- Report Published -
|Road Design Standards in Scenic and Historic Areas|
|Department of Transportation|
|SJR 61 (Regular Session, 1994)|
|The study team made a number of findings in its work on the issues included in SJR 61. Many of these findings were suggested by the ongoing work of the Virginia Department of Transportation's (VDOT's) Advisory Committee on Highway Safety and Design Standards in Scenic and Historic Areas. The findings in this report, however, are those of the study team and not necessarily those of the Advisory Committee.|
1. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) highway design standards are the model highway design standards for roads in the United States of America. These standards are usually adopted, in turn, by the states as their own design standards. The Federal Highway Administration recognizes and accepts AASHTO standards for federally-funded projects. Courts generally recognize AASHTO standards as the accepted norm when trying tort liability cases.
2. The Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) adopted AASHTO standards as those acceptable for use by VDOT or other parties when designing improvements t the state's highway systems. The CTB also adopted subdivision street standards based substantially on AASHTO standards.
3. The protection of exceptional scenic and historic areas is necessary to preserve the heritage and scenery that citizens enjoy, and is also essential to continuing tourism and economic development in the Commonwealth. Highway designers are frequently asked to deviate from adopted standards to protect scenic and historic areas.
4. Deviation from accepted design standards may increase the risk to motorists if their expectations about the road ahead are not met. For example, highways with higher design speeds and gentle curves should not abruptly change into highways with lower design speeds, restricted sight distance, and extreme curvature. Further, roadways that are too narrow for trucks restrict commerce, and congested or unsafe roadways can restrict tourism.
5. Deviation from accepted design standards increases the risk of tort claims against the Commonwealth, and increases the risk of such claims against VDOT employees who authorize or approve such deviations. While there are statutory limits to the dollar amount of tort claims against the Commonwealth, there are no such limits on claims against employees or other individuals.
6. VDOT currently authorizes exceptions to AASHTO design standards on a project-by-project basis, where motorist safety is not endangered and where substantial public values may be protected by so doing. This "design by exception" process requires that the reasons for deviation from standards be well documented. This documentation is intended to provide a rationale for design deviations in the event of a tort claim arising from an accident. The design by exception process is generally considered successful by VDOT designers (who point to a number of successful designs), but citizens and some state agencies continue to express their concerns about the current process.
7. Current environmental and historic preservation laws, both state and federal, provide VDOT engineers substantial guidance in determining which areas of the Commonwealth are historic areas, wetlands, and parks. The designation of these areas, by processes set forth in law and regulation, gives designers prior information about the location of resources that are protected. The coordination of highway projects with other state and federal agencies offers opportunities for design mitigation or avoidance.
8. Exceptional scenic areas, however, are not formally designated by any state or national process, and they have no recognized boundaries. Designers have little prior information about important scenic resources to be protected. Discussions regarding the protection of scenic areas often do not take place until after designs are completed, during the public view. Even then, there is often little public consensus as to what are the most important scenic areas along a highway.
9. The "Code of Virginia" provides little protection to designers or other responsible persons who deviate from accepted design standards in order to preserve and protect scenic or historic areas.
10. Protecting scenic areas will take more than making highway designs more flexible, because changes in land use also affect scenic qualities. Often, roadside development changes scenic vistas and creates additional traffic congestion and safety problems. Protection of scenic areas must be a coordinated effort involving landowners, local governments, and the state.
The study team has three major recommendations for action to help deal with the issues raised in SJR 61. These recommendations are as follows:
1. Because there is little consensus as to what is scenic, if the General Assembly of Virginia desires to protect "exceptional scenic areas" from intrusion by private or public exceptional scenic areas. In general, the more selective the Commonwealth is in identifying exceptional scenic areas, the greater the protection each can be afforded. A designation process could be based on the process for listing historic properties on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places.
2. It is recommended that the General Assembly of Virginia consider the enactment of statutes to increase protection of highway designers and road builders when "non-standard designs" are used to protect exceptional scenic or historic areas of the Commonwealth.
3. Many highway designers and others involved in the approval, construction, and maintenance of highways are concerned by the potential of tort liability claims against them as individuals. If the General Assembly of Virginia desires to encourage greater flexibility in the application of highway design standards, it may be desirable to give "individuals" who design, approve, construct, and maintain public highways greater protection against tort liability claims which could arise. Such protection may be afforded by revising statutes to limit the dollar amount of such claims against individuals, or by enhancing the state's insurance program to provide greater protection to individuals.