DOT Peace Plan Brings Harmony to Feuding Interests

Fri February 20, 2004 - Southeast Edition
Giles Lambertson

Department of Transportation (DOT) officials in North and South Carolina are changing the way they build highways. The goal is happier highway users.

That might sound sappy, but public satisfaction is at least half the reason for the overhaul of the old way of doing business. The rest of it has to do with being responsive to environmental concerns.

The change in thinking dates to 1997 when Federal Highway Administration officials responded to Congress. Specifically, the word from Capitol Hill was that the nation needs safe and uncongested roads at the same time it preserves and protects natural –– as well as human –– values.

“The challenge to the highway design community is to find design solutions, as well as operational options, that result in full consideration of these sometimes conflicting objectives,” said Jane Garvey, acting administrator of the federal highway agency.

Highway officials believe they have found a way to harmonize the two goals using a process called “context sensitive solutions” or CSS.

“We’ve done a lot of this in the past, but it was never called CSS,” said Wayne Hall, assistant environmental manager of the South Carolina Department of Transportation (SCDOT).

Environmental awareness indeed isn’t new. Engineers and designers long have been required to consider the impact of their projects on people and nature.

“When we are developing transportation projects, we are required to evaluate the impact on the environment. But under CSS, it will be a more proactive approach,” Hall said. “It is a totally different way of looking at things. Now it’s not what we have to do, but what we can do.”

The goal of CSS in highway construction might be boiled down to this: Build structures that are functional and safe, do no harm to the environment and make people happy.

The happiness component probably is the most radical one. It is a sharp departure from the stereotype of state highway bureaucrats bulldozing their way past public objections to get where they want to go.

Jim Kellenberger is a thorough convert to this new way of thinking.

Kellenberger is training administrator for the Division of Highways in the North Carolina DOT.

To illustrate the beauty of CSS, he tells a story of a context sensitive solution to a small bridge project.

An old structure crossing Grassy Creek in northwest North Carolina needed replacement. DOT designers examined the site, went back to their drafting offices and came up with a standard pre-cast concrete one-span structure.

A contingent of DOT officials then took the plan to a public hearing in an historic old church in the neighborhood of Grassy Creek. Some 150 people from the rural area came to view it.

They were appalled.

“We had people with a third-grade education looking at the plans and saying, ’What in the world are you thinking about?’ ” Kellenberger recalled. “They couldn’t say too much about what they really thought because they were in a church.”

Added Kellenberger: “We said we would go back and study it some more.”

With the feedback from the hearing to guide them, the engineers and architects reconsidered the whole project. In the end, they proposed something much different: an arching culvert topped by a surface-degraded railing that blended into the natural scene. The Grassy Creek people absolutely loved it.

What’s more, the substitute structure cost $150,000 less than the one originally proposed.

Kellenberger uses the Grassy Creek episode’s happy ending to teach a lesson in an environmental stewardship class, which includes CSS training. The class trains DOT office leaders how to be better stewards of construction projects.

The specific CSS training explains why as many stakeholders as possible should be involved in a project from the beginning. Besides ordinary people living near a project, these stakeholders might, for instance, include U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conservationists, officials from the state Department of Archives and History, ecologists from the Department of Natural Resources.

The other principal lesson taught by Kellenberger is how to ensure that decisions made up front are implemented on the back end.

“We’re trying to change the whole paradigm of how we have built highways for the last 40 years,” Kellenberger said.

In South Carolina, officials have started in earnest to incorporate the concept of context sensitive solutions. Five roadway widening pilot projects have been singled out to further the concept.

The pilot projects will be evaluated on such factors as the extra time, if any, that is required to integrate CSS into a job, any extra cost and the relative satisfaction of the people with the end result.

“Some of the data will be quantitative, some qualitative,” Hall said.

He said the department has no preconception about how cost-effective CSS will be on a typical road-widening project.

“Based on information that I have, in a lot of cases it is going to cost more to implement these measures,” he said, “but the satisfaction of the public will be much greater.”

Indeed, the cost savings in the Grassy Creek project in North Carolina might be an anomaly. Kellenberger acknowledged that.

He cited another case in North Carolina involving a segment of U.S. 441 on the Cherokee Indian reservation in the Great Smoky Mountains.

The roadway needed widening to serve ever-increasing casino crowds, including installation of a wider bridge. Once again, DOT designers didn’t anticipate the needs of the community.

“What they wanted in a bridge and what we designed didn’t look anything like each other,” Kellenberger recalled.

Negotiations ensued, but belatedly rather than in the beginning as CSS procedures recommend. Finally, a different design was agreed upon and the bridge built.

In this instance, the cost of the acceptable design was 8 to 10 percent more than the original one. So there was no cost savings.

However, the tribe was so pleased with the revised plan that it paid the difference, so there was no extra cost to taxpayers either.

Questions of cost and public satisfaction aside, how does all this CSS stuff play among contractors?

Kellenberger said some North Carolina contractors “are leery, but they understand the concept.”

Hall, looking ahead to when CSS becomes a routine part of contracts in South Carolina, said he doesn’t think “it will be that big a deal” for builders.

Leslie C. Blum, a vice president of the 3,200-member Carolinas Associated General Contractors (AGC), agreed. She said that the impact should be virtually nil, “as long as the owner makes clear right up front what is involved.”

In other words, if special requirements, materials and considerations are spelled out in pre-bidding documents so that estimators know the true scope of a project, CSS is pretty much a wash for contractors.

On the other hand, if a community feels especially good about a completed job because of context sensitive decision-making, a contractor will share in the goodwill. That always is a plus.

Blum cited an AGC award earned by Lee Construction Company of the Carolinas, a Charlotte, NC, contractor. It was for a pedestrian bridge overpass built on the edge of Columbia, SC. While not specifically employing CSS planning techniques, that project nonetheless exemplifies the concept.

The foot-bridge goes far beyond being merely functional because special materials were incorporated that blend the structure into adjacent neighborhoods and towers were erected on either end that mimic historic mills in the area. The Columbia community was pleased with the result.

In Charleston, a $677-million Cooper River bridge project is a purer product of context sensitive solutions. The rich history of the city required that the bridge accommodate cultural sensitivities as well as carry traffic over the river.

Therefore, the towers from which cables will suspend a span measuring more than 1,500 ft. (457.2 m) were designed only after engineers were informed by public hearings.

In the river below are loggerhead turtles. They, too, became part of pre-construction CSS discussions. The DOT is requiring reduced and reflective lighting on the new structure so that nesting and hatchling turtles will not be distracted from their migrations by manmade illumination.

The bridge is a joint venture of Skanska USA and HBG Constructors.

Contractors probably never will play a large role in the CSS process, said Berry Jenkins, who is the Carolinas AGC’s North Carolina director of highways division. Planning, engineering and other pre-construction activity simply are outside the scope of contractors’ concerns.

However, there could be a role for contractors in what Jenkins calls “constructability reviews,” wherein the practicality of plans are run past builders.

What will work? What is cost effective? Those are the kinds of questions in early planning that well might be answered best by the men and women who make a living answering them.

“That would make sense,” Jenkins said.

In most cases, it will be DOT supervisors who will translate context sensitive solutions to those on a job site who are trying to implement the solutions.

“The person running the backhoe doesn’t need to go to CSS training,” Kellenberger said.

To that end, Kellenberger is traveling the state overseeing the instruction of DOT leadership, with some 1,000 trained to date and another 1,000 targeted. As a licensed professional engineer and 37-year employee of the North Carolina department, Kellenberger voiced conviction that what he is doing will make a difference for years to come.

“When we get this cooking, we’ll be one of the few states doing it right,” he said.