Environmental News Highlights – November 18, 2020

A roundup of headlines curated for state transportation environmental professionals


AASHTO Transportation Policy Forum Maps out Post-Election Political Landscape – AASHTO Journal

USDOT Transition Team Unveiled by Incoming Biden-Harris Administration – AASHTO Journal

Infrastructure is key to Biden’s climate dreams – E&E News

Congressman Earl Blumenauer bullish on transportation under Biden – BikePortland

No One’s Riding Transit. So Why Did Voters Support It? – Wired (Commentary)


More Than Half of Americans Plan Thanksgiving Travel Despite Pandemic, TripAdvisor Says – WBTS-TV


Regional initiative targets transportation, climate change in underserved rural communities – Daily Hampshire Gazette

Vermont groups urge state to join regional climate/transportation plan – Vermont Business

America’s Forgotten Marine Highway Network That Could Green Global Freight Transport – Forbes

The ‘order of planning’ determines transit priorities. What if we inverted it to prioritize people? – GreenBiz (Commentary)


Mapping air pollution at the neighborhood level – Axios


Chicago’s Mayor Turns City’s Infrastructure Into Weapons Against Protesters – The Appeal (Commentary)


State shares framework for new surface water quality protections – Arizona Public Media

Toll-road plans fall short on wildlife protection, urban sprawl – Orlando Sentinel (Commentary)

Oil pipeline a step closer to approval in Minnesota – Courthouse News

Analysis: Mississippi pump proposal evokes strong reactions – Associated Press


AASHTO Releases Historic Bridge Preservation Guide – AASHTO

Redesigning Slow Streets to reflect community & culture in East Oakland – Smart Growth America (Blog)


Transportation council considers signing on to national bicycle route – KWCC-TV

Cecil Township Taking Pa. Turnpike Commission, Construction Company To Court Over Noise Complaints – KDKA-TV

Can Times Square ever be completely car-free? – 6sqft

Escooter startup Voi uses AI to detect pedestrians and sidewalks – VentureBeat

Northern Kentucky foundation establishes $3M ‘active transportation’ fund – WCPO-TV


State of the Industry Report on Air Quality Emissions from Sustainable Alternative Jet Fuels – ACRP

2021 TRB Annual Meeting: Spotlight Sessions Include Coronavirus (COVID-19), Equity, and the Future of Transportation – TRB

Unfold Podcast, Episode 8: Transitioning to Low-Carbon TransportationUC Davis

[Webinar] The New NEPA Regulations: A Practical Guide to What You Need to KnowJD Supra


Hazardous Materials: Notice of Applications for Modifications to Special Permit – Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (List of applications for modification of special permits)

Hazardous Materials: Notice of Applications for New Special Permits – Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (Notice of actions on special permit applications)

Proposed Information Collection Request; Comment Request; Survey of State Emergency Response Commissions (SERCs) EPA (Notice)

Forest Service Manual (FSM) 3800, Zero Code; State and Private Forestry Landscape Scale Restoration Program – Forest Service (Notice of availability for public comment)

Indefinite Delivery and Indefinite Quantity Contracts for Federal-Aid Construction – FHWA (Interim Final Rule; request for comments)

Jurisdiction in Alaska – National Park Service (Final rule)

Hazardous Materials: Information Collection Activities – Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (Notice and request for comments)

Noise Abatement Part 2: State DOTs Study New Noise Wall Options

State departments of transportation across of the country are looking at new and better ways to predict traffic noise levels, as well new materials for highway sound barriers, in order to reduce the overall cost of noise abatement efforts.

[Photo courtesy of the Missouri Department of Transportation.

This second of a two-part series on state DOT noise abatement strategies examines some of the research state DOTs are conducting to find more cost-effective and innovative designs and materials to mitigate the high levels of roadway noise: everything from using less expensive materials or smaller barriers to designing duel use barriers such as vegetation walls and solar panels.

Traditionally, sound wall barriers are pre-cast or cast-in-place concrete sections. However, several different types of materials have been in use since the beginning of sound barrier construction in the 1960s. The latest noise barrier inventory – maintained by the Federal Highway Administration –indicates barriers constructed with a single material make up 84% percent of all noise barriers. Furthermore: 

  • Concrete comprises 55 percent of those barriers.
  • Block represents 18 percent of those barriers.
  • Wood comprises 5 percent of those barriers.
  • Metal, berm, and brick together account for another 5 percent of single material barriers.
  • “Other” materials comprise the final 1 percent of those barriers, including acrylic, composite, fiberglass, glass, opaque plastic, and transparent plastic.

There are noise walls designed with absorptive material to absorb sound, but the majority are built to deflect sound. Barrier analysis and design must meet the requirements of federal regulation 23 CFR 772 for all federally funded projects.

The Ohio Department of Transportation is in the start-up phase of a research project expected to begin January 2021 to look at the effectiveness of vinyl fence as a noise barrier as opposed to the now-standard concrete barriers.  The project involves constructing two 8-foot tall vinyl fences at two different locations, testing them for noise reductions, and comparing the reductions to nearby concrete noise walls.

Graphic courtesy of the California Department of Transportation

The Ohio DOT plans to use readily available vinyl fence materials that already have specifications available – indeed, one type of fence earmarked for testing is available at the local Home Depot.

Noel Alcala, the noise and air quality coordinator at the Ohio Department of Transportation and noise workgroup coordinator on behalf of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, explained in an interview that while vinyl is a lot less durable overall than concrete, it is “a lot less expensive and we have an indication that the noise reduction will be very noticeable.”

The Ohio DOT is also studying the feasibility of using vegetation growing on noise walls as both a sound absorber and an air quality improvement and plans to complete a report on that effort by the end of 2020. That effort – based on research conducted in 2010 – looked at a 400-foot long section of “green noise wall.” That wall consisted of a 12-foot-high section of stacked, 70-pound bags sprouting plants and grass as a way to muffle highway sound.

Trees and shrubs can decrease highway-traffic noise levels if high enough, wide enough, and dense enough, but it would take at least 100 feet of dense vegetation to provide the same benefit as the smallest feasible noise wall. Because of this, the FHWA has not approved using vegetation for noise abatement. 

However, future studies could show more innovative choices will result in higher levels of noise absorption. For instance, environmentally friendly and sustainable bamboo growth may provide the needed noise level abatement to meet FHWA requirements. One feasibility study presented at the 2016 International Congress and Exposition on Noise Control Engineering indicated that the noise-reducing effect of a bamboo barrier with a height of 5 meters (roughly 16 feet) and a thickness of 6 meters (nearly 20-feet) is roughly comparable to a 3-meter (nearly 10-foot) high solid noise wall.

Some states are looking to try new noise barriers with a dual purpose. In 2018, for example, the Minnesota Department of Transportation completed a literature review, Harnessing Solar Energy through Noise Barriers and Structural Snow Fencing, on the topic.

That study found that sound barriers equipped with solar panels are used successfully in Europe, though there are no current in-place solar panel noise barriers in the United States. However, two states, Massachusetts and Georgia, are currently working with partners to pursue pilot studies using solar panels built into sound walls so they can produce renewable energy without compromising their abilities to reduce noise – and do so safely. Given the number of miles of sound barrier currently constructed in the United States – over 3,000 miles total – the study found the potential for energy production could be at least 400 Gigawatt hours annually, roughly equivalent to the annual electricity use of 37,000 homes.

The California Department of Transportation is also looking at innovative designs to save money on noise abatement construction.

Currently, Caltrans is exploring the feasibility and effectiveness of lower height barriers and berms. Its latest research suggests that at freeway speed, most all light-vehicle noise is at the tire/pavement interface — literally at the zero-foot level. Meanwhile, on most heavy trucks — even with tall exhaust stacks – most noise is below 3.3-foot level.

That means shorter less-expensive noise barriers would help attenuate noise. A low vehicle noise source also means a short (4-foot) solid-concrete safety-barrier could provide noticeable noise mitigation if positioned correctly in the road cross-section. Shorter barriers mean lower overall costs. State transportation agencies across the United States are making strides to protect the public from high levels of traffic noise. Click here for a list of current state DOT noise reduction projects.

Florida DOT Gearing Up for Statewide EV Adoption

Although Florida trails other big states in government support for electric vehicle infrastructure, the Florida Department of Transportation is now taking a lead role in building out an EV recharging network, according to a new report.

[Photo courtesy of the Florida Governor’s Office.]

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and Atlas Public Policy recently published “Transportation Electrification in Florida,” a brief that makes the case that Florida’s government has not kept pace with its own citizens in transitioning to EV transportation. Floridians purchase 4 percent of all EVs in the country, but Florida’s government only spent $23.3 million on EV infrastructure, representing about 1 percent of all states’ spending, according to the report.

This has put Florida is in a “really unique situation” because it is second in the country in EV sales and number of chargers, but only 18th in per-capita sales and 30th in per capita chargers, according to Stan Cross, Electric Transportation Policy Director for SACE.

“What that means is that Florida runs the risk in getting behind in charging really quickly,” Cross said. “If numbers [of EV buyers] go up quickly, Florida can’t keep up.”

However, the Florida DOT is not only playing catch up, it is working to get ahead of the curve with a stated goal to “position Florida as a national leader in EV adoption and infrastructure,” according to a presentation to other agencies and stakeholders.

As a result, the agency is developing an EV charging infrastructure master plan for the state and preparing legislative initiatives to encourage even more EV usage. These actions were the result of the new Florida Essential Infrastructure Law that puts the Florida DOT and other state agencies in the EV business.

Right now, the agency is modeling location criteria for EV charging sites, formulating an implementation strategy, and forecasting future EV usage and its impact to the state’s Transportation Trust Fund – largely fueled by gasoline and diesel taxes. Florida DOT’s effort is comprehensive, including support of EV transit and school bus fleets and integration with hurricane and disaster evacuation plans.

“The [Florida] DOT is thinking through what some of the policy implications are for moving the needle, the principles that should drive the state’s thinking on this,” Cross said. “[They] have a lot to figure out, and they’ve put many of the right policy recommendations on the table.”

In a recent blog, Cross noted that many of the policies the Florida DOT is studying “are aligned with policy considerations being implemented successfully” in other states, including promoting EV usage throughout the state, supporting rural infrastructure development and study incentives to potential EV buyers and to utility companies to help build charging stations. Most of Florida DOT’s work is in the planning stages as it prepares to issue a status report with preliminary recommendations to the governor by December 1.