Integrating Context-Sensitive Solutions into your transportation program

Barbara Bauer, MLA
CSS Program Coordinator
Office of Infrastructure, Federal Highway Administration
Washington, D.C.
Presenter, 2006 APWA Congress

As he launched the Interstate Highway System half a century ago, President Dwight D. Eisenhower set us on a journey which began with the passing of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. This journey is being recognized this year with the 50-year anniversary of the beginning of a vision that became reality.

The Interstate System has been referred to as the greatest public works project in history and has made America the most mobile society in history. It supports a growing economy, a strong national defense, and the vibrant American way of life. The vision that has given us a road system that is the envy of the world includes a commitment to the journey that will take us into the future of the transportation network.

As we look toward the future, forward thinking must not only address how to ensure mobility for future generations but also how to ensure equal consideration of other values. Recognition of this need to consider other values is a result of increased community awareness and concern about the environment and an increased demand by communities to be heard. This consideration and balancing of community values is the cornerstone of the use of a Context-Sensitive Solutions (CSS) approach to transportation decision making.

The growing emphasis on balancing community values in the development of transportation projects was codified with the passing of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA). Congress intended that the effective implementation of NEPA means there is to be a balancing of safety, mobility, economic, and environmental considerations that "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."

As we have moved through the years, the CSS approach has developed to take us beyond the project phases of transportation program delivery and into a wider understanding and implementation of community and environmentally sensitive planning and design.

We're evolving. We're evolving in our collective professional understanding of issues as they relate to the definition of a successful transportation system. Recognition of the need to address more fully, changes in community expectations, led to the development of the 1998 Thinking Beyond the Pavement Conference in Maryland. Over 300 transportation professionals from a wide range of backgrounds, experience and locales gathered and agreed that business as usual must be a thing of the past. So they set out to develop something that goes beyond the traditional approach of satisfying transportation goals and engineering standards. A new set of principles was developed which places transportation, community and environmental goals on equal footing and provides an approach to make it happen. This new set of principles describes qualities and characteristics of excellence in transportation design, what is accepted in industry as defining a Context-Sensitive Solutions approach. In Section 6008 of SAFETEA-LU, the Congress endorsed these principles as an important element of FHWA-funded projects. Visit for more information and a list of the CSS principles.

Cutface Creek Rest Area, Minnesota TH61, a project solution that effectively balances scenic, aesthetic, environmental, safety and mobility concerns as a result of the application of a CSS approach throughout the planning and project development process. (Photo by Neil Kveberg, Minnesota Department of Transportation)

CSS is a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach that involves all stakeholders to develop a transportation facility that fits its physical setting and preserves scenic, aesthetic, historic and environmental resources, while maintaining safety and mobility. CSS is an approach that considers the total context within which a transportation improvement project will exist. CSS principles include the employment of early, continuous and meaningful involvement of the public and all stakeholders throughout the project development process.

While all this sounds terrific, it's no secret that the implementation of a CSS approach in planning and project development is a challenge. It may be more of a secret that the challenges are arguably more difficult and complex at the institutional level; that is, to integrate CSS organization-wide so that it represents a shift in the fundamental culture of the agency. This organization-wide integration means that policies, procedures and processes need to be revised to reflect a commitment and intent to incorporate the CSS approach as a normal way of doing business.

Perhaps more importantly, as Janet D'Ignazio, former Chief Planning and Environmental Officer, North Carolina Department of Transportation states, "Integrating CSS, or any large-scale organizational change, requires a thoughtful and successful approach to helping the people within the organization develop the skills, learn the behaviors and ultimately accept willingly that CSS is a better way to do their job."

Three areas that can be identified as focus areas for change in an organization are leadership, training and project implementation. Addressing all three areas is important in achieving success in implementing the organization-wide change required for full CSS integration.

Leadership and strategic planning provide a framework and foundation for change. Rhonda Sturgis, Ed.D., in her December 2005 APWA Reporter article ("Strategic planning in a public works sector: Linking it all together" - Ed.), talked about strategic planning in the public works sector, and states that "Strategic management planning is a process that helps organizations be responsive to the dynamic changing environment of today's government arena."

Leaders must look beyond individual projects and lead progress towards agency-wide adoption of CSS including revisions or development of a mission statement that defines the agency's purpose; a vision statement that says what the organization wants to become; values and a code of ethics that shows how the organization values its customers; and goals and objectives to show the intention and path to be followed. Also, performance measurement is an essential resource for top-level leadership in providing direction and focus. Effective leadership and strategic planning are imperative to effecting change in your transportation program.

Training of management and technical staff as well as contractors and external stakeholders is essential to the integration of an organization-wide commitment to CSS. Training should be focused on gaining and increasing awareness and developing the skills required for the use of CSS philosophy and principles in all aspects of planning and the project development process. A well-developed and implemented training program is essential to creating change in your organization.

TH 38, Edge of the Wilderness Scenic Byway in Minnesota, a 12-mile highway reconstruction project that resulted in 40% cost savings when compared to the original estimated cost for the project before the application of a CSS approach. (Photo by Neil Kveberg, Minnesota Department of Transportation)

Implementation of CSS in all aspects of planning and project development including long-range planning processes requires the application of the CSS core principles in every phase of development. As assumed, the application of the CSS approach typically does include more coordination time and effort in the beginning phases of planning and project development, but this higher up-front cost is often balanced by lower costs at later stages of the process. And many times the creative thinking and flexibility in design inherent in the approach and employed throughout the process will identify that the best solution is the lower cost alternative or option.

The Federal Highway Administration is committed to the advancement of CSS nationwide as one of the objectives of its Vital Few Goal on Environmental Stewardship and Streamlining. Focused efforts to achieve this objective include the development and delivery of CSS training through the National Highway Institute and FHWA Resource Centers; initiatives to integrate CSS concepts into university curriculums; support and sponsorship of research projects, technical guidance handbooks, competitions and conferences; and management and coordination of contracts and internal and external partnerships to link CSS with all aspects of planning and project development. The new ITE-proposed recommended practice report, "Context-Sensitive Solutions in Designing Urban Thoroughfares for Walkable Communities," is an example of the efforts which FHWA has supported. For more information on this document as well as other FHWA-supported CSS activities, visit

The journey that President Eisenhower began with his vision for the creation of the Interstate System has continued with succeeding support and preservation of its construction. Completion of the Interstate System is a goal that has been reached. As we look forward to the future in a world of increasing community expectations for better solutions to our transportation challenges, integrating CSS into your transportation program is perhaps the best next step in the journey. A vision to preserve a vision come true, is perhaps something President Eisenhower would be proud of.

Barbara Bauer will give a presentation on this topic at the 2006 APWA Congress, accompanied by Kathleen B. Davis, Director of Highways & Local Programs Division, Washington State Department of Transportation, Olympia, WA, and R. Marshall Elizer, Jr., P.E., Transportation Services Manager, Gresham, Smith & Partners, Nashville, TN, and former member of the APWA Board of Directors. The session is entitled "Integrating Context-Sensitive Solutions into your Transportation Program" and takes place on Monday, September 11, at 3:00 p.m. Barbara Bauer can be reached at (202) 366-0733 or