Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Context-Sensitive Design in Connecticut 

12-09-2015 17:35

In the early 1900s, roadway construction typically consisted of paving over dirt roads that in some cases were nothing more than old cow paths. Beginning in the 1930s, the industry recognized that to provide a reasonable level of safety it needed to establish a consistent approach to highway design. In the late 1930s, national committees were formed to develop appropriate design criteria to guide the highway engineers, which culminated with the publication of nationally accepted design criteria in the 1950s.

With safety now recognized as a major goal of the designer, these design criteria were employed and further refined in the 1960s. In the late 1960s, however, the public became more concerned with the environment and socio-economic considerations and began to oppose what was perceived as the proliferation of roads and the negative environmental affects associated with them.

As a result, the Connecticut Department of Transportation (ConnDOT) became more responsive to the concerns and desires of the communities. Following the 1983 collapse of the Mianus River Bridge in Greenwich, ConnDOT embarked on a major infrastructure improvement program. A large component of this program was the reconstruction of the expressways serving Hartford, which required a major commitment to keeping the public informed of the proposed changes.

The success of this public information/relations program led to even greater public involvement during the design and planning phases. Citizen advisory groups began to influence project designs and procedures. One such group was the Merritt Parkway Working Group (MPWG), a multidisciplinary group with representatives from both the public and private sectors, which established guidelines for future projects on the historic and nationally recognized Merritt Parkway. The success of ConnDOT`s involvement with the MPWG and other projects, such as the reconstruction of Route 6 through the historic village of Brooklyn in eastern Connecticut, led the Federal High-way Administration (FHWA) to recommend that Connecticut be one of five pilot states to participate in an initiative to implement "context-sensitive design" nationally.

What is Context-Sensitive Design?

"Context-sensitive design" involves taking into consideration the land use and environment adjacent to the roadway when planning and designing a project. Designers make decisions based on the impacts of the roadway on the community, rather than blindly following set design criteria. It requires designers to be aware of the environment in which the road sits and the qualities of the area that the community feels are important. Designers must accept the community as a partner in the decision-making process and be open to constructive comments and compromises.

The ultimate goal of a context-sensitive design is to provide a facility that meets the needs of motorists and addresses the concerns of the community that the road passes through. To meet this goal, the designer and the community need to identify the concerns of the community and establish consensus on the purpose and intent of the project. The designer`s job is to strike a balance between the intent of the project and the desires of the community.

The designer must involve the community at an early stage in the design of the project. Instead of one public meeting held after the preliminary design is completed, a context-sensitive design may include several meetings with local officials and the public before the project is initiated and at several points during the design process and throughout construction.

Perhaps the most important aspect of a context-sensitive design is making the road blend in with the area. This is where the expertise of the designer is critical. No one single design works for any given road, and the designer needs to recognize that certain road attributes are not appropriate for some regions. For example, a long, straight, flat, wide road design may not be appropriate for a road passing through a rural village, just as winding roads may be out of place in a urban environment. Designers may have to create several iterations of a design to achieve the most desirable results.

What are the benefits to the designer of using context-sensitive design techniques? When the community under-stands the purpose and need for the project, it will be more willing to accept the required changes to the environment. Additionally, designers who understand community issues will be better able to justify any required exceptions to design criteria. Conversely, by a systematic design development process, the designer will be better prepared to explain and defend any determinations that are contrary to the identified desires of the community. Early coordination with the public often means fewer revisions to the project.

Despite these benefits, some engineers still resist the context-sensitive design philosophy. Concerns include excessive costs (both design and construction costs), maintaining an appropriate level of safety, potential liability, and public requests that are unrelated to the goals of the project. These are all legitimate concerns, but designers need to recognize that design costs will be minimized with early coordination. Using context-sensitive design techniques does not guarantee that the project will proceed smoothly. The designers need to recognize that there will always be negative reactions no matter how sensitive the design. The majority of people, however, will at least appreciate their efforts even if they may not accept the final design.

The designer must also be aware that items such as landscaping and other aesthetic treatments will increase the cost of the project without adding any increase in safety or capacity. However, aesthetic treatments will improve the appearance of the community and in many cases encourage private investment. Still, the designer and the community need to realize that transportation funds are not limitless and the department is responsible for using these funds cost-effectively to improve the safety and efficiency of the state`s roadways.

Concerns about liability and safety often revolve around requests to utilize design criteria that are inconsistent with accepted practice or requests to include non-typical treatments, such as traffic calming devices. ConnDOT is responsible for providing a safe and efficient improvement. Any deviations from normal design criteria must be justified, documented, and approved by the department, which should alleviate any potential liability concerns.

Simply put, in applying context-sensitive design the designer is being asked to give fair consideration to community input and to be prepared to provide a reasonable explanation for those requests that cannot be accommodated. The examples that follow demonstrate context-sensitive design principals at work in Connecticut.

The Reconstruction of Route 6 in Brooklyn

Route 6 travels the width of Connecticut from Danbury through Killingly. When a pro-posed expressway connecting Hartford and Providence,R.I., was rejected because of environmental concerns, the state initiated a series of improvement projects in 1986 to address the 23-mile portion of Route 6 between Windham and the state line. All of these projects were constructed except for the five-mile section through Brooklyn. Route 6 includes a number of different configurations as it crosses the state, from a multilane expressway to a two-lane road. In Brooklyn, Route 6 is a two-lane road that bisects the historic town center. Brooklyn residents were concerned about how changes to Route 6 would affect the character of the town center. ConnDOT, the consultant engineer hired by ConnDOT, and the town could not agree on a scope of work. Alternatives, including construction of a bypass, were reviewed and rejected. In 1996, the scope of the project was reviewed and the project was reassigned to the department`s office of highway design.

The designers took a fresh look at the project. They met with town officials, a number of residents, an architectural/ planning group hired by the town, the regional planning agency, elected officials, and the state historic preservation office. They listened to their concerns and modified the design of the project. The width of the paved shoulders was reduced in the vicinity of the town center, essentially eliminating any widening of the pavement in this historic area.

In addition, the designers reevaluated the design speeds chosen for the project and determined that lower design speeds would be more appropriate for the area. They eliminated a previously proposed intersection realignment that would have conflicted with an attractive stone wall. Also, a proposed climbing lane just west of the town center was eliminated. The alignment of the road was revised to better match the terrain and provide visual clues to drivers that they were entering a village area and, therefore, should be slowing down. A number of significant historical and scenic constraints were identified including a large copper beech tree, a well house, and the town green. The designers were not only able to avoid these resources, they even eliminated two town roads that bisected the green, forming a larger, contiguous area.

The revised design achieved the project goal of reconstructing the road, providing roadside drainage, and upgrading the guard rail systems. In addition, a sharp horizontal curve with very limited sight lines will be flattened, requiring a total of five property takings which was accept-able to area residents.

Residents expressed support for the revised design at a public hearing, thus ending many years of impasse. This project is currently scheduled to begin construction in 2002.

This project taught ConnDOT some valuable lessons. First, a road does not have to follow the "straighter and flatter is better" philosophy in order to be safe. It can be designed to fit the terrain and still have acceptable geometry. Second, coordination and cooperation with the community will lead to a relationship of trust and allow for productive discussions. In this case, ConnDOT`s willingness to consider and carefully examine the town`s proposal for an alternative intersection design showed an honest attempt to work with the community and value their opinions. Finally, designers must carefully examine the character of the area and the effects of the proposed design in order to determine the appropriateness of the design. The designers were able to recognize that the character of the Brooklyn Center did not fit with the design speed of the adjacent sections of this road.

Intersection Realignment in Canton
In Canton, Conn., transportation planners were able to use context-sensitive design to come up with a proposal for the realignment of two awkward intersections. Both intersections are frequently congested and historically have had a high occurrence of accidents.

The project, which involved widening a bridge, adding more lanes, and eliminating a traffic signal to improve traffic capacity and operations at the intersections, was presented to town officials in 1992. The town expressed concerns over several of the proposed changes, and transportation planners came up with a revised plan which town officials and owners of the abutting properties approved. Yet when the plan was presented to the public, it was met with fierce opposition. The main objections centered on environmental impacts to the nearby Farmington River and Cherry Brook and what was perceived as a lack of any significant improvement to the roads.

The town Conservation Commission, which up to this point had not been involved in the project design, was the most vocal opponent. In addition, residents were concerned about the amount of additional pavement and the expectation that traffic speeds would increase.

At this point, ConnDOT took a fresh look at the project, its goals, and the concerns of the community. The designer met with town officials, the regional planning agency, and owners of abut-ting properties to develop a plan that addressed community concerns. In February 2000 a second public meeting was held. The revised plans were met with resounding approval and compliments about the responsiveness of the department and appreciation for listening to community concerns. This project illustrates the value in not only early coordination with the stakeholders, but also in taking the time to identify all the stakeholders. If the Conservation Commission had been included in the project review process from an earlier stage, no doubt some of the redesign efforts and public opposition could have been avoided. In addition to contacting the owners of the abutting proper-ties, it should be recognized that arterial roads are used on a regional basis and designers should seek input from all users of the road.

Publication Date: Summer 2000


Author(s):Will Britnell, Carl Bard & Simone Cristofori