Follow the yellow brick road: the art of routing
01 July 2019
Proposed Foynes to Limerick preferred route corridor. Image: Courtesy of ROD-AECOM and Limerick City and County Council.
The overwhelming majority of objections to infrastructure projects are due to location. ‘Nimbyism’ (Not In My Back Yard) comes to mind when speaking of this; however, it is about more than that. A project’s location will be at the root of its impact and, therefore, the objections to it.
Traditional approaches have placed varying importance on the three key factors for routing: economics, engineering and environment. Changes have come from a number of sources: change in environmental impact assessment (EIA) legislation; legal challenges and; consultation and engagement.
Recent project examples show the changes in approach that are required and the role for modern tools such as Geographic Information System (GIS) and Building Information Modelling (BIM).
I recently worked on the Foynes to Limerick road scheme. The study area was dominated by difficult ground conditions (karst features) and groundwater-dependent designated sites.
The existing road in the north of the study area was assessed to be unsuitable for upgrading because of a number of reasons, including the designated sites immediately adjacent to the road. This would have been the shortest possible option.
The preferred route was chosen after years of surveys, consultation, analysis and appraisal of a wide range of factors. The preferred route mirrored a mid-19th century railway line, which was built to the south of the existing road, resulting in a longer route.
The 19th century railway engineers, without the benefit of modern technology, knew that location was key to the success of the project. A longer route was selected, despite the additional cost, as the risk from difficult ground conditions was a greater challenge.
This basic principle is still key to the success of major projects today but on top of asking ‘Can it be built here?’ there is also the question of ‘Should it be built here?’
In the past, the location of a project was largely determined by available land. However, changes in legislation and court cases have made routing (or site selection) more challenging.
Location is an obvious fundamental aspect of any project. Successful projects are those that have selected the right place. Identifying the right place and addressing the question ‘Should it be built here?’ is the balance of suitable land, engineering, economic and environmental constraints.
Selecting the ‘correct’ route or site for the project will minimise or prevent environmental impacts; reduce construction costs; and perhaps remove objections. The key is understanding the options for the project, ensuring that enough is known about the options and putting this across to interested parties.
Importance of location
It is difficult to find statistics on how many projects are challenged because of their location. However, I would suggest that the overwhelming majority of objections come down to location even if they are not labelled as such.
‘Impacts to protected species’, ‘too noisy’, ‘not in the local area plan’, ‘no need for it here’, ‘visual impacts’, ‘property devaluation’ – all these common types of objections are down to a project’s location and demonstrate the importance of getting the location right.
Where there are several locations or potential routes for a project, the options are weighed up using a comparative assessment. This determines where the best option is for the project.
This can take a number of forms, but all will have three basic components – can it be built here taking into account economics, engineering and environmental factors?
The need for the project is usually resolved early in the process; however, it still plays a role at this stage – does the need outweigh any economic, engineering or environmental challenges that might rule out this location?
In years gone by, environment would not have been given the same importance as cost or engineering. Now, environment is an equal factor along with economics and engineering. This is in line with the principles of sustainable development demonstrated in the overlapping Venn diagram.
The pros and cons of the three factors are generally weighed up, debated and there is a focus on the best compromise of all three factors. There is usually a temptation to try to quantify the environmental factors and assign scores to factors.
In my opinion, environmental factors in routing can rarely be quantified – if there are five houses that experience a slight benefit in terms of noise, do they outweigh one house that has a major adverse impact?
Should the major adverse noise impact be given a lower score than a slight adverse impact to an ecologically designated site? Usually the environmental factors will be qualitative by nature, and discussions, debates, reappraisals, reconsultations are needed to find the best solution. In any event, the process must be logical, transparent and defendable.
Changes in approach
Recent changes in the approach to routing/site selection have come from several sources:
• Change in EIA legislation – projects that need an EIA now require that the ‘reasonable alternatives’ be assessed. This is a more rigorous assessment than the previous legislation. This new requirement will allow statutory bodies and possible objectors to challenge the siting or the routing of projects in more detail.
• Legal challenges – projects have been successfully challenged in the courts because they are deemed to be in the wrong location. Roads schemes have even been withdrawn as a result of the threat of legal challenge or public disapproval.
• Consultation and engagement – since the Aarhus Convention, there has been a greater opportunity for the public to participate in planning procedures and this has only increased in recent years (for example, pre-application consultations or the process for national infrastructure planning projects). Also, there is a greater expectation from the public to be consulted and involved, not just informed.
The routing (or site selection) of a project increasingly involves more and more fieldwork. In the past, fewer surveys were done at this stage to ensure value for money, with greater reliance placed on desktop information.
Now, ecological surveys and ground investigations are becoming the norm on potential route corridors and not just the final preferred route. This obviously results in additional time and effort expended at an early stage of the project, but the additional cost is a fraction of later legal challenges and project delays.
Projects have been challenged because of routing through changes in ecological priorities. For example, non-designated habitats, when impacted by a project, are reassessed and become designated.
This can result in project cancellation, legal challenges or rerouting. This was the case on the N22 Baile Bhuirne to Macroom road scheme where the route affected an area outside of a special area of conservation.
Consultations on this section of the route resulted in the expansion of the designated site and the rerouting of the scheme. This is an example where early consultation helped to resolve the issues before the final route was published.
The need for early surveys especially applies where mobile species are concerned – the likes of whooper swans will not obey the designated site boundaries and impacts to areas outside of the designated sites can be a major challenge to the project.
This was the case on the A6 Randalstown to Castledawson dualling scheme. While the route was outside of the site designated because of whooper swans, objectors argued that the route still affected the designated sites as the birds fed on land outside of this site and, therefore, the site would be affected.
Agreement from the public and statutory bodies has become more important than ever. In 2017, the UK transport secretary cancelled the A27 Chichester road scheme in advance of the preferred route announcement.
The “withdrawal of support by local councils for the shortlisted options and significant local campaigns” were cited as the reasons. The public has increased legal rights to be involved in the planning process and, moreover, there is an increased expectation for involvement.
The days of designers saying ‘We know best and it’s going here’ are long gone and more dynamic and thoughtful conversations are needed. This is reflected in the evolution of stakeholder engagement. This is now a specialist field and no longer is a simple matter of sending leaflets and putting up display boards.
The way forward
As a result of additional legislative requirements and a greater expectation from the public and statutory bodies, significantly more effort is being put into routing of projects.
This is being achieved through early surveys and investigations but also through the use of tools such as GIS and BIM. Undoubtedly, these modern tools have greatly assisted the development of projects.
GIS and BIM are rapidly becoming the key to the success of infrastructure projects and are no longer just window dressing. There are increasingly more layers of data available to projects and the success of projects will be determined by using this data effectively.
GIS, in particular on the environmental front, is now a fully integrated project tool covering all aspects of a project. It is used for collating data from statutory bodies, allowing survey teams to input survey results directly in the field using tablet devices but can also be used to interpret complex data for the project team, public and clients.
An example of the application of GIS is Jacobs’s ProjectMapper, a web-based system that is at the heart of a large number of major infrastructure projects.
It is a tool for all project team members, the client and public alike. By using ProjectMapper, the maze of data layers can be clearly presented with an intuitive system to allow users to see what they want from the project and to better understand, and perhaps, accept the project.
The ProjectMapper tool is currently being used on the A96 road scheme (Scotland) and MetroLink (Dublin). On these projects, it has been used not just for routing but as a design tool, a client interface, a library and a public consultation tool.
ProjectMapper can also be used as the basis of Digital EIA, which is the way forward on large infrastructure projects and a key challenge to the EIA profession in the next two to three years.
While GIS and BIM are key to the interpretation of these layers of data, it is down to the project team to make proper use of these tools.
Like the 19th century railway engineers, technical capability is the starting point, but a wide range of factors must be addressed to ensure the successful routing of a project in modern times.
While environmental factors are often headline issues, they cannot be looked at in isolation – the other components of the Venn diagram are equally important.
A successful project will be one that has selected the best location and route based on the perfect blend of economics, engineering and environmental considerations, and where the public and statutory bodies have been fully engaged.
Steps for successful routing
The key questions that any project team should ask itself are:
• Early surveys and investigations – has the affected area been ‘ground-truthed’? Are you sure that the conditions are what they appear on a map? Could/should the area be designated?
• Full consideration – have all reasonable alternatives been considered? Can the selected route/location/design be defended from challenge at later stages?
• Specialist inputs – have all specialists inputted to the process? Have all engineering, economic and environmental inputs been heard and considered?
• Tools – Has the available technology been effectively used? Is the GIS system useable and useful to the project?
• Consultation – have you fully consulted at an early stage with affected landowners, the public and statutory bodies?
Author: Fay Lagan, technical director, environment, maritime and resilience, Jacobs Engineering. Views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily those of Jacobs Engineering Ltd.
2.) The scheme promoter (DFI Roads) successfully defended the legal challenge in 2017 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-39408566