Making (and Taking) the Scenic Route: Kassoff’s Expertise Shapes Scenic America’s Transportation Focus
Throughout his 50+-year career in transportation planning and management, longtime Scenic America board member Hal Kassoff has always argued that principles of beauty and aesthetics shouldn’t be left out of highway and transportation infrastructure projects. Both in his professional and personal pursuits, Hal has become a strong voice for balancing scenic form with practical function.
Born and raised in the Bronx, Hal developed his appreciation for scenic beauty at an early age. Growing up in a hard-edged urban neighborhood where apartment buildings outnumbered trees, he enjoyed visiting nearby parks like the New York Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo to enjoy the green space and scenic vistas. He also fondly recalls escaping from the city in his uncle’s car, which often involved a trip on one of New York’s beautiful parkways.
While traveling on these scenic parkways, Hal took note of the thoughtful and deliberate touches of beauty incorporated into their designs: curvilinear paths prioritizing green space, scenic views, and bridges and other noteworthy architectural features. Guided by his interest in highway design, Hal enrolled at the City College of New York to study civil engineering. After college, he completed a fellowship and master’s degree program at Northwestern University then landed his first position in transportation planning for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).
“It was the 1960s, a very exciting time for the organization. Legislation had just passed requiring metro areas to take part in long-range transportation planning processes,” Hal recalled. He was immediately drawn to this program and became an instructor, touring the country to help communities of all sizes as they engaged in planning.
While this experience broadened Hal’s perspective in invaluable ways, he aspired for a chance to work more tactically to implement the projects he was helping to devise. Such an opportunity arose in 1972 when he was invited to join the newly formed Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT).
“It was an era in which the highway agencies were transforming, and Maryland’s was one of the most ‘multimodal’ agencies in the country,” Hal explained. In addition to running the highway system, MDOT also had oversight of public transportation systems, Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and the Port of Baltimore, to name a few.
“The idea of highways fitting into larger land use, community, and transportation contexts became ingrained in my work,” he recalled.
Through his role at MD DOT, Hal also enjoyed the opportunity to take part in key multimodal transportation initiatives for the region, including the planning and funding of the Washington Metro System’s extensions into the Maryland suburbs.
After a successful six-year tenure launching and leading MDOT’s regional office in the D.C. area, Hal was invited to lead the Office of Planning and Preliminary Engineering at the Maryland State Highway Administration—his “dream job,” as he noted. In this role, he oversaw the early phases of environmental assessment and conceptual design as well as the development of capital projects, setting the framework for the detailed design of the state’s highways.
After another six-year stint, he was appointed by the Governor to lead the Maryland State Highway Administration, a position he held for twelve years—still the longest tenure for any Administrator in the organization’s history. In this role, he started the scenic byways program in Maryland and sparked the development of new scenic-focused resources, such as a unique design guides for bridge aesthetics.
In 1996, Hal left the state agency for the private sector and spent the next 25 years with Parsons Brinckerhoff (now WSP), a global engineering and design firm. He relished his role as the go-to expert on context-sensitive highway solutions incorporating sustainability principles and aesthetic values into roadway planning, design and construction projects and conducted a series of related seminars throughout the country. Through one such seminar, he first became acquainted with Scenic America.
“I had always hated billboards and had a passion for aesthetics and scenic beauty,” he said. “I was excited to join the board, and it has been a joy ever since. It’s a virtuous mission.”
His impact on the organization has been profound. Drawing upon his transportation expertise, Hal planted the original seed among Scenic America leadership to push for the restoration of the National Scenic Byways Program—an effort that came to fruition in 2019 with the passage of the Reviving America’s Scenic Byways Act, and which came full circle with the subsequent announcement of dedicated funding in December 2020 and new designations in February 2021
While Hal gravitates to highways-centered initiatives, he is also a firm advocate for other scenic initiatives. He urged the creation of Scenic America’s new photo contest, which is currently underway, even as he continues to provide technical expertise on all roadways and byways-related matters. Embracing and embodying Scenic America’s “virtuous mission,” he values the scenic quality of his adopted hometown of Columbia, Maryland—a planned community where he and his wife have lived for 50 years, having raised a family that valued the aesthetic character of its open spaces, buried utility lines, and billboard-free streets.
“Growing up in the Bronx, the view outside of my windows was another building. Now I look out at trees and blue skies,” he said.