Creating an environmental plan to successfully deliver bridge infrastructure

Key factors to consider that can enhance outcomes for complex projects

As agencies continue to advance programs that aim to modernize and rehabilitate the nation’s bridge infrastructure, the environmental planning process plays a crucial role in the delivery and ultimate success of these projects. An effective environmental planning approach supports a design and structure that promotes resilient infrastructure, protects natural resources and addresses issues of equity.

There are several key considerations for agencies and project teams to effectively manage and mitigate environmental impacts that will help drive on-time delivery, effective cost management and community buy-in.

Build consensus

Before environmental planning can begin, it is important for owners along with members of the project team to discuss the goals of the project and reach consensus. Whether a simple rehab, modernization or entirely new structure, these initial conversations ensure alignment and help streamline decision-making. Criteria for this consensus includes the proposed bridge type, safety, durability and aesthetics. Each project is unique, so uncovering these details is a critical first step to success. With this understanding, the team can develop a strategic framework to navigate through the myriad of environmental laws, regulations and permits that will be required for timely and successful completion of the project.

Identify environmental factors early

Environmental planning starts with project development. Considering the environmental, community and economic goals early on will help project teams identify potential challenges and opportunities with the project site and surrounding communities. This proactive approach will help avoid surprises as the project advances. Finding potential negative impacts early will allow the opportunity to develop mitigation strategies that will address adverse effects on things like natural habitats, air quality, noise and cultural resources.

Collaboration to enhance compliance

Obtaining the necessary permits and maintaining ongoing dialogue with pertinent agencies is critical to the design and construction of a bridge project. However, environmental planning is not just about identifying applicable regulations and the agencies that need to be involved. It is important for planners to work closely with these agencies to ensure compliance on laws related to a variety of factors including water quality, endangered species, historic preservation and wetlands. This type of collaboration will create an efficient permitting process that can reduce delays and potential legal challenges later on.

Stakeholder engagement

Environmental planning encourages stakeholder engagement through the entire project life cycle. By focusing on a process of inclusive decision-making through open houses, workshops and additional conversations, insights will be provided, not only by environmental experts, but also members of the local community most affected by the project. It is important to understand and discover how the community feels about the bridge (i.e. is it a barrier or amenity). This helps address concerns early on, builds trust and creates a sense of ownership that leads to a smoother project delivery.

Addressing natural impacts

Because bridges can often intersect with sensitive ecosystems, such as wetlands, rivers and wildlife habitats, it is important that an environmental plan thoroughly evaluates these natural impacts. Depending on the situation, planners may consider proposing different alignments or designs to minimize disruption to natural surroundings.

Assessing risk

A successful environmental planning process also assesses and properly addresses risks early on. This could be related to several factors, such as natural hazards and extreme weather events. By identifying these risks early, contingency plans can be developed that enhance resilience. For example, for bridges located in flood prone locations, planners have the opportunity to design resilient foundations that incorporate flood-resistant materials.

A focus on sustainability

Environmental planning for a bridge project also should encourage sustainability best practices. Considerations that align with a sustainable approach include life-cycle costs, energy efficiency along with things like recycled materials and the incorporation of low-impact construction techniques.

Supporting successful delivery

By focusing on environmental factors from the very start, encouraging collaboration and inclusion in information sharing and decision-making, and ensuring alignment between the project goals and the needs of the broader community, transportation agencies have the opportunity to successfully deliver bridge projects that stand the test of time while minimizing negative impacts.


Carlos Swonke
National Practice Consultant
HNTB Corporation

Carlos Swonke is a national practice consultant for HNTB and a sought-after expert in natural resources/environmental planning, National Environmental Policy Act compliance, project management, program management and policy development.

During his 37-year career, Swonke served as the director of environmental affairs for the Texas Department of Transportation. He also worked in the private sector as a consultant for the U.S. Department of Defense, the National Park Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which led to an assignment in New York City after 9/11.

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