Illinois' road to environmental stewardship: IDOT's innovative approaches to mitigation

3/8/2024 Kent Reel

Illinois Department of Transportation is taking proactive steps to enhance the integration of environmental sustainability within transportation infrastructure projects, a process regulated by state and federal environmental requirements.

IDOT and Illinois Center for Transportation are focusing on refining and streamlining these processes in two projects, R27-SP61: Results of IDOT Wetland Mitigation Needs Assessment and R27-SP64: Endangered Species Mitigation Needs Assessment.

R27-SP61: Results of IDOT Wetland Mitigation Needs Assessment

IDOT’s efforts to improve wetland and stream mitigation practices reflect its pledge to environmental stewardship.

Wetland mitigation involves the restoration, creation or enhancement of wetlands to compensate for those lost to development and construction activities. This process is crucial for preserving water quality, protecting wildlife habitats and maintaining natural landscapes.

Kimberly Burkwald and Shawn Wilcockson, IDOT’s landscape and environmental resource specialist and natural resource unit manager, respectively, lead the project.

Joining them are Prairie Research Institute’s principal research scientists Geoff Pociask and Brian Wilm.

“The purpose of this research was to document the existing challenges related to wetland and stream mitigation needs at IDOT and research long term sustainable solutions,” Burkwald said.

The researchers examined how other states tackle wetland and stream mitigation to see where IDOT can refine its methods, highlighting successful strategies and areas for agency improvement.

They advocate for a proactive approach to environmental mitigation, including centralized planning and exploring multiple strategies for generating or identifying mitigation credits.

Mitigation credits are part of a system designed to offset environmental impacts from development by preserving, restoring, enhancing or creating natural habitats elsewhere.

This shift involves anticipating IDOT’s construction program and schedule, identifying regions where there may be a shortage of wetland or stream mitigation credits and acting before it becomes a bottleneck.

The expected outcome is a more efficient approach to wetland and stream mitigation, potentially reducing the time from project inception to construction.

“Faster project delivery and implementation means safe roads and infrastructure for the public to travel on and a more efficient use of tax payer dollars which support these programs,” Burkwald said.

This bridge over the LaMoine River in Hancock County exemplifies Illinois' commitment to integrating infrastructure with environmental stewardship, ensuring the protection of waterways and their biodiversity. Photograph by Rachel Vinsel.
Photograph by Rachel Vinsel. This bridge over the LaMoine River in Hancock County exemplifies Illinois’ resolve to integrate infrastructure with environmental stewardship, ensuring the protection of waterways and their biodiversity.

R27-SP64: Endangered Species Mitigation Needs Assessment

Addressing the complexities of threatened and endangered species conservation, this effort illustrates IDOT’s resolve to protect Illinois’ natural heritage during transportation projects.

Burkwald and Wilcockson lead the project along with Prairie Research Institute’s principal research scientist Wendy Schelsky, academic hourly Mason Dillard and scientific specialist Dusty Swedberg.

Developers of transportation projects are required by state and federal laws to obtain permits that explain how they plan to avoid, minimize or mitigate impacts to threatened and endangered species.

Obtaining these permits requires consultation with regulatory authorities, which can delay construction projects and make project costs hard to predict.

“The Illinois Department of Transportation is seeking solutions to the problems that arise during this consultation process so that they can streamline projects and predict the costs in advance,” Schelsky said.

“The aim of the research was to identify ways in which IDOT might streamline the consultation process for species that are particularly prone to causing project delays,” she added.

By refining the consultation process and establishing clear, consistent mitigation protocols, IDOT is poised to significantly reduce project timelines and financial overheads.

This approach not only accelerates infrastructure development, but also ensures a more effective contribution to the preservation of Illinois’ natural heritage.

Through the two projects, IDOT aims to improve ecological preservation processes while supporting infrastructure development, setting a standard for transportation departments nationwide.

“It is our (IDOT’s) mission to provide safe, cost-effective transportation for Illinois in ways that enhance quality of life, promote economic prosperity, and demonstrate respect for our environment,” Burkwald said. “I think this research and any resulting changes will really promote this.”

The Monkeyface mussel (left) and the Rainbow mussel (right), both listed as endangered species in Illinois, symbolize the critical need for conservation efforts amidst infrastructure expansion.  Photos by Alison Stodola and Rachel Vinsel.
Photos by Alison Stodola and Rachel Vinsel. From left: The monkeyface mussel and the rainbow mussel are listed as threatened and endangered species, respectively, in Illinois. Mussels are the most frequently encountered threatened and endangered species in Illinois infrastructure projects, particularly those involving bridges.