No cash = High grass

June 5, 2009 8:01:56 AM PDT
America's highways are growing green: Grasses, shrubs and wildflowers are exploding across median strips and road shoulders this summer as shrinking maintenance budgets prompt mowing cutbacks in many states.

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Gone are the days of broad, manicured roadscapes. Highways are taking on a shaggier look for the peak travel season.

There could be some environmental benefit, one group said, because the expanded greenery will help clean the air, filter stormwater and reduce erosion along the nation's nearly 4 million miles of roadways.

"In short, reduced mowing is good for the transportation agency because it saves them money and time. It also saves energy and reduces emissions: good for all living things," said Trisha White, habitats and highways specialist with the Washington-based conservation group Defenders of Wildlife.

Some safety experts are concerned, though, that too little mowing will promote weed growth that could block drivers' sightlines at intersections and leave no shoulders for pulling over.

"It's a bad policy" unless state agencies mow for safety and reseed roadsides with low-growth plants, said Gerald Donaldson, senior research director with Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a public interest group in Washington.

Weeds can grow very tall, very fast, he said. "Just imagine if a highway department had all of a sudden taken a roadside and for several miles erected a 7- or 8-foot concrete barrier," Donaldson added.

At the Virginia Department of Transportation, which just announced a 50-percent mowing reduction to save $20 million, safety comes first, spokesman Jeffrey Caldwell said.

"Anywhere there are safety issues - sight-distance issues, known animal crossings - we'll still mow those areas. But we're not going to do fenceline-to-fenceline mowing like we do today."

Instead of mowing all rights-of-way, including medians, several times a year, workers will mow the full width only once every four years, Caldwell said.

Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania also recently announced mowing cutbacks. States rely on fuel taxes to fund their highway maintenance programs, and fuel sales have been hurt by the recession and the shift toward thriftier vehicles, Caldwell said.

With no federal regulations for roadside landscaping, states can mow as they please along the 12 million acres of federal highway corridors they maintain.

The trend toward shaggier roadsides began decades ago. The Federal Highway Administration says Wisconsin adopted a "natural roadsides" philosophy in the 1950s to save on mowing costs along newly built four-lane divided highways. Other Midwestern and Western states followed.

In Iowa, which banned most roadside mowing in 2003, save for safety reasons and noxious weed control, 75 percent of roadways are now planted with native prairie grasses, wildflowers, woody shrubs and evergreens that block drifting snow, said Iowa DOT spokeswoman Dena Gray-Fisher.

But in other states, especially more populous ones, mowing for aesthetic reasons prevailed.

"Obviously, we come from a long tradition of mowing from right-of-way fence to right-of-way fence," said Bonnie Harper-Lore, a Federal Highway Administration restoration ecologist. "It has just kind of become a tradition, probably from our European ancestors who liked to keep things neat."

In fact, the Delaware Department of Transportation refers to the single swath of mowed grass just off highway shoulders as a "beauty strip." Spokesman Darrel Cole said the agency is considering no longer mowing beauty strips along highways with ample paved shoulders.

Travelers across Kentucky will see more bluegrass. Robin Jenkins, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, said mowing on rural highways will be cut 25 percent this year, to three cycles from four.

Roadside greenery provides shelter for wildlife. Several states, including South Dakota and Utah, have changed mowing schedules to avoid disturbing ring-necked pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse and prairie chickens that nest alongside roadways.

Joe Michael, a Hagerstown, Md., lawyer and bird hunter, said he likes seeing roadside vegetation flourishing in Maryland and other states.

"If you add up all that habitat, it provides homes to many species of small animals and especially birds - and there's not enough of that going around," Michael said.

While reduced mowing expands wildlife habitat, there is no clear evidence that the number of road kills will rise. On the contrary, Harper-Lore said mowing causes more road kills, especially in the arid West, as animals cross roads to reach tender new shoots after a cutting.

Not everyone likes let-it-grow policies. Cole said the Delaware DOT has received several complaints about the natural look.

"A couple weeks ago, we had a call from someone who complained about tall grass and said it was blocking visibility, so we went and cut the grass," Cole said. "People are noticing and they're calling and they want the grass mowed."

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