CSS History

History of Context Sensitive Solutions (CSS)


The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which required transportation agencies to consider adverse impacts of road projects on the environment, might be considered as the beginning of CSS, at least at the national level. Another key moment in the evolution of CSS occurred in the late 1990s, when the Maryland Department of Transportation conducted the influential "Thinking Beyond the Pavement" conference, which yielded fourteen key principles of CSS, including seven "Qualities that Characterize Excellence in Transportation Design" and seven "Characteristics of the Process that will Yield Excellence in Transportation Design."

In the current decade, CSS has been formalized into national transportation planning and project development processes. In 2003, the Federal Highway Administration identified "Environmental Stewardship & Streamlining" as one of its three "Vital Few Goals". "Environmental Stewardship & Streamlining" includes the objective of incorporating CSS into the transportation planning processes of all 50 states. In 2004, the FHWA and partners launched its comprehensive ContextSensitiveSolutions.org website, and in the following year core principles of CSS were promoted in the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU).


Although many of the strategies of Context Sensitive Solutions were implemented informally for years by the Illinois Department of Transportation, IDOT officially began researching and developing its approach to CSS in 2002. Throughout 2003, IDOT trained upper-level personnel, solicited feedback at meetings in five key municipalities and with regional transportation agencies/councils, and held interviews across the country with state transportation departments that had developed their own CSS policies.

This led to legislation passed by the State Legislature in 2003 (PA 093-0545), and departmental policies by 2005. Key features of IDOT's formal CSS policy, which seeks to establish a process for providing cost-effective transportation facilities, include:

  1. A balance between mobility, community needs and the environment, while keeping safety paramount.
  2. Involving stakeholders in the decision-making process early and continuously throughout the development of the project.
  3. Addressing all modes of transportation in the planning and design of the project.
  4. Using all appropriate disciplines to help plan for and design the project.
  5. Applying the flexibility inherent in our design standards to fit a project into its surroundings and add lasting value to the communities it serves.
  6. Incorporating aesthetics as part of basic design.

IDOT has identified general specifications as to when the formal CSS process is required, and what sort of "stakeholder involvement process" is to be included. The CSS process is generally required in transportation projects that involve new construction and reconstruction or major expansion of existing transportation infrastructure, but it may not be required if an expedited schedule is necessary, or if consensus has already been established. In its Departmental Policy on CSS, IDOT states that its CSS process will include Stakeholder Involvement Processes that are "applicable to a wide range of projects," "flexible and modular," and "simple enough to avoid adding another layer of process to an already lengthy planning and design schedule." Last, IDOT's Departmental Policy stipulates that "The Department is ultimately responsible for the safety and integrity of the state transportation system and therefore must make the final decisions regarding any and all aspects of the projects."

For further information on the history of its development of a departmental CSS policy, along with current CSS policies and guidelines, resources, training, and current projects, IDOT has created its own CSS website.

CSS in the 2030 Regional Transportation Plan and the 2040 Framework Plan

The guiding principles identified at the "Thinking Beyond the Pavement" conference coincide with several of the goals and implementation strategies of the 2030 Regional Transportation Plan (RTP) and the NIPC 2040 Framework Plan. For example, the RTP calls for an approach that is interdisciplinary, transparent, and involves a wide range of stakeholders – the earlier, the better. Additionally, a key "quality of excellence" identified by the conference is that "The project is seen as having added lasting value to the community." In line with this, the RTP states that "New investment should shape the transportation system in support of an evolving vision for the region's future economic and social development," and that transportation planners "should design local community transportation systems to enhance the quality of life of residents."

Local CSS Projects

While many completed IDOT projects have embraced CSS principles, at time of this writing, IDOT has not completed a transportation project implementing a formal, comprehensive CSS process. Several projects with formal CSS processes, however, are in the works (i.e. the Elgin O'Hare – West Bypass, Illinois Rte. 47, and Illinois Rte. 31).

Even without the formal banner of CSS, in 2004 IDOT received the Award of Excellence in Urban Highways from the Federal Highway Administration for its reconstruction of South Lake Shore Drive, which used "a context-sensitive plan that not only improved the roadway but enhanced the neighborhood," implementing a significant public involvement process that yielded a number of improvements, including new pedestrian underpasses and a new roadway drainage system that has improved water quality for Lake Michigan (see discussion of this project later in the paper).

Kane County's Stearns Road Bridge Corridor project, targeted for completion in 2020, has implemented an informal CSS process that has helped tackle an assortment of unique challenges. The project will include a new multi-modal bridge (separately carrying both auto and bike traffic) across the Fox River, a 4.6-mile new road realignment that weaves its way around multiple environmentally-sensitive "fens," and preserves approximately 2/3 of its right-of-way for open space.

Another relevant project is Illinois Rte. 19, in Itasca. The initial IDOT proposal of a five-lane cross-section was modified following extensive public information meetings and alternatives analysis. This resulted in a new plan for a five-lane cross-section for the west end of the project in the commercial area, which narrows to a two-lane roadway, separated by a grassed barrier median, through the residential area.

CSS is also playing a role in the development of the study for the Prairie Parkway, in Kendall, Kane, and Will Counties. Thus far, the study has included extensive public involvement, especially in the development of alternatives assessment. The study's website is extremely user-friendly, and emphasizes the public involvement program.

Are you familiar with any of these transportation projects that utilized context sensitive approaches in northeast Illinois?

How far along is the project? What do you think of the results, so far?

If you were involved – what did you think of the process?