Engineering Scenic Highways
This spotlight on the work of FHWA’s Office of Federal Lands Highway illustrates the challenges and rewards of providing safe and innovative roadways on public lands.
You might say that working in the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Office of Federal Lands Highway (FLH) is both challenging and rewarding.
For the past 100 years, the transportation professionals who staff FLH have been privileged to work on projects that often are located in the most beautiful places in the country--from national parks to national forests and other public lands. Yet FLH staff, at times, confront some of the most difficult engineering and environmental challenges facing the industry.
“No doubt most of the FLH community feel that those challenges are what make their jobs so fascinating and rewarding,” says FHWA Associate Administrator Joyce Curtis, head of the FLH office.
In addition to FHWA’s well known work assisting State and local departments of transportation (DOTs), what is less known is that the agency also provides funding and technical assistance on roads that service Federal and tribal lands. Known as the Federal Lands Highway Program, this work is administered by FHWA under the Highway Trust funds designated by Title 23 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations.
The FLH office provides highway design and construction services to the Federal agencies that are responsible for managing public lands: national parks, forests, grasslands, lakes, refuges, tribal lands, recreational areas, and military installations. FLH’s partners in this work are the Federal Land Management Agencies: the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Land Management of the U.S. Department of the Interior; the Forest Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of the U.S. Department of Defense. Other partners include the Bureau of Reclamation, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the U.S. Army Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command.
Focused on project delivery and project management, FLH offers expertise in highway and bridge design, construction and materials, and technical services in the areas of planning, environment, bridge inspection, safety, hydraulic and geotechnical engineering, pavement design, traffic, surveying, and utilities. The office is responsible for decisions associated with Title 23 funds.
A few examples of transportation projects can serve to demonstrate the variety of work that FLH has been involved with over the years. These projects also show the engineering challenges created by the vast and varied terrain of federally owned lands, as well as some politically sensitive working conditions. This glimpse of FLH work illustrates the office’s commitment to innovation and technology, and its impact on national and local economies.
Challenge #1: Addressing Context
As a roadway design philosophy, context sensitivity calls for responding to the needs of FLH’s partners and the public to create transportation solutions that simultaneously protect the quality of the natural environment. When building roads on tundra soils, for example, preserving environmental quality is a priority. Local populations in villages on the tundra of southwest Alaska travel predominantly via all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). To facilitate year-round passage between isolated villages, FLH partnered with the Denali Commission and the Native Village of Tununak to construct a geo-tech trail in the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. Geotextiles are porous pavement systems that prevent degradation of the tundra by stabilizing the soil and providing a solid trail surface. Sensitivity to context plays a key role in FLH projects.
Challenge #2: Bolstering the Economy
Travel, tourism, and recreation are integral to the Nation’s economy; national parks, for example, attract nearly 300 million visitors annually. Federal public roads play an important part by providing access to attractions like Yellowstone National Park.
Federal public roads also support the economy by providing transportation access for resource extraction and electric power generation. In addition, they serve as a vital economic link to rural communities such as the Metlakatla Indian Community, near Ketchikan, AK.
“Without the Federal Lands Highway Program, these roads might never have been built or improved,” says Brian Allen, field team leader for FLH tribal transportation. “Working on FLH projects for the past 25 years in some of the most beautiful areas of this country has been an honor and a privilege.”
Challenge #3: Providing Disaster Assistance
FLH provides emergency relief to restore federally owned roads for public travel. For example, FLH has provided disaster assistance at national parks and wildlife refuges along the eastern seaboard that were damaged by Hurricane Sandy.
As the storm made landfall on the evening of October 29, 2012, New York’s Liberty Island and the Statue of Liberty stood in its path. Once the winds died and the water receded, Lady Liberty’s feet were still dry, but the storm had heavily damaged the infrastructure at Liberty Island, which serves millions of visitors each year. Floodwater had covered 75 percent of the island, forcing the National Park Service to close the monument and grounds until repairs could be made.
Of particular concern was damage sustained by two docks that serve ferries bringing tourists and supplies to the island. The damage had economic ramifications. In 2011, the Statue of Liberty, Liberty Island, and Ellis Island (which are operated together as a single national monument) generated $174 million in economic activity, including ticket sales, boat passages, and vendor goods.
FLH worked with the National Park Service to rebuild the docks, ensuring their strength and durability for years to come. This effort enabled the Statue of Liberty to reopen in time for the Independence Day celebration less than 1 year after the hurricane.
Challenge #4: Facilitating Partnerships
The FLH office helps its partners deliver projects that meet the transportation community’s standards while respecting and protecting public lands. The partners depend on FLH to facilitate transportation solutions acceptable to Federal, State, tribal, and local stakeholders who use these roads. FLH is relied upon to facilitate and manage the funding, planning, environmental documentation, design, and construction involved in what are often multiagency projects.
In addition to its partnerships with Federal Land Management Agencies, FLH is often asked to assist in public-private partnership projects. Such a case involved overseeing the National Gateway Clearance Project, which required multiple agreements between four States, FLH, and CSX railroad.
The National Gateway Clearance Project provided an efficient rail freight link between mid-Atlantic ports and the Midwest by increasing tunnel clearances and modifying other vertical obstructions to accommodate double-stacked intermodal shipments. The project consisted of 43 sites with differing conditions and parameters, including bridge replacements, removals, and modifications; tunnel modifications and open cuts; and track lowerings.
FLH was responsible for the coordination and facilitation of the overall construction schedule for the project, as well as for the management of the Federal funding associated with a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) Discretionary Grant.
Begun in early 2010 and completed in fall 2013, the project doubled intermodal capacity without increasing noise, emissions, or the number of trains. Overall, the National Gateway will help improve the Nation’s economic competitiveness and assist the States and ports with handling the demand for future freight movement resulting from the widening of the Panama Canal.
Challenge #5: Managing Complex Projects
FLH is often called upon to facilitate a variety of complex or nontraditional projects involving new or multiple partners. The office took on the lead management role for all elements of project procurement, design, and construction of the Hoover Dam Bypass over the Colorado River gorge in Arizona and Nevada. The $240 million project, which included nine bridges and 5 miles (8 kilometers) of roadway, was completed in 2010. Soaring 900 feet (274 meters) above the river, the centerpiece structure--the Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge--is the highest and longest arched concrete bridge in the Western Hemisphere.
Challenge #6: Incorporating Innovation
One of FLH’s key strengths is its ability to assemble experienced teams that deliver innovative and timely solutions. The office fosters innovation in several ways, including participation in Every Day Counts, an FHWA initiative designed to identify and deploy innovations aimed at reducing the time it takes to deliver highway projects, enhance safety, and protect the environment.
FLH also collaborates with the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center to develop and test innovative new technology, such as geosynthetic reinforced embankment systems, robotic bridge inspection equipment, and the design of aesthetic wall treatments, rustic pavement, guardrails, and guardwalls.
An example of innovation and context sensitivity was a project to transform Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House. The real challenge of this obviously high-profile project was in meeting the landscape design requirements while still providing a durable pavement solution.
The basis of the design was the paving material; the original concept was to have a loose granular surface. This type of surface would have presented the National Park Service with a serious maintenance problem. Instead, FLH developed a “rustic pavement” solution, designed to have the look of an old or historic pavement with the structural capacity necessary to meet the needs of the site.
Challenge #7: Confronting Working Conditions
The FLH staff works in beautiful places for the most part, but working conditions can be challenging as well. For example, the FLH office provides bridge inspection services to numerous Federal agencies. In May 2012, the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) asked FLH to perform an emergency inspection of the Wallops Island Causeway Bridge over Cat Creek at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Workers had heard loud popping sounds on the bridge. Engineers from FLH responded within 24 hours, inspecting the bridge and determining it was safe for traffic. (The popping sounds were attributed to changes in the temperature.)
Working conditions for FLH staff might not always require this kind of quick response. More typical is travel by canoe or seaplane and close encounters with buffalo, bears, and other wildlife.
From the frozen tundra of Alaska to the warm sands of Puerto Rico, from bridges soaring over canyons to tunnels carving through mountains, FLH’s services are dedicated to the design and construction of aesthetic roadways, bridges, and other facilities in environmentally sensitive areas with significant historical and cultural resources. The office’s projects provide critical connections that improve transportation across the country, or simply from one village to the next.
Staff members at FLH work in some of the most pristine areas of the country--and under some of the most challenging but rewarding working conditions.
Established February 16, 1914, the Office of Federal Lands Highway is now looking forward to its next 100 years!
Sherry Barboza Hayman is a visual information specialist providing creative services to the Washington, DC, headquarters FLH office and the three field divisions across the country. She is responsible for marketing and communications. She holds a B.A. from the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Courtney Chiaparas is a contributing editor for Public Roads.
Norah Davis is the editor of Public Roads.
For more information, contact Sherry Hayman at 703–404–6202 or email@example.com.