The following is a position paper from Scenic Ohio (January 2004).
For decades, state departments of transportation and highway engineers have designed roads based on the three main criteria set out by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Green Book:
These "design controls" are referred to as the "tyranny of the triad" by advocates for context-sensitive highway design. Actually, there can be choices with flexibility within these parameters.
A policy shift allowing citizens to have more of say in road and bridge design can be traced to 1991 when Congress passed ISTEA, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (later renamed the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century, or TEA21. This transportation legislation dramatically changed the way transportation decisions are made by requiring state and regional transportation planners to involve the public in the planning process. The law recognizes the importance of good design that is sensitive to its surrounding environment, especially in historic and scenic areas.
Status in Ohio
The Ohio Department of Transportation, after much criticism over unattractive sound walls and highway design created Aesthetic Design Guidelines. The manual addresses many aspects of highway design that have been criticized, but it does not address the issue of context-sensitive design.
This can be seen in many current highway projects. The problem remains that many of ODOT's 12 regional districts and the employees who oversee construction and maintenance projects need to be educated about context-sensitive highway design. Projects often negatively impact community values, such as the area's built and natural environment, historic features, as well as bicycle and pedestrian access to the road. One current example of ODOT's insensitive planning is the upgrading of Route 422 in Parkman Township in Geauga County. Labeled the "monster" by Parkman residents, this widening project threatens the community's rural character.
Transportation is big business in Ohio. This may be bad news for communities and the countryside if hundreds of miles of scenic, historic, and environmentally sensitive roads are widened, straightened, and flattened beyond recognition or if opportunities are lost to promote pedestrian- and bike-friendly communities.
In 1997 the Federal Highway Administration published Flexibility in Highway Design, a publication recommended for its case studies that respect the natural and constructed environments. The examples out there are proof that context-sensitive designs standards can and should be adopted by Ohio. ODOT's Aesthetic Design Guidelines are a start, but our legislators should require that every road project fully involve citizens who are affected by the design or redesign of a road and reflect sensitivity to the environment, aesthetics, and the character of place. Scenic Ohio proposes that Ohio adopt model language to foster context-sensitive highway design on state and local roads and streets.
The other issue that concerns us is sprawl. We believe ODOT planners should listen to those communities who are concerned about transportation plans that will have a negative impact on the character of their communities. We are pleased to be supporting the new project, Greater Ohio, which will be addressing these concerns.