Transportation has major economic, environmental and social implications in its ability to provide for the public mobility, movement of goods and services and connectivity in our society. It is clear that many transportation practices are financially and environmentally unsustainable. Transportation is a major source of green house gas emissions that is associated with climate change, next to buildings and electrical power generation. Vehicle miles traveled is increasing three times faster than our population rate. Transportation projects are being planned, designed and constructed without looking at the full life cycle costs and manpower resources.
Transportation maintenance operations are an example of this unsustainable economic condition. There is a lot of emphasis on developing new or improving existing road systems that take advantage of federal and state funds; however, there is very little emphasis focused on the necessary monetary and manpower resources to effectively operate and maintain the road system. State maintenance departments are funded through state budgets and not federal budgets and many have been underfunded for years, well before hard economic times hit state DOTs. Transportation planning, NEPA and design documents do not adequately address this long term economic life cycle issue.
If given the appropriate funding and support, highway maintenance departments can become more sustainable when considering community, economic, and environmental issues. Many sustainable actions are cost effective; however, in many cases there is a lack of short term money necessary to save long term money.
The following are just some of the many sustainable ideas that state and municipal DOTs should consider for their maintenance operations. Other sustainable maintenance actions can also be found in the New York State Department of Transportation’s GreenLITES Operations Certification Program.
DOTs could develop a public relations campaign to help the general public understand that highway maintenance operations necessary to maintain safety and aid in the movement of goods and services is not free and comes at a cost, especially during hard economic times. The public needs to be educated about maintenance actions and actual costs required to keep them safe and maintain their mobility for employment and recreation. CDOT and former Governor Ritter did not do a good job explaining why the cost of vehicle license plates increased $40 to improve maintenance and repair/replace high risk bridges. There needs to be some political will to increase the gas tax or develop other funding mechanisms to long term increase funding for highway maintenance.
Very few people really understand highway maintenance except perhaps when they see a snow plow during storm events. There is a public involvement process for transportation planning, NEPA and design phases of a project but there is no public outreach for maintenance. For example, visits and presentations to local school children showing large equipment and discussing maintenance actions would be a great public outreach technique. If the public really understood what maintenance professionals did to ensure safety, maybe there would be less push back when additional funding is needed for highway maintenance.
Maintenance sustainability outreach needs to occur not only to the general public but also to maintenance personnel. Maintenance employees need sustainability awareness and outreach training as part of their annual training. The sustainability concept needs to be incorporated into standard operating procedures and part of their every day maintenance duties.
DOT Maintenance facilities could sponsor a hazardous waste/material disposal day for the local community. DOTs could coordinate with hazardous waste disposal companies to collect residential type hazardous waste/materials at the same time their waste material is being collected for disposal. This would avoid residential waste from being inappropriately disposed of in the local environment and landfills.
Maintenance representatives could interface with local neighborhood communities in an effort to provide strategic vegetation plantings (trees or shrubs) that would help with the local aesthetics impacted by road structures and traffic.
Transportation planning and NEPA documents need to address life cycle manpower and economic costs. Many people believe that NEPA documents address sustainability concepts. In the area of community involvement and environmental impact this statement is true; however, it is inadequate when addressing long term operation and maintenance costs. Transportation systems or major improvements should not be built before there has been adequate funding allocated for long term maintenance at the Record of Design (ROD) phase of the project.
Rest area operations should be reviewed in the areas of energy and water conservation and landscaping for cost savings. TerraLogic recently developed a sustainable rest area evaluation of six representative rest areas and identified numerous opportunities for cost efficiency and savings (see http://www.coloradodot.info/programs/research/pdfs/2011/restareas/view and TerraLogic Sustainable Rest Areas- June 2010 blog). The mission, objectives and regulations for rest area operations need to be re-evaluated by CDOT and other DOTs to allow public private partnerships to augment costs and reduce public services that are energy intensive or those that wastefully consume valuable finite resources.
Maintenance facilities should be recycling and reusing materials such as guardrails, lighting posts, sign posts, asphalt, concrete and collected traction sand. These materials could be stockpiled at maintenance faculties for reuse/recycling instead of landfilling. Hazardous materials such as waste oil and filters, degreasing agents and glycols should be recycled. Maintenance professionals could collect and recycle plastic, glass and aluminum containers from rest areas and maintenance facilities. State procurement guidance for the purchasing of green chemicals should be followed by maintenance professionals.
Maintenance departments could remove non-native grass vegetation at rest areas and instead plant native trees or shrubs. Rest areas could serve as a nursery that would grow trees for natural snow fences or other vegetative uses (see January 2011 blog Living Snow Fences Within Highway Corridors). Rest areas have the necessary water and maintenance labor resources to grow and maintain native plants for future relocation.
Large land areas owned by DOTs and municipalities (like rest areas) can be used to grow local food crops, providing there is an existing water source. An innovative company located in Golden, Colorado (Agriburbia) performs organic-sustainable agricultural practices by growing of food crops on unused land from seeding to harvesting to selling (see http://www.agriburbia.com/).
Maintenance facilities could look for ways to reduce the amount of right of way mowing without impacting public safety. Reduced mowing would improve local wildlife habitat, reduce labor, fuel consumption and fuel costs and reduce green house gas emissions.
Maintenance facilities and rest areas that are near or adjacent to sensitive environmental areas (surface waters, wetland and riparian areas) should implement stormwater/snow melt best management practices regardless if they are in a MS4 Area. This action will protect local environmental resources while reducing environmental risks.