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When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Denise Rigney and Dominique Lueckenhoff convened a meeting in 2002 with officials from the Federal Highway Administration, state transportation departments, highway construction advocates and a few private firms, there was some wariness. “There were a few folks leery about whether this will [lead to] regulation,” says Rigney. Not so: “We are looking for solutions across the universe of transportation activities” to achieve greener highways, says Lueckenhoff. Both women in EPA’s Region 3 office in Philadelphia are charged with protecting watersheds.

Century West Engineering
Century West Engineering
Port of Portland built lot with porous asphalt to prevent runoff.

That was the start of the Green Highways Partnership, a fledgling mid-Atlantic regional effort to benchmark practices and projects. The ultimate goal is to leave a net-positive impact from highway construction—environmentally, socially and economically.

FHWA and the Maryland state highway administration are key partners in the initiative, which includes research teams and pilot projects on recycled road materials, conservation and ecosystem protection, as well as watershed-driven stormwater management. “We need more partners with contractors and builders,” says Rigney. “I think there is a lot to learn from people who have been building highways forever. We all have our goals, but many overlap now.” Lueckenhoff adds, however, “There is still a lot to be done in gaining trust.”

But with the recent flurry of public discussion about global warming, the transportation world is waking up fast, says Hal Kassoff, senior vice president with Parsons Brinckerhoff, New York City, and a member of GHP. “We’ve gone within six months from denial of global warming to coming together.”

Where once the very idea of a sustainable highway seemed an oxymoron, transportation officials now are doing what they can to offset the inevitable auto emissions on highways with better stormwater management, recycled pavement, enhanced wetlands replacements and other methods.

The need to go above and beyond what highway builders are already doing was made clear last month at a Transportation Research Board conference session in Washington, D.C. Said FHWA air-quality team leader Michael Savonis: “Climate is not a factor in many transportation plans, but that’s changing.”

A preliminary federal report on climate change and the Gulf Coast warns that sea levels could rise by 4 ft within the next century—permanently submerging a quarter of all arterial roads, 72% of all freight facilities, 50% of all pipelines and eight airports, he added.

Highway constructors have not been oblivious to the problem, moving on  environmental efforts such as retrofitting equipment. But in traditional design-bid-build projects, contractors say they follow environmentally friendly specifications because they must.

“Often, environmentally friendlier materials and techniques cost more,” notes Michael Lembo, senior vice president with the New York City office of Skanska USA Civil. Design-build or public-private partnership projects based on value and flexibility can be useful in reflecting extra costs of environmental efforts. “In the end, you [as a contractor] hope that you get credit for being smart enough to recognize these materials,” he adds.

Utah DOT
Pat Jeffers/EPA
Cooperation with environmental groups was required for Utah’s parkway plan (above). Future green roads may arise out of an organic process.

The tide is only recently turning from green efforts by owners and industry born out of necessity—to deal with lawsuits that delay projects, for example—to those born from proactive awareness, as evidenced by the creation of GHP. Learning to be truly “context-sensitive” has often been a tough road. After five years of being sued, the Utah Dept. of Transportation forged a deal with the Sierra Club to create wetlands, add noise-reducing pavement and do a transit study so that the Legacy Parkway, a $685-million, 14-mile route, could be built.

Another example is the planned 18-mile, $2.4-billion Intercounty Connector in  Maryland. The limited-access, east-west highway between Interstates 270 and 95 would cross a number of sensitive streams and failed twice to receive environmental permits, says Neil Pederson, state highway administrator. “The only way we could ever get approval from environmental agencies would be to go beyond just mitigation and direct impacts and try to look at what we could do for environmental enhancement,” he says.

With prodigious efforts—including replacing every one acre of affected parkland with eight new acres and designing longer-span bridges to span wetlands—the agency now has the first major design-build contract in procurement and expects a notice to proceed in spring. “Our expectation is that the design-build team is going to have a strong number of environmental subcontractors and staff,” Pederson says.

Moreover, as part of the GHP effort, the state plans to hold a charrette this year in conjunction with U.S. EPA for the planned upgrade of Route 301, which connects the state with Delaware and Virginia. “We’ll be carrying the concept of joint green infrastructure planning further than we’ve ever done before,” says Pederson.

Raja Veeramachaneni, director of planning and preliminary engineering for Maryland’s state highway department, says, “We are trying to go beyond compliance...and push our own limits” by working side by side with environmental officials. Veeramachaneni’s goal is to exceed conventional approaches to stormwater management that focus only on points of discharges within a road’s right-of-way. “We’re still thinking about sustainability in an isolated format, not in a watershed or partnership context,” he says. A $1-million federal grant to study cleanup of the Anacostia River, however, will embrace that context and examine low-impact development designs for future roads and buildings.


In the eco-conscious Northwest, porous concrete or asphalt is gaining recognition as a tool for stormwater management. Late last year, crews completed one of the largest applications of porous asphalt  to date—36 acres for a Port of Portland terminal lot. Officials say the $6.4-million project is garnering industry interest for its sustainable implications.

The 3-in. pavement is built over a non-compacted subgrade that is topped with geotextile fabric and a 10-in. layer of aggregate. Voids comprise 40% of the  aggregate layer, containing stormwater on site rather than discharging it into nearby streams, says W. Matt Rogers, engineer with Century West Engineering, Portland. The project also uses rain gardens and swales for buffering and stormwater containment. The features allowed the lot to begin operations without stormwater permits.

Robin Rogers, sustainability adviser for Portland-based engineer Otak Inc., says strategies need to go even further. “Fundamentally, engineers and architects do look at sustainability. Historically, they’ve had to,” she says. “But in the past many of the projects tended to be silos of information. We now look at projects on a holistic basis, with all the elements and all the stakeholders.”

Port of Seattle
Seattle airport job was example of green efforts.

That new paradigm also is evident at airports. Vigorous efforts on construction sites, such as on Seattle-Tacoma International Airport’s new runway, are just the beginning. Airport planners are taking a holistic look at an airport as a sustainable city. Carol Lurie, senior planner with Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Watertown, Mass., says airport consultants are looking at Chicago’s new O’Hare construction manual  with hopes of broadening it to include alternative energy sources for airport operations, HOV lanes on roads and transit connections.

Michael Repogle, transportation director for Environmental Defense,  New York City, is concerned that the emerging trend of public-private partnerships for highway projects could do more harm than good for the cause, since concessionaires might choose not to engage all stakeholders in the process. One antidote is to create PPP contracts that include mandatory environmental specs.

“There’s an opportunity in creating well-wrought PPP agreements to surpass environmental performance we get out of publicly managed projects,” he says.

There should also be more emphasis on managing and optimizing infrastructure, not just expanding it, he adds. As green as the Intercounty Connector may end up being, he says it would be even greener to develop managed toll lanes and bus rapid transit. “We could have saved 7% in green gas emissions by 2030,” he says.

The road—or airport or port—must be viewed as part of a larger land-use plan. “How do we change transportation behavior?” asks David Taylor, national director of transportation sustainability for HDR Inc., Omaha. “Solutions will be built around livable communities and multimodal transportation sources,” he says. The increasing emphasis on these solutions within construction projects means that “40% of our own employees are now in nontraditional engineering roles,” he notes. “It’s not just ‘I have to create a new bridge.’ It’s about creating a new culture.”

special theme issue:
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  2. View a Time Line of Environmental Twists and Turns, from 1938 to 2007 (1.7MB)

  3. Report Lights Fires Globally on Need To Slow Climate Change

  4. Politicians, Builder Groups Jump on the Green-Building Bandwagon

  5. Climate Shifts Have Engineers Rethinking Baseline of Planning

  6. Designers Look To Nature To Render Buildings in Harmony with Earth

  7. Companies Often Go Green To Reap Financial Rewards

  8. Officials Begin To Ask Just How Green a Highway Can Be

  9. Educators Issue Call for Green Programs That Cross Disciplines

  10. Coming Carbon Constraints Spur Powerplant-Emission Cleanups

  11. Eco-Friendly Engine Pioneers Search for Sources of Clean Power

  12. Big Zero-Carbon Project Planned in U.K.

  13. Template for Green Cities Nears in Asia

  14. An Agitated Port Official Pushes for Collaboration

  15. Human Role in Climate Change Is 90% Certain

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  18. Barometer of Change at NOAA
  19. In Search of the Zero-Energy Holy Grail
  20. Green Building Council Hones Rating System