April 19, 2001

New respect for the land drives highway design

  • With landscape architects on the team, a new way is found for US 93.
    Jones & Jones

    US 93
    The view is a new priority in highway design. The Mission and Salsish mountains rise above U.S. 93.

    When we first started building roads hundreds or even thousands of years ago, roads curved around hills, bypassed bodies of water, and meandered through wooded areas because that was about the only they could be built. It was obvious that the land came first, and the road had to respond to the land.

    But as our technical process has increased, our ability to manipulate the land has also increased. If a wetland is located where we want our road to go, we can build a bridge or fill the wetland; if a hill is in the way, we can plough through it. For example, the long, straight highways of the West pay little respect to the natural landscape that their designers encountered. Instead, they’re traditionally engineered to triumph over topography. The results are not only environmentally damaging, they are also unnecessarily boring, if not downright dangerous.

    U.S. Highway 93, which crosses the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana, is a typical example. But thanks to a new agreement between the Montana Department of Transportation, the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes and the Federal Highway Commission, change is coming.

    The 56-mile stretch of highway will be reshaped to respect natural scenery and precious habitat and to give drivers a new look at the land. New guidelines for rebuilding, developed with the help of Jones & Jones, were approved in January. Skillings & Connolly is the transportation engineer and primary consultant.

    Near the middle of the Flathead Reservation is the Ninepipe Wildlife Refuge, part of a geologically unique wetland complex. The plan opens discussion for re-routing portions of an existing highway around precious habitat, establishing an unprecedented number of wildlife crossings, and reconfiguring the roadway with more respect for natural contours. New passing lanes and intermittent widening of Highway 93 will improve safety. Construction is expected to begin in 2003.

    The next level of highway design

    The guidelines for the reconstruction of Highway 93 represent an unprecedented level of environmental protection in road design and a new alignment of state and tribal interests. The agreement also clears the way for release of federal highway funds for the project.

    The transportation department’s goals include safety and a higher level of service for Highway 93, which had developed a bad accident record.

    But tribal goals were much broader. Traditions teach that land, wildlife and people are all deeply connected. A highway designed only to connect points on a map can sever some of the most important connections on the land, impacting the lives of many generations who live there. A highway is not just a highway. Decisions about the highway are decisions about the land, made for seven generations of people that belong to it.

    The tribes want measures to protect their threatened culture, their sensitive environment and their breathtaking scenery. The original plan to widen the entire roadway to four lanes threatened to bring more suburban settlement from the urban areas to the south and to sever ancient ecosystems forever.

    Getting all parties on track to an agreement required a new look at some basic assumptions about road building. Alignments, safety standards and the relationship of the roadway with surrounding land are all part of the surveying and road building tradition in the U.S.

    For Highway 93, existing places such as Mission Valley, Mission and Salish mountains, Jocko Valley, and Rattlesnake Divide all became part of the highway design process. Mapping the patterns of waters, glaciers, winds, plants, animals and native peoples in space and time added new dimensions, and provided a strong foundation for subsequent discussions and decisions.

    The landscape architecture team was able to identify 14 major landscapes — or “rooms” — along the highway. Each had its own visual and ecological qualities, those that might be rediscovered and recognized through the design of the improvements.

    Subtle, slow curves in the roadway will be strategically placed to fit the landscape and enhance scenic vistas. For most of Highway 93, these changes can be made without altering the existing right-of-way. They have a safety goal, also. Long, straight stretches of road, in which the road itself is the overwhelming visual element, are conducive to boredom and to increased travel speeds, a combination that sometimes has dire consequences.

    Pending environmental review, the state will remove and realign about 5 miles of the highway in order to skirt the Ninepipe wetlands area. A National Wildlife Refuge, the area is an important part of a complex of thousands of kettleponds that support a rich and diverse wildlife habitat. The state has agreed to the proposal, pending further environmental review.

    Preventing road-kill

    For most of the length of the highway, getting wildlife across the great barrier is the key to preserving the resource. An estimated 1 million vertebrates — amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals — are killed on U.S. roads and highways each day.

    Native Americans are particularly sensitive to this issue, since their cultures recognize the land as the home to animal species in addition to their own people. By looking at road-kill data, tracking information and sightings, Jones & Jones design team members were able to identify the historic migration patterns that were disrupted by the construction of Highway 93. They analyzed current construction techniques for wildlife crossings, so that the improved highway would be less of a barrier.

    Design and alignment concepts in the newly adopted guidelines for improvements to Highway 93 include road alignment, lane configuration, fish and wildlife crossing structures, fencing to complement crossings, interpretive signs and community entry markings, and other roadway features.The guidelines also include standards for limiting and controlling the use of land around the highway.

    A visitor center and interpretive overlooks will provide opportunities for travelers to rest, relax and find out more about the native people. Messages will be written in three languages — Kootenai, Salish and English. The visitor center and overlooks will incorporate the work of tribal artists.

    The designers are exploring use of reddish aggregate in the roadway to provide a subtle distinction to the highway as it enters, crosses and leaves the reservation. Red is significant in tribal culture. Landforms will be used for controlling access, capturing runoff and tying road construction to the surrounding area. Naturally-finished wood, native quarried stone, and indigenous vegetation will take precedence over industrial materials in the crossings and other new features.

    The 42 wildlife crossings along the new highway are not just signs to slow traffic, but multi-faceted strategies to funnel migrating wildlife to safe crossings under and over the road bed. From culverts for fish to bridges and a major underpass, animals will literally see their way to the other side of the road. Where necessary, specially designed fencing will be tucked into the surrounding landscape to control animal movement and direct it toward crossings.

    Limiting vehicular access — by law and by design — will help to prevent undesired encroachments on the land around the highway.

    Corridor overlay zoning, the acquisition and transfer of development rights by the tribe, conservation easements and open space protection measures are tools for the tribe to control use of land around the right-of-way.

    With the highway improvements, market pressures for roadside advertising are expected to increase. To avoid the threat of visual pollution, a list of institutional and regulatory controls on signage is included in the guidelines.

    Highway 93 is designed to by an eye-opening project, part of a new generation of highways that bring communities together.

    Jim Sipes is a landscape architect with Jones & Jones Architects and Landscape Architects.

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