurbishment
  • Choosing materials that can be reused or recycled instead of landfilled

Although there may be a learning curve and increased costs initially to incorporate embodied carbon reduction into construction decisions, it appears that the incremental costs of incorporating this analysis is comparatively small for the potential benefit it could provide. Complicated decisions and life cycle analysis must be done from the planning phase of the project through design and construction to significantly reduce embodied carbon and hit the “net zero” goal. In the future, these efforts will be driven by government policy and environmental stewardship of firms and contractors. It is inevitable that the wave of “net zero” goals in the building industry will continue to transition into the highway industry as well.

Report Focuses on Integrating ‘Tribal Expertise’ into Transportation Projects

The Transportation Research Board recently issued a National Cooperative Highway Research Program report that explores how “unique tribal perspectives and expertise” could boost tribal engagement in a variety of surface transportation projects.

Additional resources for this report – entitled NCHRP Web-Only Document 281: Integrating Tribal Expertise into Processes to Identify, Evaluate, and Record Cultural Resources – include a Quick-Reference Guide and a PowerPoint Presentation.

This NCHRP report concluded that – from the tribal perspective — state agencies need to make sure to reach out to tribes to learn what their research questions and interests may be and bring these into the research design for a project, as part of thoughtful, collaborative research.

In addition, state agencies need to be willing to work with tribes and have productive conversations, including the ability to switch easily between scientific jargon and standard language to build understanding.

One tribe interviewed for this research report noted that sometimes there are differences in perspective – something both parties, tribes as well as state agencies, need to overcome.

“It is important to talk through any challenges,” the tribe noted in its response. “The bottom line is that sustained communication leads to effective consultation and in turn to collaboration.”

This NCHRP follows several initiatives at both the federal and state level to improve the integration of tribal needs within the planning process for surface transportation projects.

Photo courtesy Arizona DOT

For example, in October 2019, the U.S. Department of Transportation proffered a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that aims to establish a tribal transportation self-governance program – the result of what the agency is calling a “successful three-year negotiated consensus rulemaking process” between representatives of North American Indian tribes, USDOT, and the Department of the Interior.

USDOT added that “among the many benefits” of the proposed self-governance program is streamlining transportation funding distribution to North American Indian tribes – creating a “less onerous” regulatory framework while promoting greater self-sufficiency among tribal governments.

State governments are engaged in similar efforts. In December 2019, the Georgia Department of Transportation signed a new consolatory agreement with the Federal Highway Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the Georgia State Historic Preservation Office, and the state’s 20 federally recognized Native American Indian Tribes.

That agreement establishes a framework for approving all types transportation projects throughout the state – from widening highways to the location of new bypasses – while protecting ancestral tribal lands.

AASHTO Releases Earth Day Video

In recognition of the Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials is releasing a two-part series entitled Recycling, Transportation and You.

Produced by Transportation TV, this series highlights how state departments of transportation play a major role in recycling asphalt pavement – long considered to be the most recycled product in America – as well as how old tires are broken down into small chunks and reused to make new asphalt pavement.

The series also examines the impact everyday Americans have on the volume of trash produced by the nation. Did you know that the average American throws away roughly five pounds of garbage each day? That adds up to 139 million tons of trash dumped into landfills every year.

Thus, this video series also includes recycling information for the general public in terms of bringing those numbers down.

Environmental News Highlights – April 22, 2020

A roundup of headlines curated for state transportation environmental professionals

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‘Hole in the data’: Coronavirus fight puts environmental fieldwork on hold – StarTribune

Federal Judge Prohibits Use of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Nationwide Permit 12 for Utility and Pipeline Projects – National Law Review

Integrating Tribal Expertise into Processes to Identify, Evaluate, and Record Cultural Resources – National Cooperative Highway Research Program (Report Announcement)


Water quality could change in buildings closed down during COVID-19 pandemic, engineers say – Purdue University

COVID-19 Draining The Highway Trust FundYahoo Finance

Detroit’s poor air quality could be worsening the city’s COVID-19 outbreak – WJBK

How COVID-19 will redesign urban mobility – GreenBiz

How the COVID-19 pandemic is changing the face of transportation in cities – Tech Republic

Waze Community Deploys Data To Aid The Global Fight Against COVID-19 – Forbes

Businesses, groups call on INDOT to stop planning highway project during coronavirus pandemic – Indianapolis Star

New Data Show Air Pollution Drop Around 50 Percent In Some Cities During Coronavirus Lockdown – Forbes

Coronavirus lockdown gives animals rare break from noise pollution – Deutsche Welle

How One Mobility Innovator Is Supporting Cities And Envisioning The Post-Coronavirus Future – Forbes

Wary of public transport, coronavirus-hit Americans turn to bikes – Reuters

Coronavirus lockdowns have sent pollution plummeting. Environmentalists worry about what comes next.NBC News

The Pandemic Could Be an Opportunity to Remake Cities – Wired


Vice Chair Appointed for AASHTO Water CouncilAASHTO Journal

County approves NFM water quality project – North Fort Myers Neighbor


Weakening environmental reviews for transportation infrastructure is a bridge too far – Brookings (Commentary)

Get Ready for More, Longer Blackouts – Bloomberg Green (Limited access, Subscription Required)

Summertime Heat to Florida’s Early Spring – Bloomberg Green (Limited access, Subscription Required)

Why Can’t We Build Infrastructure Cheaply, Quickly and Well?Governing (Opinion)

TRB Webinar: Greener in many ways: Environmentally sustainable funding and financing – Transportation Research Board

As Other Carmakers Retrench, Volvo’s Battery Lab Plugs Away – Wired


EPA retains Obama-era air quality standards despite staff questions of adequacy – The Hill

How will reduced activity affect air quality and the environment? – Johns Hopkins University

NC State professor says more people will die if air quality standards left unchanged – North Carolina Health News

Shell Sets Bolder Emissions Goal Even as Virus Hits OilBloomberg

Agriculture’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks – Farm Bureau

New Website Will Help Steer the U.S. Away From Fossil Fuels – Columbia University

California Cities Install EV Chargers as Symbol of Future – Governing

City Planning $5.25 Million Solar Farm At Moccasin Bend Sewage Treatment Plant – Daily Chattanoogan

Funds from Regional Clean-Energy Initiative to Electrify NJ’s Transportation SectorNJ Spotlight


Traffic noise reduces bats’ ability to feed – The Guardian

FAA Supersonic Proposal Draws Environmentalist Ire – AINonline

As Online Buying Surges, So Do Noisy Cargo Flights – The New York Times (subscription required)

What’s that annoying buzz? PennDOT considers daytime construction after noise complaints –


An infrastructure stimulus will make America more resilient, if we get it right – Environmental Defense Fund (blog)

Highway Users urges Congress to invest in infrastructure in next stimulus package -Transportation Today

Gazette opinion: Now’s the time to rebuild and re-employBillings Gazette


Environmental Justice Inseparable from Economic Justice – TAP into Bloomfield (Press release)

4 Principles for Environmental Justice: Lessons from Hawai‘I – Nonprofit Quarterly

Recent & Recommended Books on Environmental Justice – The Washington Informer

50 Years On, Earth Day’s Legal Legacy Looms Large – Earthjustice

EPA Pandemic Enforcement Policy Draws Environmental Lawsuit – Bloomberg Green (Limited access, Subscription Required)


Boaters still required to stop at aquatic invasive species inspection stations – KTVZ

Controlling Invasives: States urge residents to help stop spread of invasive speciesGreatLakesNow


Public transit’s “road to recovery” could include more ridesharing partnerships says DePaul study – Mass Transit

An “Under-21” position is open on the state’s Bike/Ped Advisory Committee – Oregon DOT

Bike Walk Savannah giving free bikes to essential workers left without transportationWSAV-TV

Companies Pull Scooters from Atlanta After City Order – Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Helsinki smart mobility pilots deemed a success – Intelligent Transport

Active transportation plan coming to Sandy and Draper – Sandy Journal

Santa Barbara City Council supports grant applications for safety improvement projects – Santa Barbara News-Press

Madison traffic lanes to close to help cyclists and pedestrians keep social distance – WKOW

Philly should close streets to cars, open space for social distancing, advocates say WHYY

Anyone Feel Like Saving Electric Scooters? – CityLab

Lime reactivates scooter fleets around the world – Intelligent Transport


Garbage Pickups Tell a Tale of Two Cities, With Part of Manhattan Shrinking – The City

Building a circular economy: five key concepts – National Geographic

Murphy signs bill to boost food waste recycling in New Jersey – NJBIZ

Plastics Had Been Falling Out of Favor. Then Came the Virus – Bloomberg Green (Limited access, Subscription Required)