Feds INVEST in Sustainable Highways

FHWA Develops Online Tool for Rating Road Projects

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Mike Culp leads the Sustainable Transport and Climate Change Team at the U.S. Federal Highway Administration.

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Posted: Wednesday, September 14, 2011 2:15 pm

In the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) perfect world, all highways would be constructed using recycled materials, traffic lights would be kept to a minimum and semis would be prohibited from idling at rest stops. Transportation projects would honor not only pedestrians and bicycles but also wildlife, and roadways would wind in agreement with their surroundings, inviting travelers to interact with the landscape.

Such criteria - and more - comprise the vision of the FHWA's new online INVEST tool, which is being developed for use by states and other transportation project managers seeking to incorporate sustainable practices in their work. The voluntary tool allows self-assessment of, among other things, project design, construction and maintenance by assigning points for partial or full attainment of several dozen benchmarks. It favors attention to what its developers refer to as a "triple bottom line," consisting of economic, environmental and social facets it considers essential to achieving sustainability for a transportation project.

(Needless to say, the number of billboards lining roadways fails to merit consideration.)

FHWA's Office of Planning, Environment and Realty initiated and developed INVEST - which stands for Infrastructure Voluntary Evaluation Sustainability Tool - to assist state departments of transportation and other organizations to integrate best practices for sustainability into transportation programs and projects. A beta version of INVEST was released in fall 2010. This was followed by the release of a pilot for a portion of the tool in April 2011, on Earth Day, and the agency anticipates releasing the tool in its entirety by Jan. 1, 2012.

The FHWA is an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Created in 1966, it is responsible for building and maintaining national highways, funded primarily by gasoline taxes. It also conducts research on auto safety and other transportation-related issues.

FHWA Spokesman Doug Hecox praises INVEST as "the first tool of its kind to encompass the entire lifecycle of a transportation project - from system and project planning through design, construction and operations and maintenance."

Mike Culp, who leads the Sustainable Transport and Climate Change Team, outlined INVEST's features and functions at the American Public Works Association's recent sustainability conference in Portland, Ore. Culp discussed the value of the FHWA's commitment to sustainable practices, illustrated in the case of INVEST by an emphasis on "integrative planning."

"I think it's certainly a good indication that [the FHWA] is organizationally trying to put itself in a position to deal with these important issues," he remarked during his presentation. "I think we're going to see this become more and more important as resources become much more precious over time."

Culp acknowledged INVEST's predecessors. While innovative, INVEST is not the first of its kind. Several, similar projects at the state level predate it. Culp cited three of them: GreenLITES, a project of New York State's Department of Transportation (NYDOT), I-LAST, a collaborative effort between three Illinois state agencies, and the University of Washington's Greenroads tool.

Each of the tools operates on a foundation of assigning points, or credits, for a project's achievement of certain sustainability features. In the case of INVEST, this includes things like "Habitat Restoration," "Ecological Connectivity," "Bicycle Access" and "Energy-Efficient Lighting." Attainment of the various criteria earns a project various points. For example, attention to stormwater management practices can earn a project up to nine points on the INVEST tool, whereas responsible site vegetation will earn only up to three, and construction waste management just one.

The higher the points, the more sustainable the project is according to FHWA. INVEST has two different scorecards - basic and extended - depending on the size of the project. The basic scorecard, intended for smaller construction or restoration projects, has 20 criteria. The extended scorecard has 30. The sum of points a project earns allows it to earn different, Olympic-style statuses. It can be considered bronze, silver, gold or, if 60 percent or more of the points are earned, platinum.

Whether it achieves bronze or platinum or no status at all has no effect on a project's funding allocations, however. "The purpose of this tool," according to the INVEST website, "is to provide best practice information to enable practitioners to incorporate sustainability ..." "This is a self-evaluation tool," Culp emphasized to conference attendees. "We're definitely not grading project by project. You're not going to get a big medallion to put on a sign."

FHWA Spokesman Hecox stresses that "the tool can be used in different ways: to score a project or program or to identify areas for internal or programmatic improvement, which could be done outside the auspices of a ‘score'"

There are differences between INVEST and the other self-evaluation tools. For example, while INVEST is entirely voluntary, NYDOT proudly uses its GreenLITES tool to evaluate all of its projects. "New York State, to our knowledge, is the first state to develop and use a sustainability rating program for all department transportation projects," says Paul Krekeler, manager of the GreenLITES program.

The University of Washington's Greenroads system, by comparison, is a more selective tool than either INVEST or GreenLITES, requiring membership and employing third-party evaluation in order for a transportation project to achieve true "Greenroad" certification. So exacting are its standards, that to date just 50 projects have earned certification. One recently certified Greenroads project in the city of Bellingham, Wa., features sidewalks constructed of a material called "Poticrete," which is made from ground up toilets.

Since the use of some sustainability evaluation tools is voluntary, and in some cases - including the case of INVEST - reliant on self-assessment, the incentive to utilize them may seem unclear. However, if the success of the U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC) LEED certification system for buildings is any indication, then the ascent of INVEST and other tools to measure sustainability efforts into common, if not comprehensive, usage seems likely.

USGBC was founded in 1993, and the first LEED - Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design - rating system began its pilot program in 1998, and it launched publicly in 2000. Since then, a building's coveted designation as being LEED-certified has evolved into something akin to an Oscar within the building design world. There are currently 35,000 LEED-certified projects worldwide, including projects in India, Cuba and Canada.

NYDOT's GreenLITES and Illinois' I-LAST tool each explicitly acknowledge the cues they have taken from LEED. In fact, NYDOT's Paul Krekeler recalls that the department's commissioner specifically asked its chief engineer to develop a program like LEED. The LEED certification process differs in some significant ways from INVEST, GreenLITES and I-LAST, however. The most notable difference is that LEED certification relies on committees to determine whether or not to certify a building.

Implicit among all of the tools - a collective "Duh!" - is that effort toward sustainability is just the right thing to do. NYDOT reminds us in its GreenLITES literature that "The principles of sustainability are rooted in the National Environment Policy Act (NEPA), passed in 1969, in which Congress... declares that it is the continuing policy... to use all practicable means and measures... to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.'"

FHWA's Culp is a bit more pragmatic. At the end of the day, he concedes, utility still trumps other concerns. "Federal Highways definitely feels like a roadway can't be sustainable that doesn't actually meet its intended purpose ... We want the highway to meet its intended purpose."

You can learn more about INVEST at www.sustainablehighways.org.

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