Solar arrays, agriculture, pollinator plantings—these are some of the potential uses for roadside right-of-ways (ROWs), the grassy areas that run alongside the highway. Collectively, across the United States, ROWs make up an area larger than the state of New Jersey. In this follow up to her analysis, “All the Above: The Many Ways to Use Roadside Right-of-Ways,” Nathan Fellow Kaitlin Stack Whitney talks in-depth with Policy Outsider host Alex Morse about the challenges and opportunities presented by this space and the innovative uses policymakers and planners are bringing to the roadside.
For more on alternative uses for roadside right-of-ways, read our blog, “All the Above: The Many Ways to Use Roadside Right-of-Ways.“
Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors.
Alexander Morse 00:04
Welcome to Policy Outsider presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government. I’m Alex Morse. When you’re riding or driving down the highway, you may notice that there’s often a grassy area running alongside the road. This area is known as the right of way. Right of ways are critical to improving road and roadside safety for drivers and passengers. And while they might not seem like an area for policy innovation, in today’s episode, we’ll examine what possibilities exist for developing these lands to support major public policy initiatives in the areas of climate change, agriculture, pollination ecosystems. Today’s guest, Kaitlin Stack Whitney is a Nathan fellow at the Rockefeller Institute and assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Kaitlin will join to share her research and expand upon her recent blog at the Rockefeller Institute, “All the above the many ways to use roadside right of way.” Stay tuned to learn more about right of ways and what policies federal and state governments are considering to implement alongside roadways. Coming up next.
Hi, Kaitlin, thanks for joining the podcast today.
Kaitlin Stack Whitney 01:35
Thanks for having me, Alex.
Alexander Morse 01:37
We’re really excited to have you on today, because we’re going to be talking about your most recent blog for the Rockefeller Institute on alternative usage for right of ways, right of ways are the boundaries on the side of roads and highways. And we’ll get into more about what you were researching. I think this is going to be a really cool episode, because part of your research kind of explores that this is a new territory for like wild ideas and creative policy decisions, and what opportunities exist for really innovative ideas. And so we’re glad to have you on because you’re you have a lot of background and expertise in this research. And so I just wanted to start off by giving you an opportunity to talk about your background and your research area.
Kaitlin Stack Whitney 02:21
Oh, sure. Thanks. So yeah, I’m Caitlin stack Whitney. I am an assistant professor in Science, Technology and Society at the Rochester Institute of Technology here in Rochester, New York. And I’m one of the current Nathan fellows with the Rockefeller Institute of Government. And so some of my work really sits at the intersection of looking at different environmental services that we want from the world around us, and policy. And for me, I think that’s really fun, in part because it brings together two of the things that I really enjoy doing and have a lot of background in. And so one of those is actually insect ecology and biology. And the other is actually working in policy environments. So before I got my PhD, which was in zoology, with a minor in science studies, I worked as a biologist for the US Environmental Protection Agency in a cost benefit analysis division. And that was really fun. I really enjoyed my time working in a federal regulatory environment learned a lot, I got to do a rotation in the international office. And so I’m really excited to sit at that interface of where policy and environmental issues come up.
Alexander Morse 03:29
Yeah, I like to think of it as where policy meets practice, you’re actually implementing some of these decisions, you’re, and you have the background, the expertise, and research and academia. And then you’re actually, you know, boots on the ground trying to figure out how to implement these new policies. And so we talked a little bit about the right of your right of ways piece, alternative usage for the right of ways could you give us a little background on right of ways, what they are, what their purposes are? Sure.
Kaitlin Stack Whitney 03:58
So in general, the term right of way is this really general term, that basically means land or property or some kind of value or interest that generally a public entity has. So the ones that I’m interested in are transportation right of ways, that basically means all the land or property that’s in transportation infrastructure. And so sometimes we might assume that that’s only roads like of course, that’s the transportation infrastructure. But for highways, which I’m most interested in, that actually includes this land that’s running along the either side of the highway. So sometimes if you’re, you know, driving or as a passenger or traveling down a highway, you might notice these areas, because sometimes you’ll see a wall up or a fence up, basically a little bit off the road after some kind of grassy area and that’s the boundary have the right of way. And so for many people, they’re even though they’re moving to these spaces all the time, they may not know that the transportation infrastructure isn’t just the road that you’re driving on. It’s actually that whole area that right away is all the land or property that is held by the transportation facility or by the state, for example, in the case of the state highway.
Alexander Morse 05:08
So that’s probably millions of miles of roadways, right? And so there’s millions of acres of these right of ways that are adjacent to the road.
Kaitlin Stack Whitney 05:18
Oh, yeah, great question. So the the short answer is, there’s no one specific number that we have about these. But the best estimate is that there’s over a million miles of road in the US, there’s an estimated 10 million acres. Right. So it’s a lot of land.
Alexander Morse 05:33
And I think I heard you say that there might be different entities with authority or jurisdiction over this. Is their is it like Department of Transportation is a state by state? Is it federal, federally regulated?
Kaitlin Stack Whitney 05:45
So in general, it just depends on who owns the transportation infrastructure. So for example, there are also railroad right of ways and then it might be the railroad company that owns that whole right of way space, as that has jurisdiction has ownership of that space. When it comes to highways in general, that is state land then, and it’s being managed by State Department’s of transportation. So even though interstates for example, we often think of as being federal, or the federal highways, those are still managed by state. So those are generally being managed by State Department’s of transportation, even though they’re part of the interstate network.
Alexander Morse 06:21
Now, despite being managed by who owns the land, are there is there an intersection of federal and state policies and guidelines for how these are managed?
Kaitlin Stack Whitney 06:30
Oh, absolutely. So yes, in general, there are different naturally multiple federal requirements and policies for basically how do you design highways and including that right of way spaces along the highways for safety. So the number one priority with transportation infrastructure is moving people and goods around safely, that’s always going to be the number one priority. And so really, highway design that’s mandated by the federal government is for that reason, so for example, it gets it can get really like into levels of minutiae, it has to do with things even like the slope going off of the road, because we want water to drain off of it not have puddles of water, that could be for example, I used to in the winter, so there is actually a designation of what’s known as a clear zone or a safety zone that’s required to be next to roadsides, even off that paved shoulder. But then every single state in the US has their own state by state management guidelines. And so one of the things that I’ve been looking at in part is how those vary. So for example, here in New York, we have highway design and management guidelines that the State Department of Transportation is using, Connecticut has their own. And so there are both federal and state requirements. And then there’s the kind of policy in practice, right? How does the state agency operationalize actually managing those highways and rights of ways and their transportation infrastructure to follow those policies. And so those actually can vary by state. So for example, some states will apply pesticides or herbicides and the right of way as a form of management. Other states are mowing, some states are doing a combination of both depending on the context. So that’s where the the agency itself, it has to make those on the ground decisions about how to operationalize, enacting and creating that, that space so that it’s safe for people driving for goods moving around.
Alexander Morse 08:22
So through these state decisions on standardizing highway design or right of way design, our states, are they effectively siloed in decision making, or are they collaborating with each other are they communicating on you know how to implement different policies,
Kaitlin Stack Whitney 08:39
they’re absolutely communicating. And so I think that happens on a variety of levels. There are conferences, for example, that bring transportation officials and managers together. So one big example is TRB, which is an annual meeting of transportation researchers and professionals that happens every year in DC. So that’s a really big one that happens annually in Washington DC. There’s also things for example, like the local roads program, right, that program that Cornell operates here in New York to bring together in that case, county level and Municipal Transportation officials to chat about and learn from each other. I will say I’ve also gotten to attend meetings where they’re being convened maybe by an outside entity, but it’s to bring transportation officials together, who are all interested in a similar interest. So for example, managing rights of way that would support pollinators, then there’s interest across lots of different states. And it becomes a way for states to share with each other about what they’re doing and learn from each other. And then one of the things that I learned the course of doing the research that ended up being written up for the blog was that there are also some of those workshops and learning opportunities, really networking opportunities for states that even the Federal Highway Administration and US Department of Transportation are organizing and supporting especially in the case of renewable energy, infrastructure and rights of ways. They’re bringing states together. They’re to learn from each other. And that could potentially lead to those different kinds of uses expanding.
Alexander Morse 10:05
Do you think that these conversations are facilitating changes there? Do you think we’re seeing it in real time the progress that can be made?
Kaitlin Stack Whitney 10:12
I absolutely. So I think that, of course, the more people learn from each other, both what’s working well, or maybe what’s not working, or what barriers were hit. And one great example of that, that is linked to in the blog has to do with Oregon actually sharing all about what it learned while trying to put roadside solar in along some of its highways. So they basically encountered a series of challenges that they overcame while trying to put in their first solar installation on the side of a highway. And so they actually wrote up an entire guide, knowing that other states could learn from their experience, not just in terms of the funding, which might be what immediately comes to mind, but actually also in terms of policy or tax incentive pieces that may be barriers, so that states could other states could proactively deal with those before they actually hit that barrier. And so I think that’s a really exciting thing to see is that a state is actually anticipating that other people will want to know this. And if we share this information, they might be able to address that potential challenge in their state or navigate it before they actually hit it as a barrier.
Alexander Morse 11:21
Yeah, that’s really encouraging to hear policymakers and practitioners communicating, collaborating and trying to figure out the best practices to implement the best policy decisions. And you mentioned the case of Oregon solar arrays, and we will return to that in a little bit more detail. But you also talked about the big F word funding. Funding is always a decision are always a decision point for policymakers and for governments. And it’s usually a sticky one. And speaking on right of ways, and Highway Administration, who pays for what, how do these department how do these states how does the federal government get money to implement these policy decisions?
Kaitlin Stack Whitney 12:03
Yeah, great question. So the short answer is it’s a patchwork and it’s different in different states. One of the things that was linked to in the blog is that some other think tanks have done analyses on trying to understand where does the transportation funding come from in different states. So it is a mix of federal funding, state level funding, and then sometimes things like usage fees, and might come from things like tolls. For example, here in New York, you might encounter bridge tolls, or pay a toll on the thruway. And so some of those usage fees can also be used to support transportation infrastructure. In the US, one of the big sources of highway funding is the Highway Trust Fund. And so this is what’s colloquially known as coming from the gas tax. And you might have heard a lot about that this year, because as gas prices are rising, there’s been talk in New York State and in other states about potentially suspending, for example, state level fuel taxes, or asking if there’s going to be a fuel tax holiday at a federal level. So this is a tax that is been existing at the same rate for several decades at a federal level of 18.4 cents per gallon. And one of the challenges is that, okay, that’s the funding that’s being set aside to help maintain highways help, for example, put in infrastructure in REITs away as part of that maintenance or, you know, make improvements in those spaces. But that tax has not actually gone up in decades. Meanwhile, the cost of actually building and maintaining that infrastructure has. And so what we see now in the US is what’s known as this infrastructure funding gap, right? So there’s an estimated over a trillion dollars in funding that’s a gap between the funding that we have and the infrastructure that we want to pay for.
Alexander Morse 13:43
Now this infrastructure that we want to pay for, is this the status quo? Is this like the mowing the pesticides? And typical maintenance? Or does this include the innovative ideas and projects that maybe some creative policymakers want to implement?
Kaitlin Stack Whitney 13:57
This? I think this is a tricky question to answer, because in terms of understanding where all of our highway infrastructure spending comes from, for example, there’s an estimate that federal funding is only covering just over a quarter of highway infrastructure spending as of a couple of years ago, when it comes to things like managing the the highway roadside spaces, that’s being done by State Department’s of transportation. So I don’t personally know how that ends up falling out in terms of like funding staff, people, but so funding and maintenance of roadside management is being done by State department of transportation, or for example, by contractors. So there can be for example, private firms that are the ones going out and doing mowing, it really depends on the space in which road, but that’s all being decided at the state level. It does mean though, that you need equipment, right? You need things like mowers you need you know, the infrastructure to go cut down trees, for example, or to go out and actually spray herbicides if that’s what’s needed. You need staff, right. And so even now, as we’re talking about, for example, staffing shortages, across the nation and other sectors, there’s a set of things that we need to think about being in place to support all of that maintenance happening, in addition to construction projects. The short answer there is that it’s complicated in part, because road building is also often done by contract, right? So when new roads are put in, you might if you’ve driven down the side of the road, see that those are not, for example, state maintenance workers, right, that’s a private company that’s contracted on on the part of the state to actually do that work. So there are private firms that are part of this, right. But where’s the funding coming from? Ultimately, it’s coming from different levels of government and to actually maintain this critical transportation infrastructure?
Alexander Morse 15:39
It seems like it’s a very complex issue, to try to collect all the funding to have all of these different parties, all of these different organizations, you have the contractors, like you mentioned, you have State Department, you have local governments, you have the federal government all trying to collaborate and coordinate and to make sure that we have these roadsides up to code. And as you mentioned before, that the funding has the federal funding level, or the gas tax at the federal level hasn’t changed in how many decades?
Kaitlin Stack Whitney 16:09
Now, the estimate is three decades, right? They’re really coming on 30 years of the rates staying the same, even while costs are increasing.
Alexander Morse 16:16
Yeah. So it’s going to be extraordinarily difficult to try to meet that budget gap.
Kaitlin Stack Whitney 16:20
Absolutely. And so there have been some estimates, including by the Congressional Budget Office, that estimated that if we did even minor increases in that fuel tax at the federal level, that you could raise dozens, if not hundreds of billions of dollars in the next five to 10 years. So that wouldn’t fully address that infrastructure, potential spending, you know, funding gap, but it would certainly make a big dent in it.
Alexander Morse 16:45
You know, what’s interesting, what that tax and revenue will look like as we transition to electrification and electric cars.
Kaitlin Stack Whitney 16:54
So bring up that concern about the fuel tax is absolutely what is motivating some states to start thinking beyond their existing funding sources, right. So getting funding. And what they do with their funding is based on where funding is coming from right now. So some of the states that are especially are thinking about renewable energy infrastructure in their roadsides, it is motivated by thinking that the existing sources of funding might go down, right. So for example, as fuel efficiency of vehicles increases, as more people are driving electric vehicles or hybrid vehicles, that actually means that they may potentially be using less fuel. And so if we’re dependent on fuel taxes at state and federal levels, to fund highways, and then more of the vehicles are actually running on renewable energy, there might be actually a larger gap that’s created in terms of thinking about our ability to pay for that transportation infrastructure, though, absolutely. That concern is motivating states, even now to start figuring out how they can identify and potentially then explore other sources of funding in order to address that, that gap.
Alexander Morse 18:04
Let’s stick with that train of thought. So you already mentioned Oregon had planned for solar arrays, or they’ve implemented solar arrays, because they want to transition to a renewable grid to mitigate the effects of climate change and improve energy resiliency. Let’s talk about Oregon’s example, a little bit more on solar arrays, what have you learned studying that case?
Kaitlin Stack Whitney 18:24
Yeah. So Oregon was the first state in the US to install solar arrays in the highway right of way itself. And so they call this their solar highway program. And it actually began now over a decade ago. So they’re really leading the way here in the US. And one of the things that’s really striking about it is that they put in one, and then they’ve built off of that. So one thing I’ll mention is that I’m specifically interested in solar infrastructure. That’s, that’s in the right of way. But Oregon and some other states do have solar arrays or solar panels, in additional areas to places like rest area buildings are actually just on top of their buildings. But when we’re looking specifically at solar panels and arrays that are in the right of way that you actually see along the road, one of their incentives was actually to be able to save money, right. So some of the recent estimates about how much energy they’re able to create with the amount of solar energy infrastructure they’ve put in on on their transportation lands, is that they are producing an estimated 12% of their state agency’s annual energy use from their right of way infrastructure that’s in solar. So that is a great example of being motivated by thinking about not just actually contributing to their state’s goals for renewable energy, but potentially being able to for example, power the buildings of that state agency or actually run some of their vehicles right. So they have ambitious goals, not just to potentially generate revenue but actually save a lot of money. So if they’re thinking okay, here’s all the, the money that we have for You know, transportation in our state, saving money by putting in renewable energy is also one big incentive for states. And so that is absolutely one of the drivers for states that are exploring solar, including Oregon is being able to power their own vehicles with their own buildings. And one of the reasons that was a particular incentive in Oregon was that they’ve written about in part in that guide for other states that depending on the restrictions in different states, you may or may not be able to sell surplus energy back on the grid to the utility. So in the case of Oregon, what they learned when they were putting in that first array, was that they were not necessarily able to do that. And so it actually limited the amount of power that they could generate, or that they couldn’t necessarily generate more than they need it and then sell it to the utility company. So that means that if they can figure out ways to use it themselves, right, then that’s not a problem. So if they’re able to use the solar energy that they’re creating, then having to sell surplus energy back to the grid is not necessarily an issue. So these are questions about what’s known as net metering, which is figuring out if you have this net surplus of energy, and then what can happen to it. And so there can be different regulations, either state by state, or even within state variation about net metering. And so it’s interesting to look to Oregon as an example about how they had to navigate those issues and figure out, it didn’t, it wasn’t for them just about figuring out where was it technically feasible to actually physically placed solar panels in the right of way, there are actually lots of different regulations at different scales of bureaucracy that affect whether or not they can actually run those solar panels. So of course, when we think about where solar panels would, would be good to place along a roadside on one hand, because of roadside is generally free from from trees, because we don’t want those hanging over a highway, that means they might get really good sunlight. But one of the things that Oregon’s experience especially initially speaks to is that just because there’s great sunlight in a place does not necessarily mean that you can just go right in and set up a big solar array, and that it’s going to be successful. So some of the other challenges that they ran into that other states can and did learn from had to do with funding. So this is true, even when people are thinking about solar, let’s say at their own house is that there’s this big upfront cost. And the idea is that you can pay it back over time. Now, some of that calculus about funding is really going to change if you’re a state agency, right? So how are you actually going to pay this big upfront cost to actually get the solar panels and put in this array? In the case of Oregon, there were tax incentives in place, but a state agency, right, and we’re talking about transportation agencies, they don’t pay any taxes, because they’re a state agency, so they can’t take advantage of a tax incentive. So in the case of Oregon, they had to do some creative partnerships, public private partnerships to figure out how they could work with a private entity who could take advantage of those tax incentives to make the financing structure work for everyone. So those are real logistical, like you’re talking about. It’s like the policy and practice piece about, okay, they had this great idea. They knew this could generate funding or help them save money, it can help them achieve these policy goals for renewable energy. But they really had to work through other regulatory challenges to achieve this in order to get those other games that they want it.
Alexander Morse 23:23
It’s really such an honest look, and what you’re talking about the different levels of bureaucracy of like what is involved in developing and implementing policy, it’s not so simple as I’ve got this great idea. Let’s just go ahead and do it. There’s so many there’s so many steps and challenges along the way. There’s funding, there’s location, there’s stakeholder engagement, we’re talking about, specifically with the solar arrays that they can’t sell the energy back to the grid, I think that’s so fascinating that they were able to find a solution in the face of a problem that they were utilizing that excess energy to power their own fleets and buildings. It really is an involved process from start to finish. And I think that’s a really good example of how policy can work.
Kaitlin Stack Whitney 24:06
Absolutely. And I think that one of the other great takeaways from that specific example is that the Federal Highway Administration, in part created a document that helps other states navigate this. So they’ve made basically, you almost think of it as like a cheat sheet or a fact sheet where they’re saying, of course, you do need to still follow these federal requirements for how you’re going to manage your highways and your highway roadsides. Here’s how you could think about following those guidelines, depending on what kind of road you’re thinking about while putting in renewable energy infrastructure. And so getting that kind of compliance assurance for states will potentially help make more states know that this can be an option, right? There are ways to navigate those federal requirements, while we also figure out how to navigate our state level requirements because they’re still operating with both of those levels of contexts. And potentially also So more more local levels of context also.
Alexander Morse 25:04
So we could talk about solar arrays and renewable energy infrastructure for hours, I’m sure. We need to. I’m sure our listeners are also interested in what other alternative usage for right of ways exists. So I’ll let you take the lead, what is another use that you find interesting, and there’s a case study for
Kaitlin Stack Whitney 25:22
I’m was really interested in what I ended up finding out about agriculture in highway rights of way. I mean, on one hand, I have my background is in agricultural ecology and thinking about agricultural ecosystems. But I had no idea that these were actually in transportation rights of way. And so there’s three different kinds of agriculture’s that I’ve found examples of in states so far, that are actually in the right of way. And so I think many of us know, like, okay, there’s farms next to the side of the road, but I’m talking about actually in the right of way. So one kind is actually what’s known as living snow fences. And so what that basically means is that on purpose states, and many of these happen to be in the Midwest or kind of the Plains area states, they’re leaving crops up, actually some of them in the right of way through the winter as basically a snow fence. So that could be something like actually leaving up corn all winter, and then you basically harvest it in the spring instead of harvesting it in the fall. And the whole point of it is to prevent blowing snow across the rows is a great example of being really focused on that safety orientation all the time, right, the goal is for everyone to travel safely. And we know that snow fences that prevent blowing snow, lead to safer highways and reduce collisions in winter. So in a place where there’s not necessarily trees, that can actually make a big difference who
Alexander Morse 26:46
thought of this? How do you know, corn a crop of corn and said, that would be a great snow fence.
Kaitlin Stack Whitney 26:55
I don’t know who thought of that. I mean, I think that one of the things, though, is is recognizing that we see those benefits from uses that are next to roads. And so it makes sense to me that people will be thinking about how we can actually create those in places where they may not be right. So for example, in many places, you would harvest that corn in the fall. And so this does require a change. And so many of those programs are actually trying to incentivize people who are right next to the right of way to participate. So it depends on the state and the specific program. But there are multiple states that have these Livingstone’s programs, that’s either the State Transportation Agency intentionally putting in plantings to create some of those snow fences. So it’s not always a crop, we see many examples of where states are putting in trees, for example, that are those are being put up because of blowing snow. But this specific kind of agricultural use is trying to actually think about what kinds of crops could be left over the winter. So it’s super interesting. The other kind of crop that I’ve seen in several different states now is actually biomass harvesting. So this is actually a great connection with thinking about renewable energy. So some states are actually having their right of way. And I love this, I think it’s really fascinating. And this can do multiple things, it can actually be harvesting biofuels. So again, thinking about renewable energy, it just doesn’t look the same as seeing a solar array. So you may not even know if you were driving along next to one of those right of ways that you are next to a biofuel operation that’s being, you know, cut down and that grass is actually being kept for hay or for making biofuel pellets. So those are really interesting. And then if they have vehicles or buildings that can run on biofuel, those can actually then be used to potentially, again, as a cost savings to potentially power transportation facilities for that state agency. So again, that’s another way of thinking about even if there were restrictions on the state agency, selling the energy generated from the biofuel or selling that, hey, can it be made use of within the agency or within the state government itself? And then the one really unique aspect of agriculture and I only have found one example of it so far. If anyone knows of others definitely tell me but here really local to me in Rochester, New York, I found this really unique example of a state highway right of way that’s being used as an urban community garden and farm. And I think that that one is rare, for good reason. It relies on the fact that that right of way is physically separated by a fence and some some altitude, some height difference from the from the road itself. And that makes it much more feasible and safe for people to be in that space, because they’re not actually directly next to an interstate. They’re accessing it from from a different road even so, that one is really unique for roadside and transportation right of ways. But the truth is, there’s actually a lot of research and understanding from utility rights of way So I think it’s always a great reminder that even if some of these uses are really innovative, for highways, or even for transportation rights of ways, there are many different kinds of right aways. They exist for canals, for trains. And so sometimes we can actually look to maybe some of those future innovations that states might be inspired by what’s happening in other kinds of infrastructure.
Alexander Morse 30:23
So we’ve covered a lot of unique approaches to agricultural crops and some of the benefits that they can provide, we now have to transition to the challenges and some of the barriers of trying to implement these policies. So what are some of the factors that you’ve come across?
Kaitlin Stack Whitney 30:38
Sure, well, so for agriculture, in particular, if a state wants to incentivize nearby landowners to put in or participate in a living snow fence program, they might have to pay for that. So even though of course, safety is really important, that may actually end up leading to an initial increased costs. So that’s one potential consideration for transportation agencies. But again, the ultimate goal of managing a roadway and the roadside is for safety for everyone’s safety. So that might be a very worthwhile and small cost in the grand scheme of things. In the case of thinking about paying in biofuel operations, I think there’s a cost benefit calculation there, you’re gonna need probably different kinds of equipment that the state may may or may not already own. It may require different work practices, it depends, again, on how states are managing their roadsides already. So of course, it takes staff and equipment to go out and do harvesting or any kind of mowing operations. And then in the case of something like biofuels, if you need to turn, for example, what you’ve just harvested into pellets, there may be other equipment or infrastructure or contracts that are needed in order to actually turn what you just harvested into usable fuel. So I think the fact that some states are doing this means that those are not insurmountable challenges, it just means that it’s going to require a thinking through whether or not that’s going to work for a particular state and their particular management goals. In the case of the really unique urban farm situation, there are a lot of potential challenges. One, I think, is just very specifically about are there other potential rights of way that are have this unique physical setup, where that might actually be a potential gain that isn’t doesn’t exist. Now. I don’t know the answer to that yet. I do know of some examples that are not on state highways or interstates that are on more local roads, where there may be opportunities for, for example, people to consider this that are on city or county land. And so again, it may just be learning about these potential uses, but operationalizing them on really different scales, right. So some of the uses that I’m thinking about are really specific to state managed land. But it might be that they’re actually more scalable for other kinds of transportation right of ways. And then of course, again, because the goal is always safety, we do need to remember that roadsides are an interesting space. And I will say this is how I personally started thinking about roadside. So when I was in graduate school, I had a fellowship that was focused on what’s known as novel ecosystems. And so what novel ecosystems means really is just what is a kind of ecosystem was a kind of natural space that really only exists because of human activity. And so my previous work was really all with farms and thinking about farms as a space that of course, people created. And as I was finishing up my, my PhD, I became really interested in roadsides, it’s one of those spaces, you know, I was driving to all these farms are spending a lot of time on the road. And it was really making me think about I think about those as a novel ecosystem. I think about these as a space that literally has very unique properties that would not exist if not for human management in these particular ways. And so they are their own ecosystem, and there are things living in there. And I think people would be surprised by how many kinds of things are actually living in highway rights of way, at the same time we created them, and we have we’ve put particular constraints on them. And so in the case of thinking about again, can we do agriculture successfully and transportation right aways, especially in highways? Because that Northstar is always going to be about safety. There are very specific rules about for example, what you can and can’t do in those right away spaces. And so some of it has to do with fixed objects or other things. So again, that’s one of the reasons we don’t want trees close to the road is that if someone were to leave the roadway as an if they lost control of their vehicle and ended up driving off into the grass, reducing or eliminating fixed objects is safer for anyone’s who vehicle who left the roadside whether or not that was unplanned as in some sort of accident or planned as in you need to pull over to the side of the road for a safety reason. Like you’ve got a flat tire or, you know, a police officer is pulling someone over so those needs and that kind of orientation always towards safety may mean that not all of these really cool ideas might work in all places,
Alexander Morse 35:09
you know, to that point of having that clearance for safety, and that we’re not able to do everything everywhere, I might throw a little bit of a curveball question, why don’t we just let the grass overrun? Why do we mow anyway? Why do we have infrastructure? You know, if states wanted to concern themselves with costs? Why not just let it be, you know, maybe maybe mow twice a year as opposed to however often they might?
Kaitlin Stack Whitney 35:35
Yeah, that’s a great question. So why Mo, or basically manage roadsides in the first place? The short answer is you have to if you want to keep it as that clear, safe space. So in many places, especially here in the northeast, right, you and I are chatting in New York, if those spaces were not managed, you said, let’s save all the money by having no one go out and manage, he would grow full of trees, and it would grow potentially full of vines, that then might end up actually in the roadway. So eventually, it would actually create a problem for the infrastructure that you’re actually directly trying to use. And so if we completely stopped managing, you wouldn’t really eventually lose the ability to operate your vehicle and for people and goods to move safely.
Alexander Morse 36:19
I guess I always took it for granted. You know, since it’s always mode, you’re never seeing any tree saplings grow into any big trees, or I never would have never thought about vines over running the road.
Kaitlin Stack Whitney 36:31
I mean, this is one of the reasons why I really have to say that I love thinking about highway rights of ways that absolutely you are right, that we all take it for granted, we do have to take it for granted, it is what’s happening in the background, so that the road exists and is not covered in poison ivy or other plants, for example, right. So that that everyone can travel safely. So to me, it’s a great example of all of the work that in practice, you know, the government is doing so that the rest of us can go live our lives are these those kinds of things that are in the background, like, for example, you know, all the power lines that mean that my internet is running, and my lights are on. So I can chat with you right now, right? It’s like these things that are happening in the background so that we can actually use roadways. So I do think that that’s one of the reasons for me personally, why I find centering highway roadside, so exciting in my research is that it’s often a space that is seen as kind of like I’m just passing through it, or I’ve never thought about it before. It can be really easy to not think about or to just assume that it’s kind of like degraded, it’s not interesting, it’s not important. And so one of the things that I really find exciting is to learn more about them, and again, to actually learn about all the things that are happening in them. And so part of that is all about how states are trying to do innovative things in them. And some of it is about really learning that they can be sites of conservation potentially. So for example, in the case of looking at pollinators, and pollinator habitat, as one of the cases, it was really thinking about, you know, our state’s doing this, how are they doing this? Because really, from some of my other work, I can tell you that we do find pollinators and other kinds of insects that people do want to conserve in highway roadsides. And so even though often when we’re traveling on the highway, we’re probably moving too fast to see a lot of things, it can be easy to assume that there’s really nothing there, right or that it’s just grass there. And that’s just not true. There’s actually a lot of biological diversity in highway road sides.
Alexander Morse 38:29
And just to add, so you looked at pollinator plants as a third case study in your blog. And so what has your research uncovered there as both benefits and trade offs?
Kaitlin Stack Whitney 38:42
Yeah, so I think this is a really interesting one there. Were I a little bit my findings surprise me in that maybe it’s no longer considered sort of an innovative edge case, because it’s clear that many, many states are actually explicitly doing pollinator plantings in roadsides in their state, and telling people about it. And so I think that this one is maybe less of a cutting edge, because there’s been more attention, especially in the last decade to for example, campaigns, like about saving the bees, where there’s much more of an awareness about pollinators. And in this case, there’s actually lots of different benefits. So one of the benefits I learned about a couple years ago, had to do again, with thinking about safety, which was actually that when you break up the visual monotony of roadsides, which is often just green grass, right, as far as the eye can see, this can actually potentially lead people to pay more attention while driving. And so especially for people who are transporting goods, long distances, that was a really fascinating example of a potential synergy where it’s conserving something for wildlife, but then it’s potentially actually making the roadway and the driving experience safer for people who are traveling long distances. And so anywhere we can get those kinds of Win Win benefits for thinking about environmental benefits and and benefits for people. I think it’s really exciting. Many states also, though, have goals in terms of thinking about either, you know, participating in voluntary conservation agreements. So for example, this monitor conservation agreement that’s voluntary, many different states and private and public energy utilities and other folks that have right away land are banding together, not because they have to, but because they’re choosing to create pollinator habitat. And so those states might actually be choosing to and now that they are part of that agreement, they’re complying by that agreement by managing the rights of ways in that way. And that actually, really, in many ways, comes out of the 2015. Previous federal administration’s goal for having a national strategy and policy to promote pollinator health. And in that policy, there are really two focal pollinators. One was honeybees, because those are very important for agriculture in the US. So economically, and the other was monarch butterflies. And so monarch butterflies don’t actually pollinate food crops for us in the US, but they are declining. And they are very charismatic species that many people care about. And so in that proposal, way back now, in 2015, the federal government was promoting the use of roadsides and just areas that were near roads, in particular, the interstate 35 corridor that runs between Minnesota and Texas, to try to set up conservation area to promote that flyway, that area that monarchs actually traveled north and south to go over winter. And so since then, we’ve seen many different states adopt their own state level pollinator plans. And those plans are not necessarily legislation. So if they’re not legislation, what it generally meant was that states were actually looking at their own agencies and their own land holdings and figuring out where they could increase or start promoting pollinator conservation. And so in many states, that actually meant that they were either increasing or starting doing pollinator initiatives on transportation lands. So many, many states are doing that. And then one of the things that I was digging into was that there’s a longer history here that was just not necessarily called pollinator conservation. So there were some previous policies that have been to promote wildflowers in roadsides, and floral resources. Flowers are important for pollinators, so many states for longer than they’ve been talking explicitly about pollinator conservation have been planting wildflowers and roadsides. And some of that is again for thinking about safety. And some of it is for scenic byways and just for tourists and other, you know, driver and passenger enjoyment to create beautiful landscapes in their state.
Alexander Morse 42:44
So considering that there’s been a longer history of pollinator plants and pollinator policy, that would suggest that there’s a lot of data on this policy that we I think we might understand, we know what the benefits and the trade offs are. A little bit more concretely, is that is that so or are we still kind of in the nascent period of studying this?
Kaitlin Stack Whitney 43:06
So one of the challenges of studying the the effects of this is that many of the state pollinator plans because they are not policies did not allocate resources. So there’s not necessarily monitoring. So from a different study that I did, I looked at all the state pollinator plans with the help of a research assistant. And we were looking for whether or not they included, basically, the Pew centers guidelines for evidence based state policymaking and that included, for example, monitoring and then allocating resources and reevaluating there’s really six criteria for evidence based policymaking. And we found that very few state pollinator plans include all of those criteria. So just from a separate analysis that’s linked to in the blog, it can tell you that in the first set of state pollinator plans that we looked at, this is one of those challenges. Only one state in the country has their pollinator plan as a piece of legislation, which meant that it actually was enacted in a different way. Right and allocated resources in a different way state was this, it was Connecticut, actually. And so that’s one of the guidance that the Pew Center highlights in its state first initiative, excuse me, its Results First Initiative for states is that if you want to have evidence based policymaking, make it a piece of legislation, right? You can make it binding you put resources behind it. And so when we were looking for whether or not state pollinator plants have those hallmarks that evidence based, best practices for policymaking, we found that most didn’t they just they were using a different process that again, was really focused on managing their own state resources. And so I think again, that’s partly why we see states maybe looking into transportation lands is that states actually have a lot of land in transportation lands so many states. They’re one of the largest landowners in the state is the State Department. of transportation. And so whether or not we’re thinking about that use for pollinators, or for solar or anything else, it’s a great reminder that all of that land adds up. And so in many cases, that state agency is actually one of the largest landholders. And I think that would be surprising to many people.
Alexander Morse 45:18
Certainly surprising to me. And it’s surprising that the concept of pollinator plants isn’t, I think that’s such a fascinating answer, or realization that this isn’t quite it’s not a policy, therefore, it doesn’t have to be tracked or managed. It was just done by whatever organization or entity was in charge of planting these pollinator plants. So I was oh, sorry, had boots.
Kaitlin Stack Whitney 45:43
So one of the things that was interesting in going through that is that some states actually had a start and a stop year for their pollinator plan. So when they released it, they actually said, this is a plan for, for example, 2015 to 2020. And then one of the things that we were looking for in the last year was have states released updated plan. So some states, including New York, by the way, have released updates to their original pollinator plan. And so some states have and those states may include and New York did include reports on what they had done since they implemented the plan. So in the case of New York, I can say that after the initial plan came out, they were tracking what various parts of the state agencies were doing that were part of that plan, and did release an update to that plan. Not every state has done that. And some states have let their pollinator plans expire. I found in that analysis that about a third of states, in their pollinator plants explicitly included transportation lands in their planning. But right as you said, because those plans themselves might be goals, it might mean that they don’t meet those goals, or they don’t necessarily have to report on those goals. Or maybe those are internal and and we just don’t have access to that information publicly.
Alexander Morse 46:54
Well, we’ll get into some wild ideas about what you might want to change about policy. Before we get there. I want to look towards the future near term long term. And we’re going to start with a broad scope and kind of work our way down at the national level at the federal level. What policies are being discussed that you’re aware of? What are new policies about roadside innovation that you’re aware of? Or is the Biden administration discussing anything regarding roadsides?
Kaitlin Stack Whitney 47:23
Well, in practice, the recent infrastructure bill that passed and is now being implemented does include elements that touch upon roadside. So that particular piece of legislation includes funding for wildlife crossings. So we recognize that for some, especially large animals, and in particular, maybe large animals out west, so think about things really big, like bears, for example, it may not ever be a good idea, safety wise for people and forebears for them to be using roadsides as conservation habitat, whereas that’s a very different calculation for a butterfly for both the butterfly and people. Right. So wildlife crossings and passages to get over or around highways are a big piece of what’s happening in that infrastructure plan. I think it’s again, what it to me it really speaks to that’s exciting is recognizing that roads go through every kind of ecosystem and that roadsides themselves are habitat. And so if we need to, for example, direct turtles or frogs under roads, so for example, for amphibians, there’s talk about underpasses, whereas for much bigger animals, right, those are overpasses generally. And that’s again, it’s all oriented towards safety, right? Having animal vehicle collisions is not safe for wildlife. And it’s not safe for people. And so recognizing that keeping the network of roads that we have while living with other kinds of life on the planet means trying to find solutions for everyone. So that’s really exciting to see. I do think more of this discussion around the future of federal fuel tax change will have big implications for what happens, right. So just changing the amount of funding available for infrastructure maintenance and potential future construction might change what states are able to do or not do. So as, as we saw last year with, for example, the bridge collapse that I believe happened in Pittsburgh, people are really concerned about infrastructure. And so when we’re concerned about just having safe roads and bridges to travel on, that may mean that states don’t feel like they can start thinking really creatively about potential future uses or things that might require additional upfront cost. So I think actually tackling that infrastructure funding gap, which in part can be addressed at a federal level will create more opportunities for states to think creatively because it will provide more resources for them to address those really urgent and immediate needs right for addressing unsafe or you know, really old infrastructure that might be crumbling before we can even think about doing exciting creative things on roadside
Alexander Morse 50:00
iPads and taking those initiatives and now looking at New York State, taking that kind of future looking policy agenda, same question what’s going on in New York?
Kaitlin Stack Whitney 50:11
Well, so in in two of the cases that I looked at for the blog, we found that New York was already participating in the so for example, in New York State, we find evidence of of living snow fence programs and of having pollinator plantings in roadsides. And so if you like me traveled down the thruway, you will also see them on the thruway of the we find examples of this and a bunch of different roads and highways across New York of their being pollinator friendly plantings. Right now, New York does not have solar highway initiatives. And so I’ll be curious in the future, to see if that will be something that’s pursued. New York state recently started right. And well, there will be I think, a bunch of listening sessions this summer about a very ambitious climate policy that’s happening here at the state level. And so some of what we’re talking about, maybe ways in which the state can actually achieve some of those climate goals. And so I think that’s actually an open question, I’ll be really interested to see as those conversations about how New York State wants to hit those milestones, if they pursue some of these same, basically tools to do it. So for example, if we think about comparing New York and Oregon, will New York, like Oregon want to be thinking about using transportation land holdings, to generate renewable energy, because New York might want to do that as part of hitting its renewable energy portfolio goals. It might also mean that one of the uses that wasn’t in the blog, New York wants to explore so carbon sequestration in roadsides is one of the other potential uses that I’m looking at. And right now, it’s very rare in US states, I believe there’s only one state that we can point to that’s actually doing this right now. And just
Alexander Morse 51:52
to clarify, carbon sequestration is the capturing the removal of carbon from the atmosphere?
Kaitlin Stack Whitney 51:58
Yes. And so in the case of of trying to remove carbon to the atmosphere to address climate goals. Right now, the only state that is doing this in roadsides is the New Mexico Department of Transportation. But I think one of the questions that we’ll be right this is really what I’m interested in at the end of the day is you can’t necessarily do all of these in the same place. So for example, will it be compatible to do pollinator conservation and carbon sequestration in the same place? Many states, especially out west, if they’re in areas where there are wildfires are interested in doing fire prevention and mitigation strategies on their roadsides, that’s another one that I’m looking at. And some of these we know from the gecko are mutually exclusive. So for example, if you cover an area in solar panels, it will not also be covered in plants. And so some of this is trying to think about, can you put these things in the same place? And when you can’t put them in the same place? Or they are mutually exclusive? How will states decide which of these to do so all of these potential innovative uses have potential benefits and have potential cost considerations or potential constraints? And so how are states deciding what to do? So I did find that two states have looked at their land holdings conceptually, both Michigan and Florida to think about how they can basically get more value out of their transportation land holdings, and specifically rights of way. And in the case of Michigan, they were thinking about, where should we put different kinds of right of way uses. Now, both of those, though, are assuming policy as is. So again, if we think back to Oregon, and things like tax incentives, or net metering regulations, those are using the policy landscape as is. And so part of what I’m interested in is figuring out how our state’s thinking about taking a step further back and considering what other policies might we need to change or put in place or amend. So that really, as many options as possible are on the table for them.
Alexander Morse 54:06
So I have one more question for you. And it’s going to be kind of on the same theme of your last answer. You have just been appointed czar of roadsides, you get to implement any policy decision you want at, at at whatever cost funding isn’t a barrier, nothing stopping you from making your decisions. What are some of the wild ideas and creative innovations that you would like to implement?
Kaitlin Stack Whitney 54:30
Oh, this is so hard. I mean, I think that one of the one of the great reminders that because roads run through every ecosystem, I do think some of these answers are really going to vary. I don’t think even if I was the czar of roadsides that I could maybe wave my magic wand and pick one of these because I think that the truth is, it’s really different, for example, to have a pollinator planting in New York than to have it in Arizona. The landscape is really different. You can conserve pollinators in both of those spaces. But what that looks like is going to be really different. So I I do think and hope and if I was the roadsides are, would be trying to look for all of these Win Win environmental benefits that are still not compromising safety. And at the end of the day, that’s what all State department of transportation are trying to do. But I do think that I hope that there is more opportunity to think beyond grass. There are great reasons why mowed grass is sort of the default. And some states, again, are trying to increase even the number of plants in that sort of standard planting. So we have more bio diverse landscapes. But where can we do even more of that. And so I think that as we’ve had recent, you know, international climate agreements, more local level climate agreements and goals, that I hope that we can align, and really think about how roadsides can help people achieve those goals. I think that there’s a lot more that we could be doing, and that some of it will depend on what resources are available, right. So again, it does actually cost a lot of money, for example, to put in a solar array. But there might be other options depending on what resources are available to just contribute to, for example, more biodiversity and just have more plants out there.
Alexander Morse 56:19
Katelyn, thank you for joining today. This was a great conversation. I really appreciate all your insight and your expertise, and all of these variety and plethora of different policy initiatives and innovations. Really, thank you for joining today.
Kaitlin Stack Whitney 56:31
Thanks for so much for having me. And then hopefully, I’ll talk to you again in the future about more of these potential uses.
Alexander Morse 56:37
We’re looking forward to it. Thank you, Kaitlin.
Thanks again to Kaitlin Stack Whitney Nathan fellow at the Rockefeller Institute and assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Be sure to check out her blog, “All the Above: The Many Ways to Use Roadside Right-of Ways,” by visiting our website rockinst.org. If you liked this episode, please rate, subscribe, and share. It will help others find the podcast and help us deliver the latest public policy research. All of our episodes are available for free wherever you stream your podcast. Special thanks to Rockefeller Institute staff, Joel Tirado, Laura Rabinow, Heather Trela, and Laura Schultz for their contributions to this episode. Thanks for listening I’m Alex Morse. Until next time.
Policy Outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The Institute conducts cutting-edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York state and the nation to learn more at rockinst.org or by following RockefellerInst, that’s I-N-S-T on social media. Have a question, comment or idea? Email us at [email protected]
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