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Public Roads - July/August 2003

A New Approach to Road Building

by Lori Irving

Can a new policy change the way people think about transportation agencies and the projects they deliver?

On February 8, 2003, an article in Chicago's Daily Herald asks, "Are state road planners becoming wimpy? Highway engineers have dropped or scaled back road widening plans on three suburban projects . . . after hearing complaints from area residents."

The renovated Smith Bridge, which maintains the rural spirit of Centreville, DE, is shown here adding a splash of color to this winter scene. Photo courtesy of Leslie W. Kipp.

The Daily Herald's headline tells the real story: "State Engineers Put New Focus on Sensitivity While Working to Relieve Suburbs' Traffic Jams." Recent headlines from around the country focus on a new way of doing business taking root in State departments of transportation (DOTs): context-sensitive design.

According to a Web site sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), "Context Sensitive Design: Thinking Beyond the Pavement," context-sensitive design is a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach that involves all stakeholders in developing a transportation project that fits into its physical setting and preserves scenic, aesthetic, historic, and environmental resources, while maintaining safety and mobility. The context-sensitive approach considers the total context for transportation improvement projects.

Can this new philosophy really change the way people think about transportation projects and the very complex process that delivers them? The answer appears to be a resounding "Yes."

Defining Context Sensitivity

According to Federal Highway Administrator Mary E. Peters, context-sensitive design means fitting the roadway into the community it serves and accommodating the unique features and attributes of the surrounding area while meeting mobility and safety needs. "The interstate system was largely built with a production mode standard," she says. "Each roadway section was designed essentially the same way. Context-sensitive design is more like a custom-built home as opposed to mass-produced subdivision housing, but not necessarily with the high price tag."

Recent Headlines on the New Way of Doing Business

An article in the Dayton Daily News in Ohio bears the headline, "New Bridges, New Looks—Losing the Utilitarian Look." The author writes, "In the 1950s and «60s when roadways were spreading like kudzu to keep pace with the Nation's postwar prosperity, a bridge was seen as the cheapest and sturdiest way to span the distance between two elevated points.

"In the past decade, however, federal, state and local transportation officials have seen the light . . ."

The Courier-Journal of Louisville, KY, applauded the Paris Pike project in an article headlined, "Widened Road Serves as Model for Preserving Historic Character."

Clifford Linkes, manager of the Paris Pike project and deputy secretary of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet summarizes the improved relationship between the State and residents: "Years ago in the first property owner meetings about the Paris Pike project alignment, the Cabinet was not trusted nor did we have the respect of the people. This was reflected in their tones of conversation and actions. I am very gratified to think how far the Cabinet and all the impacted citizens have come in achieving trust and respect for one another."

The Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) recently adopted a policy supporting context-sensitive design. The policy sets aside 5 percent of construction costs for improvements to the community or environment immediately adjacent to all road projects. The policy also encourages redevelopment of existing communities, protection of farmlands and critical natural resources, and improvement of mobility based on community needs.

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC), which also embraced context-sensitive design, has begun to share its practices with other State DOTs. In February 2003, in a memorandum to all Cabinet employees, KYTC Secretary James C. Codell III said, "Our customers demand that our projects and activities fit, look good, have balance, and are sensitive to human and natural environments. Therefore, we must continue to change our culture to one that has an environmental ethic and assumes an environmental stewardship role. It is the correct approach...the right thing to do...the common sense thing to do, and our customers deserve this type of treatment."

The Delaware Department of Transportation reconstructed this historic covered bridge in Centreville to replace the original structure that burned down in 1962.

Changing Public Attitudes

Can context-sensitive design change the way people look at highways and bridges? In a small village in Delaware, it has.

In 1962, fire devastated a covered bridge in Centreville, DE, when someone with little appreciation for the historical importance of the structure burned it down in a Halloween prank gone awry. The one-lane wide, three-span steel beam bridge had a timber deck and railing with a wooden superstructure. The stone abutments that made up the substructure dated back to 1839. DelDOT's original plans for the bridge involved replacing the deck and rehabilitating the substructure.

According to Calvin Weber, project engineer with DelDOT, after proceeding through a very contentious process on an earlier bridge project in the same community, DelDOT was asked to approach the Smith Bridge project with a "blank sheet of paper." "What I was hearing from the community," Weber says, "was that we solicited public input too late in the process, after the scope and type of bridge already was selected. Therefore the community felt their comments had little effect on a project. To address this, we held the first public workshop on April 10, 2000, without plans, that is, the Ôblank sheet of paper' concept."

Patt Cannon, president of the Centreville Civic Association, Inc., says that the association worked to convince DelDOT that what the people wanted was feasible and safe. And that initial effort paid off. Once everyone was in agreement that another covered bridge was the answer, work progressed quickly. It was not long before the Village of Centreville was celebrating the opening of the fully restored bridge over the Brandywine River in 2003.

On October 7, 2002, workers lowered the first steel beam into place on Smith Bridge.

A New Spirit of Cooperation

It was not just a bridge that was built. Trust and understanding between a government agency and a small community also were created. To the villagers, the people from DelDOT are not "just" highway engineers any more. They are friends that shared in a successful journey.

According to Cannon, the residents of Centreville were so excited about the ribbon cutting for the new covered bridge that they held a "We Can't Wait for the Bridge to Open" party. Hundreds of people turned out for the opening, including members of the DelDOT staff.

On the Centreville, DE, Web site (, Patt Cannon reported on the official ribbon cutting: "The ribbon-cutting ceremony was wonderful to me. I thought about the time just two and a half years ago when the community came together to tell DelDOT that we wanted a very special bridge here: a one-lane covered bridge, just like the old one. No paved, two-lane, stonewalled version for this spot! And on this day in January 2003, we all—residents, visitors, and transportation planners—were standing shoulder-to-shoulder celebrating our success."

At the end of the bridge opening, after most people had gone home, a few of the people who had made the covered bridge project such a success remained at the site. Cannon reported that one of the DelDOT staff came up and gave her a big hug. When was the last time any official in a transportation agency heard something like that reported of a road project?

Improving Safety

Context-sensitive design and safety go hand-in-hand. As with other design criteria, safety is a crucial aspect of the context that DOTs consider when planning transportation projects. In the past, highways were designed with the primary objective of assuring safe travel for motorists. Context-sensitive design provides a focus for improving safety for all types of surface transportation and for all users, including bicyclists, pedestrians, and motorists.

Improving the safety of the community where a new transportation facility is being built is an important consideration, and part of what helps ensure community acceptance of the project. Building a safe road and one that also fits into its community are eminently compatible goals.

Context-sensitive design focuses on interdisciplinary decisionmaking, involving safety and other design considerations along with capacity increases, citizens' concerns, community impacts, environmental considerations, and historical preservation.

In early January 2003, the Mounted Color Guard of the New Castle County Police led a parade of carriages and antique cars to the Smith Bridge ribbon-cutting event, just 5 months after the start of construction.

Cost Considerations

Some might ask, "Won't context-sensitive design cost more money? Can we afford these so-called frills?" Others might say that the real question should be, "Can we afford not to?"

A stretch of road in the oldest, most prestigious part of the Kentucky bluegrass region demonstrates the point perfectly. Efforts to improve the two-lane Paris Pike between Lexington and Paris began in the mid-1960s and ended shortly thereafter. By 1979, a court injunction prohibited further work on the project. KYTC Secretary Codell described the agency's initial attempt at the project as the "DAD method—Decide, Announce, and Defend. It was our way or no way," he says.

Fourteen years later KYTC made another attempt, this time launching a consensus-building effort that included landowners, architects, highway engineers, historical properties advisers, and a scenic roadway adviser.

Secretary Codell described this second, successful attempt as "a Publicly Owned Project, or POP." He credits the Paris Pike project as the birth of the context-sensitive design philosophy in Kentucky.

A headline in The Courier-Journal reads, "Earth and Eye; Paris Pike Widening Leads Landscape Award Winners." The author reports, "It's like what the Tin Man sings in the 'Wizard of Oz'—you've got to have a heart. The recent widening of historic Paris Pike in Lexington, KY, . . . received the top Award of Honor with Excellence . . . from the Kentucky Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects."

The award jury said the topography of the bluegrass region determined the look of the road rather than the road altering the topography.

According to John Carr of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, "All of the extras—the wooden guardrails, the grassy shoulders—meet highway design standards and don't compromise safety." He adds, "The project cost about 25 percent more because of the extras, but it was worth it."

Secretary Codell says of the highway, "Now I can take people out and say, "Look at what we can do."

Grass shoulders along the new Paris Pike in Kentucky reduce overall pavement width and lessen storm water runoff. Grasscovered, rather than paved, shoulders create a visually narrower road section that complements the rural setting and is conducive to lower travel speeds.

Success in the Details

Back to the original question, "Can a new policy change the way people think about highway projects and the people that build them?" The answer is, "Yes, it can, but on a case-by-case basis."

The policy alone does not ensure success. Delivering highway products that earn the public's favor requires cooperation and teamwork. The day-to-day work and the thoughtful consideration of how that work is carried out will make all the difference in the end.

Lori Irving is a public affairs specialist with the FHWA Office of Public Affairs. She began her career with FHWA in 1993. Prior to that, she worked in the Office of the Secretary. She currently is the public affairs liaison for the FHWA Office of Planning, Environment, and Realty.

For more information about context-sensitive design, visit

Newly constructed rock fences like this one along the new Paris Pike are built with the same materials and methods as historic rock fences in the region. KYTC hired Richard Tufnell, a dry stone mason from Scotland, to teach contractors and staff the lost art of dry stone masonry.