- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 6, 2009

HAGERSTOWN, Md. | America’s highways are taking on a shaggier look for the peak travel season. Grasses, shrubs and wildflowers are exploding across median strips and road shoulders this summer as states cut back on mowing to save money.

Although there are some environmental benefits, the principal reason for the cuts are financial since states rely on fuel taxes to pay for highway maintenance, and fuel sales have been hurt by the recession and the shift toward thriftier vehicles.

“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,” said Jeffrey Caldwell, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Transportation, which just announced it would mow half as often to save $20 million.

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

Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania also recently announced mowing cutbacks.

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

There could be some environmental benefit, one conservation 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 District-based conservation group Defenders of Wildlife.

Some safety experts are concerned, though, that too little mowing will allow weeds to grow out of control, blocking drivers’ sight lines at intersections and leaving 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 the District.

Weeds can grow very tall, very fast. “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,” Mr. Donaldson added.

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 - except 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.

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

Not everyone likes let-it-grow policies. Spokesman Darrel 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,” Mr. Cole said. “People are noticing and they’re calling and they want the grass mowed.”

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