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Integration of National-Level Geospatial Ecological Tools and Data for Transportation

Matt Ball on September 2, 2014 - in Analysis, Projects, Transportation

TRB’s second Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP 2) Capacity Project C40A has released a pre-publication, non-edited version of a report that documents the development of an integrated, geospatial ecological screening tool for early transportation planning to help inform the environmental review process.

From the report’s executive summary:

The purpose of this report is to document the methods and results of the project, “Integration of National – Level Geospatial Ecological Tools and Data” . This project was carried out under the Transportation Research Board’s (TRB’s) second Strategic Highway Program (SHRP 2), within the Capacity focus area. The primary objective of the project was to develop an integrated, geospatial ecological screening to ol for early transportation planning that produces results that can carry through and inform the environmental review process.

To meet the objective, the team completed several tasks to determine the needs for the tool, develop a vision, design and archi tect the tool, coordinate with potential users and related research projects, build and test a beta version, and update the tool based on feedback. The resulting product of the research was the Eco-Plan website.

Eco-Plan is a central resource for current, national geospatial data that can be used to identify and avoid conflicts between ecological assets and transportation plans before the NEPA process begins. Eco-Plan supports transportation planning by providing prepared maps of national ecological data sets that can be used to avoid and minimize transportation impacts. Eco-Plan can be used to:

  • Review maps of national ecological data sets
  • Find data and other useful GIS information
  • Upload or draw a planning area or transportation network
  • Explore conservation priorities as a novice user without GIS skills

The team also implemented Eco – Plan Advanced, a separate website hosted by Esri ArcGIS Online, which provides all of the information available through Eco – Pl an with additional capabilities:

  • Add any data set to the prepared maps of national ecological data
  • Set up groups to save, share and comment on maps
  • Conduct GIS analysis and create reports

Upon completion of the project, ICF participated in both a conference presentation at the 2014 GIS -T conference in Burlington, VT and a SHRP Tuesday webinar on Eco-Plan. Considering the results of the project and the feedback received at those two events, ICF has drawn the following conclusions:

There is a wealth of existing GIS data and tools, but they are hard to find – Through our own research and discussions with the User Group and Beta Test Group, we’ve concluded that there are numerous federal data sets that would be useful to planners, but they are hard to find. GIS data and tools are owned and managed by various fede ral agencies without centralized management. Tools like Eco – Plan and EPA’s new EnviroAtlas do help to consolidate references to many of the existing GIS web services.

Eco – Plan does meet many of the needs identified early in the project for smaller state DO Ts and MPOs – At the first T – ETG review meeting, the group decided to primarily target audience the smaller state DOTs and MPOs without significant in – house GIS resources. This decision informed the future design and functionality of Eco – Plan and resulted in a website that provides interactive maps, references to authoritative data sources, and links to supporting GIS tools.

Eco – Plan was considered easy to use and useful – The beta test results show that over 75% of the users felt Eco – Plan was easy to use, useful, and navigable. • Local data is still key for in – depth analysis – Users still prefer local data over national, federal data when available for detailed analysis. Users expressed concern at solely relying on national data given its high geographic scal e, frequency of updates, and accuracy.

Architecture decision appears to be in line with direction of many states – The research team struggled with designing an architecture that met users’ needs, would be accepted by state DOTs and MPOs, and did not place a large administrative or cost burden on the future system owner. After much analysis, the team designed an architecture built around ArcGIS Online. The decision to utilize ArcGIS Online appears to in line with the direction that many state DOTs, especially those in the growing AASHTO TIG program, are taking to manage and publish GIS data.

To support full adoption of Eco – Plan, it is suggested:

Continuing the search for a final system owner – FHWA has been investigating options for a final system owner. It would be desirable to find a viable system owner, using a sustainable hosting model, that will allow Eco – Plan to grow and evolve.

Defining the role of the future system owner – The role of the future system owner needs to be defined and documented to set e xpectations. Ideally, the role would include more than just hosting the website. It would be best if the system owner could continually find new data sets and tools and update the website appropriately.

Finishing the Ecological Screening tool prototype – During the temporary hosting period of the research project, the Ecological Screening tool prototype was limited to six states and three main data sets to save disk space. The system owner should consider loading data for the remaining states.

Adding more data sets to the Ecological Screening tool – The Ecological Screening tool uses the critical habitats, wetlands, and protected areas data sets. Eco – Plan would be enhanced if additional data sets were added to the tool to better inform users during initial project screening.

Adding official state, regional, and local data sets – The scope of the research project was to focus on national data sets. However, there are many official state, regional, and local data sets that are currently used in transportation planning. The system owner should consider adding those to Eco – Plan to increase the website’s value as an authoritative source for transportation planning data.

The full report can be found here: onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/shrp2/SHRP2prepubC40Areport.pdf

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