California Department of Transportation

Module 1: Policy and Process
Lesson 2: Rationale for Assessing Visual Impacts

Slide 39

Rationale for Assessing Visual Impacts

This second lesson suggests that although the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) require that visual impacts be evaluated for projects using federal or state financing, the basis for conducting a VIA ultimately rests on the notion that the public demands it.


Slide 40

Rationale for Assessing Visual Impacts

America’s National Parks capture some of the country’s most scenic landscapes.  As a society, we readily recognize the importance that these places of unquestionable scenic beauty have for our personal enjoyment and as examples of nature’s prowess and grandeur.  We have set them aside, not just as examples of our native landscapes but also because somehow, in their awe-inspiring beauty, they seem to stimulate within us a set of virtues and ideals that we strive to incorporate into ourselves and our collective national character. 

The United States was the first country in the world to establish national parks, recognizing these places for their natural and scenic wonder.  Later we added to our national park system landscapes and structures that, as scenes, also have historic, cultural, archaeological, or recreational value to us. Regardless of the specific reason for conserving these landscapes, we have, as Americans, repeatedly not only stated that we value the visual environment, we have consistently acted upon that idea.

Caltrans recognizes its social and legal responsibility to maintain not only these magnificent wilderness landscapes—of which California has many—but also to maintain the visual quality of everyday landscapes regardless of if they are wild, rural, or urban; regardless of if they are common or unique; regardless of if their longevity is measured in millennia, as are many natural landscapes, or in decades or even years, as are many landscapes created by people.


Slide 41

Rationale For Assessing Visual Impacts

As noted by the orange square bullets, this lesson will discuss four main topics.  Each main topic provides a rationale for why Caltrans assesses visual impacts.

Again, the name of the lesson and the name of the topic will be noted on the blue bar at the bottom of each slide.  Notice that the slide number does not start over with each lesson but rather runs consecutively within each module before starting over.


Slide 42

Public Expectations

The first rationale for assessing visual impacts is to meet public expectations.  Five types of expectations will be discussed for how they relate to visual impacts.  Each expectation will be described further in subsequent slides as indicated by the arrow bullets.


Slide 43


Transportation projects, particularly roads, are typically justified by the improvements they will make to safety, mobility, or access—the functional attributes of a highway.   A visual impact assessment also is concerned with these attributes but only as they relate to visual issues. Although the functional assessment of the proposed highway improvement will be discussed in other reports, if there are visual issues related to these functional considerations, it is appropriate to include them in a VIA.  Will safety, mobility, and access be altered, not only for motorized vehicles but also for bicyclists and pedestrians, due to changes in the visual environment? 


Slide 44

Social and Economic

Typically, social and economic issues are discussed in other reports evaluating the impacts of a proposed transportation improvement.  Nonetheless, there may be visual issues—such as maintaining community identity, adequately differentiating exits, providing visual cues that pedestrians and bicyclists are welcome—that can and should be discussed in a VIA.  At a minimum, the author of a VIA should coordinate with those developing social and economic assessments to ensure that visual issues related to social and economic issues are covered. 


Slide 45


The public expects that Caltrans will conserve the natural and cultural resources affected by its highway projects.  Coordinating with those who are evaluating the proposed project’s impacts on the environment will give the author of the VIA insight into how the public will respond to visual changes to the native and cultural environment.  Remember that the public will frequently equate environmental quality with visual quality.


Slide 46


The public expects that Caltrans will invest intelligently in appropriately scoped projects and construct them in a timely manner. 

Conducting a visual impact assessment allows Caltrans to anticipate visual impacts, avoiding, minimizing or compensating for adverse impacts as part of the project.  Identifying visual impacts during the planning stages and mitigating them to an appropriate level reduces the prospect of public and legal challenges.  By avoiding the need to re-work plans to meet public concerns or by avoiding a court order to stop a project already under construction, the cost of design and construction can be dramatically reduced. 


Slide 47


The public expects Caltrans to be fair with all Californians; to be consistent across the state and from year to year.  The public expects that Caltrans will explain its program and describe its analytical methods using terms and processes readily understood by the public.  By implementing the same VIA process on all projects, Caltrans evaluates all projects consistently and treats all people equally and fairly.  By repeatedly using an understandable and rational process, Caltrans allows regulators and the public the opportunity to not only become familiar with the process but to recognize its consistency and fairness. 


Slide 48

Caltrans Strategic Plan

The Caltrans Strategic Plan states that it is the responsibility of the department to be good stewards of California resources.  By using the FHWA VIA process, Caltrans is committed to protecting visual resources as part of this plan.  The Strategic Plan also insists that projects and services be delivered efficiently and effectively.  By using the FHWA VIA process, Caltrans increases efficiency and effectiveness by avoiding the re-work required when regulators or the public oppose a project over poorly analyzed visual issues.  Finally, the Strategic Plan requires that Caltrans perform its services consistently with a high level of quality from district to district, project to project.  Again, the FHWA VIA process allows Caltrans to perform consistently and attain a high level of quality in determining, avoiding, reducing, minimizing, or mitigating visual impacts.


Slide 49

Legal Requirements and Guidance

Another rationale for conducting a VIA on Caltrans projects is that it is legally required.  Legally, both the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) require state and federally funded projects to consider visual issues during the project’s decision making processes. 

A visual impact assessment can be used to ensure that Caltrans adheres to other state and federal laws or executive orders that affect highway aesthetics, including laws pertaining to, for example, the coastal zone, scenic highways, the placement of outdoor advertising, the use of native plants, or screening of salvage yards along federally funded highways. 

The FHWA in 1981 conducted a series of training workshops and developed a set of guidelines for assessing visual impacts.  Caltrans has adopted and used those guidelines for nearly 30 years.  This training course is based on those guidelines.  The complete FHWA guide, Visual Impact Assessment for Highway Projects, is available as an on-line reference in Chapter 27 of the Standard Environmental Reference (SER) on the Caltrans Web Site.


Slide 50

Public Values

Fundamentally, the people of California have not asked Caltrans to make their environment less attractive.  Nor do they seem willing to accept the degradation of the visual environment as a necessary result of their desire for safe, efficient, and effective transportation.  They recognize that change will occur to the visual environment but overall they desire to live in a state that retains its attractiveness.  This underlying desire is the basis for all of the laws, plans, and court cases arising over visual issues.  Although Caltrans fulfills a legal requirement by conducting a VIA, even without the actual FHWA guidance, the people of California would demand that Caltrans evaluate the visual impacts caused by its projects.  NEPA and CEQA and the subsequent legal requirement to assess visual impacts are a reflection of public values not their cause.  Caltrans performs a visual impact assessment not just because it is a legal requirement but because the public demands it. 


Module 1, Lesson 3 - Rationale for VIA Training