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Win-win planning: coastal infrastructure and the environment

Don Deis, CEP | 24 Aug 2015 | Comments

Much of our critically needed infrastructure (e.g. ports, bridges, and roads) lies within the delicate ecosystem of our coastal regions. With a renewed focus on infrastructure improvements and the need for new infrastructure to support an increasing coastal population, the impact on the environment is a growing concern—and for good reason.

The Intracoastal Waterway, for example, crosses several bodies of water in Palm Beach County, Florida. Several bridges are in need of replacement over the next 10 years. While digging up a few plants to replace a bridge may not seem like a big deal to most, shoreline vegetation and seagrasses provide a vital nursery for fish and shellfish. They increase water clarity and are also a food source for birds, endangered sea turtles and manatees. (Find out more about our work in Florida’s Indian River Lagoon here).

To help protect the environment, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was designed to identify environmental impacts of federally funded projects through development of Environmental Impacts Statements or Environmental Assessments. But if not completed (and accounted for) well in advance, projects will be delayed and the associated costs can add up quickly.

So how do we balance the development of infrastructure that provides efficient transportation for our communities without creating project delays, increasing costs, or degrading the very environment that has compelled so many of us to live in these coastal communities in the first place?

The solution is proper planning. Utilizing tools with longer-range planning to identify and incorporate mitigation projects well in advance of project construction alleviates permitting agency concerns, lowers costs, and speeds up development. And with successful mitigation programs in place, permitting agencies can become allies—working together toward the same goals.

An example is a process Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) designed and implemented called the Efficient Transportation Decision Making (ETDM). It was used to expedite project delivery times and facilitate a refined approach to mitigation—especially in coastal habitats. Atkins assisted in designing the tools used in the ETDM process to help identify and avoid environmental issues and plan to mitigate any unavoidable construction impacts. This process has been used throughout Florida since 2006, as an early indicator of the potential for environmental impacts, including the bridge projects in Palm Beach County.

On these projects, the FDOT teamed with the Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resource Management and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to construct seagrass and shoreline projects to make up for impacted resources in advance, thus minimizing the overall impact to the ecosystem. Successful partnerships like these, between transportation and environmental agencies, help us protect and expand our natural resources, while meeting our infrastructure needs and improving our communities.

Through advanced planning, a bit of creativity, and collaborative partnerships, we can score win-win solutions for our coastal communities and treasured natural environments.