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CSD avoids delays on new tolling project.

To address the livability of U.S. communities and traffic congestion while maintaining environmental, historic, and cultural values, transportation professionals are moving beyond the design or physical features of a project to a more holistic approach that explores how transportation solutions can best meet a community's nontrans-portation needs at the same time.


Engineers are finding that they need to increase safe and dependable travel options such as affordable transit and a connected network of sidewalks and bicycle routes for reaching jobs, retail centers, and recreational facilities. The result is a modified approach to highway project development--context sensitive design (CSD) and context sensitive solutions (CSS)--that, among other things, helps reduce impacts on the environment and produces projects that truly meet a community's needs.

The Mon/Fayette Expressway (Route 51 to 1-376), a new turnpike project near Pittsburgh, PA, illustrates how a CSD/CSS approach can address public concerns and the possible delays in design and construction that can result. Stretching 38.6 kilometers (24.0 miles) long and budgeted at $2.6 billion (present value), the expressway will traverse heavily urbanized areas characterized by a variety of densely populated city neighborhoods, old industrial towns, suburban developments, and rural communities concerned with the visual effects of the project.

Although the public provided extensive input during the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, the project's environmental impact statement (EIS) identified five communities that would require additional, focused coordination during post-NEPA design due to their uniquely sensitive features. As a result, in late 2004, a Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) record of decision required the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission (the commission) to establish five Design Advisory Teams (DATs) to ensure that expressway designs would be compatible with community goals and plans in these especially sensitive areas. Of greatest concern was the Potential for the expressway to affect population centers by displacing homes and businesses, disrupting community connectivity, causing negative visual impacts on neighborhoods, and affecting environmentally sensitive areas, such as the few undeveloped hillside tracts near the city of Pittsburgh.

The DAT process might ultimately save an estimated $80 million in construction costs, and stakeholders reported strong satisfaction with the CSS process generally. As such, the Mon/Fayette Expressway might offer a valuable example applicable to other major transportation projects.

The CSD/CSS Approach

FHWA defines CSS as "a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach that involves all stakeholders in developing a transportation facility that complements its physical setting and preserves scenic, aesthetic, historic, and environmental resources while maintaining safety and mobility." According to the January 2008 report Above and Beyond: The Environmental and Social Contributions of America's Highway Programs, published by the Ameri can Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials' Center for Environmental Excellence, 41 States have made significant progress in implementing aspects of CSS into their standard procedure on transportation projects.

CSS offers many benefits. It broadens the definition of the problems a project should solve and offers a process for reaching consensus with all stakeholders before design begins. CSS also conserves environmental and community resources, builds support from the public and regulators, and helps prioritize and allocate scarce transportation funds.

In a time of increasing competition for resources and growing public scrutiny and skepticism, CSS and its associated strategies are gaining momentum. Substantiating the benefits is critical to evaluating CSS as an effective philosophy and tool in creating meaningful solutions for transportation problems. Given the Mon/Fayette Expressway's potential status as an FHWA major project, coupled with the diversity of the DAT communities involved, the project offered great potential for evaluating a CSS process and its results.

CSS in Pennsylvania

Part of the record of decision required the commission to mount an intensive public involvement effort in the five communities that the Project could affect significantly. Because the project is so large, the commission opted to establish community-focused teams (rather than a project-wide team) to ensure the compatibility of expressway designs with community goals and plans in the especially sensitive areas.
Nine Mile Run DAT Alignment Configuration Matrix

Issue/Criterion Alternative

 A Walls B2 C On RR D Lowered
 Bridges at Grade Roadway

1. Scarification (acres) 28.5 4.7/21.6 15.5 40.4

2. Effect on Duck Hollow High High High Medium

3. Visibility

 a. From Duck Hollow High High High Medium

 b. From JAA* Low Low Low Low

 c. From Summerset Medium Medium Medium Low

 d. From Frick Park Wharf High High High Medium

 e. From Waterfront Medium Medium Medium Low

 f. From Swisshelm Park Low Low Low Low

4. Travelers' View Medium Low Medium High

5. Negative Noise
(before barriers)

 a. From Duck Hollow High High High Medium

 b. From JAA Low Low Low Low

 c. From Summerset Medium Medium Medium Medium

 d. From Frick Park Wharf High High High High

 e. From Waterfront Low Low Low Low

6. Interference With High Low High Medium
River Access

7. Construction Difficulty High Low Medium High

8. Wildlife Interference High Low High Medium

9. Negative Trail High Medium High Medium
User Experience

* Jewish Association on Aging

The Nine Mile Run DAT addressed nine major issues affecting an elevated
portion of the expressway that passes through a secluded riverfront
neighborhood. The DAT evaluated four alternatives that were within the
final EIS footprint. Ultimately, the DAT selected the B2 alternative as
the preferred choice. Source: Prepared by Olszak Management Consulting,
Inc., based on results from DAT meetings.


The DATs consisted of technical professionals and community members representing various constituencies. Five DATs cover 7 of the project's 13 design sections: Dravosburg DAT (one design section), Turtle Creek DAT (one design section), Braddock/Rankin/Swissvale DAT (two sections), Nine Mile Run DAT (one section), and Glenwood to Bates Street DAT (two sections). The remaining 6 sections did not have the same level of issues and, therefore, did not warrant their own DATs. However, traditional public outreach efforts were ongoing simultaneously with the efforts of the DATs.

Each DAT met and acted independently of the others and represented very different communities and community needs, but they all shared certain structural and functional features. For instance, each included 10-15 community stakeholders representing local government; residents; interest groups (such as businesses and advocacy organizations); and social, minority, religious, or civic groups. Each had at least five technical team members representing the project owner, design firms, and project consultants (including an urban designer or landscape architect). All members of the teams had equal membership standing in terms of their roles and responsibilities, which were fully defined in the DAT charter. Each DAT drafted a charter that provided guidance on purpose, goals, structure, and operations. Each DAT generated and prioritized a list of unique issues that served as a foundation for its work in deliberating on design solutions and reaching consensus.

During the project's post-NEPA design phase, early 2005 to mid-2007, the DATs met monthly to deliberate design decisions. Two neutral facilitators supported each DAT. The commission empowered the DATs by placing decisionmaking responsibility in their hands and committing to implement the teams' decisions. When DAT members reached consensus on a decision, they documented it in the form of a decision chronicle, which was reviewed and approved by the DAT before final acceptance.

From the outset, the commission sent a strong and consistent message of support for the DAT process; however, technical and community team members initially had mixed feelings. Although members overwhelmingly supported the process, technical team members admitted concern about project delays, increased costs, and community members' abilities to make important design decisions. Community members, on the other hand, expressed concern about the sincerity of the process, the level of their influence, the integrity of the technical information that was shared, and the implementation of their decisions.

Tracking community and technical team members' evolving perceptions was one of the criteria used to measure the success of the DAT process. As such, the commission initiated an independent study of the outcomes of the CSS process.

Measuring CSS Benefits

The Transportation Research Board (TRB) defines 10 process and outcome criteria for measuring the benefits of CSS, as introduced in the 2004 document Performance Measures for Context-Sensitive Solutions--A Guidebook for State DOTs. Process measures include use of multidisciplinary teams; public engagement; project problems, opportunities, and needs; project vision or goals; alternative analysis; and construction and maintenance. Outcome measures include achievement of project vision or goals, stakeholder satisfaction, and quality assurance review.

TRB's Committee on Public Involvement in Transportation added a second set of measures in a document titled Assessing the Effectiveness of Project-Based Public Involvement Processes: A Self-Assessment Tool for Practitioners. The committee's standards include 10 criteria for public involvement, such as project/decision acceptability, accessibility to the decisionmaking process, diversity of views represented, and opportunities for participation.

The multifaceted DAT process applied on the Mon/Fayette Expressway project offered many opportunities to test TRB's CSS criteria through a parallel research effort on the project's post-NEPA design phase. Between March 2005 and March 2007, researchers used a number of methods to apply the TRB criteria to the project. Among the many measurement tools used were three surveys of the DAT team members, one each at the beginning, midpoint, and end of the 2-year period. Survey respondents reacted to statements using a Likert scale (a metric to gauge subjective reactions such as attitudes and preferences) that ranged from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).

As one example, three survey items explored the DAT community members' perceptions of the decisionmaking process by focusing on influence over the DAT process; accessibility of meetings; and comfort level in expressing opinions, sharing information, and asking questions. The values for this metric remained remarkably consistent, hovering near 4.5 out of 5.0 across the three surveys and among the five DATs. Ratings of responses to items about taking into account the concerns of all parties hovered around 4.5. Ratings for items assessing buy-in to the process and results of deliberations ranged from 3.5 to 4.5 (depending on the DAT), with an average score near 4.25. These findings clearly documented the respondents' confidence in the process and its results.


Dispelling the Myths: Did the Process Work?

During the DAT deliberations, the commission did not limit the options considered because of preconceptions about cost or budget parameters. Some DAT decisions dramatically changed the design while remaining within the selected alternative's EIS footprint. Through an iterative process, each DAT suggested, reviewed, and approved numerous design changes. For example, one DAT (the Braddock/Rankin/Swissvale DAT) focused on the design of two sections of the expressway. Braddock, with heavy residential and business displacements, was concerned about the loss of businesses and employment, disruption of key civic and nonprofit institutions, and impacts on the community due to a loss of housing stock and physical connectivity. Rankin was concerned about impacts on businesses. Both Rankin and Swissvale wanted assurance that whatever development occurred on the historic Carrie Furnace site (a county brownfield development) would provide adequate access to and from the expressway while minimizing impacts on the site. For Braddock, the DAT process yielded a split interchange (originally a single interchange) and an alignment that elevated the expressway in the central business district, thereby avoiding the 4 Kids Early Learning Center and key employers. For Rankin and Swissvale, the DAT process yielded design refinements that reduced impacts on the Carrie Furnace site.
DAT Issues and Decision Chronicles

DAT Area Issues Decision Chronicles

Glenwood to Bates Street 50 46
Nine Mile Run 36 29
Braddock/Rankin/Swissvale 29 22
Turtle Creek 33 28
Dravosburg 18 14

This table illustrates the number of issues identified by each DAT and
decision chronicles recorded at the end of the preliminary design phase.
Source: Olszak Management Consulting, Inc.

In the Turtle Creek area, the recommended EIS alignment placed the highway in the center of the downtown area, threading it between churches and over the top of the Penn Plaza shopping center. The challenge for the Turtle Creek DAT was to balance the urban design and economic development concerns of the borough. In addition to sketches and renderings provided by the technical team, the entire DAT took two field trips to study the subject matter. Team members first walked through Penn Plaza and along the corridor and viewed helium balloons that the technical team had tethered at the height of the proposed expressway viaduct. Tall surveyor stakes were placed at potential pier locations, giving DAT members a way to visualize the position of the viaduct and its piers where they would actually be within their community. On the second field trip, a committee of the DAT toured similar bridges in the Pittsburgh area studying height, sub structures, noise, and safety issues.

The Turtle Creek DAT determined that a higher viaduct would better support the economic redevelop ment of the borough, taking into account visual, noise, and safety fac tors. As a result, the project designers raised the viaduct in the downtown area from 12.8 meters (42 feet) to more than 27.4 meters (90 feet). Given that the stated purpose of the expressway is to enable and encour age economic redevelopment, the Turtle Creek DAT considered this design change to be necessary and appropriate, even though more cost ly than the E1S design.

During each DAT's deliberations, the technical team members present ed many options and iterations to help the community members under stand all choices, including the EIS recommendation. In each ease, the DAT members considered whether the design change resolved the issue and advanced the project objectives, while the members responsibly weighed the cost implications.

At the end of the research phase, design firms were asked to quantify the cost impacts of DAT decisions by reviewing each decision's impact on the project's construction costs. The baseline for comparison was the cost established in the EIS for the elements of the project. The increase or decrease in estimated construction costs for each section was totaled for a net increase/decrease. Each design firm provided an estimate of the time and materials it invested in the DAT process (meet ings and corresponding design work). The total combined effort of all de sign firms was $5 million. The final results showed an estimated net construction savings of $80 million due to DAT changes with an esti mated $5 million in DAT-associated costs, resulting in the benefit-to-cost ratio of $80 million to $5 million. Hence, the researchers concluded that the empowered decisionmaking, with the flexibility to consider all options, proved invaluable in ultimately reaching conclusions that resulted in an overall cost savings while increasing public trust and confidence in the process.

Lessons Learned

Some of the major lessons learned in the DAT process include the following:

Developing public trust and confidence positively influences outcomes. Each DAT faced early challenges that tested the sincerity of the technical team and the commission. As the DATs reached decisions, deeper trust between the technical and community members evolved. In summary, 86 percent of community members expressed some confidence that the commission would incorporate DAT decisions into the final construction of the highway.

Direct and frequent access to designers and the owner is essential. Face-to-face access to technical team members and the commission, as owner, at the monthly DAT meetings helped overcome challenges in communication and understanding of the technical process, and built trust between community and technical team members. The DATs' iterative processes not only increased community members' understanding of technical challenges and decisions, but also increased technical team members' understanding of community concerns. Because technical and community members had equal standing, the process resulted in balanced decisions that were technically sound as well as community-sensitive.


Frequent dialogue bridges knowledge gaps between design consultants and community members. Dialogue helped community members overcome the hurdles associated with the complicated vernacular of engineering design. The input and insight of the community members in the discussion of issues was valuable for the design consultants. None of this interaction hindered the project's overall design schedule. In fact, some DATs were able to advance some schedules of the design field view (DFV) to earlier dates than originally planned. The DFV is a formal design benchmark that involves the commission meeting with officials from FHWA, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, and other agencies to review the basic design of the expressway. This meeting also includes an actual field review onsite.

Most of the designers acknowledged that addition of the DAT process did not hinder their ability to meet their overall DFV deadlines but did think that it prolonged their wait for some decisions. On the other hand, in some instances, DFV schedules were advanced earlier than originally scheduled. DFV meetings typically are all-day events because of detailed discussions that require deliberation to address design issues, yet the Turtle Creek DFV meeting lasted just 2 hours. In addition, this DFV meeting took place 2 months ahead of the original schedule. The DFV for the Nine Mile Run DAT reported similar results.

Designers suggested that the DAT process could help improve the pace at a later stage of the final design; in more than one instance, design consultants noticed the difference in the DATs' DFV meetings. Designers were accustomed to more unresolved issues at the DFV meeting stage. Because participants had had ongoing involvement in the decisionmaking process, the DFV meetings were shorter than anticipated and did not result in reworking designs.

Pennsylvania and other States offer numerous examples of transportation design and construction delays caused by not involving the community early in the process. More than one designer suggested that having the community representatives involved throughout the DAT process significantly decreased the likelihood of community outcry at a later stage, which might have required backtracking in design. Avoiding delays and litigation and cutting project costs are evident results in this intensive CSS approach.


Other Promising Results

One unanticipated and encouraging result concerns the DATs' identification and initiation of opportunities for community development that might be advanced alongside the expressway's development. With this intent, three of the five DATs created Development Opportunities Plans. Because many opportunities were outside the purview of the DATs' authority, the members reached out to the appropriate parties to explore the possibilities and obtain the necessary leader-champions.

An example of this type of initiative is an independent collaborative land use planning analysis that is examining specific development challenges and opportunities facing communities along the expressway. According to Laura Zinski, chief executive officer of the Mon Valley Initiative and a member of the Braddock/Rankin/Swissvale DAT, a number of things were responsible for making this study happen. "For one, although this study is not about the expressway, the DAT process helped us realize that we needed to do more thinking about our communities' and region's collective development," Zinski says.


Second, she says, the DAT wanted to build on the work already accomplished by the county in the Mon Valley Economic Development Strategy and further explore connections between Mon Valley communities and the economic engine of Oakland. Finally, she says, "I am excited that we have been able to coordinate this across two city neighborhoods and four boroughs. Such a broad approach is unusual, and we hope it will generate momentum and work results that will be especially meaningful and far reaching."

Members of other DATs echo Zinski's comments, as do community leaders who were directly responsible for obtaining $250,000 in grants to make the study possible. "From the Oakland perspective, the need to plan land use to achieve the highest and best development existed long before the DAT process and is in many ways unrelated to the expressway. But the DAT process helped resolve some key issues regarding the important eastern portal to Oakland," says David Blenk, executive director of the Oakland Planning & Development Corporation (located in the center of the Glenwood to Bates Street DAT's communities). "Keeping track of the DAT deliberations and knowing where they left off in regard to the community's issues has been important."

He adds, "As we continue to define the future of Oakland, we can use some of the DATs' concepts to help guide the way we connect to other communities in the Mon Valley. We know development in Oakland will have a ripple effect, and we want to be strategic about how we take advantage of and build on that effect."

CSS: A Real Solution

A new expressway project of this magnitude and number of community impacts inherently takes on risks if the designers neglect to engage the public in a continual and meaningful way. If the commission followed the more traditional public engagement process, the project might have seen a cost savings, but it is highly unlikely that it would have experienced the public acceptance that is continuing to evolve through the design phase.

The DAT approach achieved the CSS goal, resulting in a project that is more fittingly designed for the unique needs of the communities it will serve. DATs made decisions that supported and complemented community development initiatives, mitigated the loss of residences and businesses, maintained connectivity within business districts, protected river views, and further developed and expanded trails and parks. As a result, the project will complement and enchance the communities it serves while at the same time providing a safe, efficient facility for commuters and the region's economic development engine.


"We are extremely pleased with the outcome of this unique effort. The commission's commitment to the DAT process, combined with the public's participation, created a process that built mutual trust and acceptable solutions," says David W. Cough, P.E., director of operations with the FHWA Pennsylvannia Division Office.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission's Chief Engineer Frank Kempf echoes this sentiment. "The DAT process has been a win-win relationship for communities, the commission, and our customers who will use the expressway. As a result of the DATs' work, we will have a safe, modern expressway that recognizes the unique characteristics and needs of each community and meets or exceeds the design schedule established by the commission. In fact, I believe the DAT process provided great return on our investment in terms of cost savings and building community trust and support," Kempf says.


The full, 268-page research report, Using Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS) Performance Measures to Assess the Effectiveness of a CSS Process During the Preliminary Design of a Major Highway Project: The Mon/Fayette Expressway, includes:

* Indepth information on each DAT, including demographic comparisons

* Details on the DAT process, including recruiting and selection of members, information exchange and distribution techniques, DAT charters and decision chronicles, and DAT meeting structure and facilitation

* Criteria and methodologies used to measure CSS, including extensive discussion of survey methods and reliability of metrics used

* Documentation on data collection

* Comprehensive research findings, including several appendices

The report is available at

Lisa Olszak is the founder and president of Olszak Management Consulting, Inc. and has managed research projects focusing on the efficacy of CSS. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology from The Pennsylvannia State University and a master's degree in administration from Slippery Rock University.

Anthony Mento, P.E., is a senior transportation engineer with FHWA's Pennsylvania Division Office. He has a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Syracuse University and is a registered professional engineer in Pennsylvania.

Robert Goldbach is Olszak's research and evaluation specialist. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees in sociology from Duquesne University.

James Long, Ph.D., is a consultant working with Olszak as a lead facilitator and research project coordinator with two of the DATs. He has a bachelor's degree from Washington & Jefferson College and master's and doctoral degrees in rehabilitation counseling from the University of Pittsburgh.

For more information on the Mon/Fayette Expressway, Please visit For more information on the DATs of the expressway, please visit or contact Lisa Olszak at 412-224-4310,, or Tony Mento at 717-221-3412,

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Title Annotation:context sensitive design
Author:Olszak, Lisa; Mento, Anthony; Goldhach, Robert; Long, James
Publication:Public Roads
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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