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Principles for Highway Research and Technology Investments

This chapter describes the principles for highway research that Congress included in the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU). The first section below describes all eight principles contained in SAFETEA-LU. The second section reduces this number to six principles that inform this assessment: two overlapping principles are combined, and another that is not relevant to this report is dropped from further discussion.

EIGHT PRINCIPLES FOR HIGHWAY RESEARCH

In Title V of SAFETEA-LU, Congress articulated the following eight principles for highway research, development, and technology (RD&T):

  1. Full innovation cycle, which stipulates that the RD&T program should include all activities leading to implementation.

  2. Justification for federal role, which describes the criteria under which federal investment in RD&T is justified.

  3. Federal role, which specifies the kinds of activities the federal program should include.

  4. Program content, which defines the kind of RD&T the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) should pursue.

  5. Stakeholder input, which stipulates that FHWA research must address the needs of stakeholders.

  6. Competition and peer review, which requires open competition and merit review by peers of almost all proposals for grants, contracts, and cooperative agreements.1

1

The committee interprets the congressional intent to be that competitively solicited proposals should be selected for award on the basis of a merit review by peers.



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4 Principles for Highway Research and Technology Investments This chapter describes the principles for highway research that Congress included in the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU). The first section below describes all eight principles contained in SAFETEA-LU. The second section reduces this number to six principles that inform this assessment: two overlap- ping principles are combined, and another that is not relevant to this report is dropped from further discussion. EIGHT PRINCIPLES FOR HIGHWAY RESEARCH In Title V of SAFETEA-LU, Congress articulated the following eight principles for highway research, development, and technology (RD&T): 1. Full innovation cycle, which stipulates that the RD&T program should include all activities leading to implementation. 2. Justification for federal role, which describes the criteria under which federal investment in RD&T is justified. 3. Federal role, which specifies the kinds of activities the federal program should include. 4. Program content, which defines the kind of RD&T the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) should pursue. 5. Stakeholder input, which stipulates that FHWA research must address the needs of stakeholders. 6. Competition and peer review, which requires open competition and merit review by peers of almost all proposals for grants, contracts, and cooperative agreements.1 1 The committee interprets the congressional intent to be that competitively solicited proposals should be selected for award on the basis of a merit review by peers. 80

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Principles for Highway Research and Technology Investments 81 7. Performance review and evaluation, which requires that all projects include a component of performance review and evaluation. 8. Technical innovation, which requires that the activities carried out by FHWA be consistent with the surface transportation research and development (R&D) strategic plan mandated by SAFETEA-LU. In the following subsections, these principles are described in greater detail. 1. Full Innovation Cycle As stated in SAFETEA-LU, “Surface transportation research and development shall include all activities leading to technology devel- opment and transfer, as well as the introduction of new and innova- tive ideas, practices, and approaches, through such mechanisms as field applications, education and training, and technical support.” Thus the definition of R&D encompasses a wide range of innovations and explicitly includes technology transfer and implementation. In brief, this principle stipulates that FHWA RD&T includes the entire innovation cycle (agenda setting, research, development, demonstra- tion, peer review, implementation, and evaluation), as well as activi- ties that support implementation (education, training, and technical support). As will become clear, this principle and the “federal role” principle overlap. The intent of this principle is that federal highway research activities as a whole should include all the elements that lead to innovation. As is clear in the description of the highway research programs of FHWA and the Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA) in Chapter 3, some of the programs are devoted to particular elements of the innovation cycle; for example, the advanced research program is devoted exclusively to the conduct of fundamental research. However, it is not necessary that each program encompass the full innovation cycle, but that the entire portfolio of federal programs do so. 2. Justification for Federal Role The following four criteria would justify federal expenditures on highway RD&T:

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82 The Federal Investment in Highway Research 2006–2009: Strengths and Weaknesses • The work is of national significance; • There is a clear public benefit, and private-sector investment is less than optimal; • The work supports a federal stewardship role in ensuring efficient use of national resources by states and local governments; or • The work represents the best means to support federal policy goals compared with alternatives. Other than the stewardship criterion, these criteria are the same as those developed by the Office of Management and Budget for justifying fed- eral investment in research, development, and related activities. They are intended to be applied at the program rather than the project level. The “national significance” of some research may be, to some degree, in the eyes of the beholder. At a minimum, this criterion would appear to mean that RD&T activities should be of importance beyond a single jurisdiction or small region and to a variety of stakeholders. One opera- tional definition would be that (a) the research should be on topics of value to multiple jurisdictions, on subjects other programs are unlikely to address, and uniquely suited to the attributes of the federal program; (b) it should be mission-driven to serve national goals; and (c) it should be uniquely suited to the federal program. With regard to “public benefits,” FHWA’s RD&T program is a tool for achieving such federal goals as improved safety, enhanced mobility, and protection of the environment. A public investment can be justified because private-sector highway R&D is typically less than optimal because of disincentives that discourage privately funded highway research (TRB 2001, 36–38). Because of the nature of public highway procurements, which are highly specified and typically awarded to the lowest bidder, pri- vate entities are unlikely to benefit from research in many areas. Exam- ples are new construction techniques, because competitors could easily copy them, and paving or bridge materials or mix designs, because these are typically specified in bid documents. Private R&D is less challenged by procurement practices in some other areas, such as sign materials, traffic signals and controllers, asphalt mixing plant efficiency, and high- way construction equipment, and in these areas there is an innovative and competitive private sector. It is worth noting that some private innovations are stymied by highway agencies’ reluctance to purchase

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Principles for Highway Research and Technology Investments 83 proprietary products, since they are typically available only from a single supplier. The federal stewardship role to ensure efficient use of federal highway funds by states and local governments could be exemplified in any num- ber of ways. Examples are investing in the development of intelligent transportation system technologies that could allow for greater, safer throughput on existing highways; conducting research to improve demand forecasting and planning techniques to help ensure that planned facilities are appropriately sized to meet future demand; or funding envi- ronmental research to support better state and local decisions about materials and facilities. Another example is investing in research to gain a better understanding of life-cycle performance so that state and local investments can be made on the basis of life-cycle costs rather than initial costs. Along with federal-aid highway funds, FHWA research programs reflect this criterion by providing policy guidance, technical assistance, and technology transfer to states and local governments. With regard to the criterion of “the best means to support federal pol- icy goals,” research may be the best approach to program efficiency when the means to this end are too difficult to specify or regulate. More broadly, major elements of the federal highway program have become more like a block grant over the years, giving states greater discretion in use of the funds they receive. Thus, FHWA acts less like a regulator than was previously the case by approving program plans rather than projects, and RD&T may be the best way to encourage the risk taking necessary to test and implement innovations. 3. Federal Role Consistent with the responsibilities defined above, SAFETEA-LU directs the Secretary of Transportation to conduct research, support and facili- tate research and technology transfer activities by the states, share the results of completed research, and support and facilitate the deployment of technology and innovation. These elements of the federal role are essentially the same as the “full innovation cycle” principle defined above. Worth noting in particular is the emphasis on support for “the research and technology transfer activities of state highway departments.” To a large degree, state departments of transportation (DOTs) are the primary

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84 The Federal Investment in Highway Research 2006–2009: Strengths and Weaknesses owners and operators of highways in the United States and are the main vehicle through which federal research and technology innovations reach local governments. The above specific language was included in Title V to incorporate the federal role in coordinating the State Planning and Research Program, which is actually authorized under Title I. 4. Program Content SAFETEA-LU states that “a surface transportation research program shall include: A. fundamental, long-term highway research; B. research aimed at significant highway research gaps and emerging issues with national implications; and C. research related to policy and planning.” These content elements derive from recommendations made by the Research and Technology Coordinating Committee (RTCC) in 2001 (TRB 2001, 6–8). First, the committee recommended that approximately one-quarter of FHWA’s R&D program be fundamental, long-term research. The terms “advanced” and “fundamental, long-term” research are nearly interchangeable. Advanced, or fundamental, research is not as driven by the development and testing of theory as is basic research (knowledge creation for its own sake) and is not as focused on specific solutions as is applied research (development of knowledge to solve a specific problem or meet a specific need). RTCC also recommended that research aimed at significant highway research gaps and emerging issues account for about one-half of the FHWA RD&T program. The committee’s view was that the state DOT R&D programs and the National Cooperative Highway Research Pro- gram, as valuable as they are, tend to be focused on solving specific prob- lems defined by practitioners. Among funders of highway research, FHWA is in the best position to review from a strategic perspective the scope of highway RD&T activities under way to determine whether those programs are neglecting important topics. Thus the gaps that should be filled by FHWA are topics of national significance, including emerging issues such as strategies for reducing energy consumption and making reasonable adaptations to climate change, and alternative sources of user fees for funding highway programs. These gaps might also include large-scale applied projects that are simply too big for individual states to undertake.

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Principles for Highway Research and Technology Investments 85 5. Stakeholder Input In Special Report 261, RTCC recommended that the FHWA program be more responsive to stakeholders. The committee took note of efforts FHWA had made through the National Highway R&T Partnership (2002), but also stated that “more substantive stakeholder involvement in decision making, priority setting, and resource allocation for FHWA’s research pro- gram is essential” (TRB 2001, 8). In SAFETEA-LU, Congress adopted the committee’s recommendations with regard to stakeholder input. SAFETEA-LU states that “federal surface transportation research and development activities shall address the needs of stakeholders. Stake- holders include States, metropolitan planning organizations, local gov- ernments, the private sector, researchers, research sponsors, and other affected groups, including public interest groups.” Different stakehold- ers have different roles at various stages of the RD&T process (Brach 2005). Sponsors (those who pay for the research) have key roles in agenda setting. Scientific and technical experts have essential roles in merit and peer review. Users should be involved at various stages, particularly agenda setting, deployment, and evaluation of effectiveness. RTCC itself serves as one form of stakeholder input, and an impor- tant one, but the committee believes that the full range of stakeholders should be engaged throughout the RD&T process, from helping to identify priorities to assisting in review of proposals and project eval- uations. Moreover, the committee has urged that FHWA develop greater transparency in its R&D activities so that stakeholders will know how to become involved and be able to see the results of their participation. 6. Competition and Peer Review SAFETEA-LU states: “Except as otherwise provided in this chapter [Title V],” “the Secretary shall award, to the maximum extent practicable,2 all grants, contracts and cooperative agreements for research and devel- opment under this chapter based on open competition and peer review 2 The “maximum extent practicable” was intended to allow for sole-source contracts and uncom- peted cooperative agreements when these approaches are appropriate.

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86 The Federal Investment in Highway Research 2006–2009: Strengths and Weaknesses of proposals.” In Special Report 261, the committee stated that “compe- tition and merit review are the best ways of ensuring the maximum return on research funding” (TRB 2001, 8). The committee specifically encouraged Congress to provide funding to FHWA so that experts other than FHWA staff could assist in merit review. Although the committee’s intent was to encourage open competition throughout the FHWA pro- gram, the main concern behind this proposal was Congress’s increased earmarking of FHWA RD&T funds. 7. Performance Review and Evaluation SAFETEA-LU requires that every project include a component of per- formance measurement and evaluation and that evaluations be outcome based.3 This principle is consistent with the overall emphasis on perfor- mance measurement of federal programs, but the outcome measures that are appropriate for individual research projects are difficult to spec- ify, particularly because the outcomes of research may not become apparent until long after the research has been completed. At the same time, it is appropriate to evaluate R&D programs in terms of their qual- ity, their relevance, and the results obtained. Such evaluation is a valuable, if not critical, component of providing for accountability in the expen- diture of public funds. 8. Technological Innovation The text for this principle states simply that “the programs and activi- ties carried out under this section shall be consistent with the surface transportation strategic plan developed under section 508.” The RD&T strategic plan was subsequently prepared under the leadership of RITA and was itself reviewed in draft form by a committee of the Trans- portation Research Board (TRB). That committee concluded that the plan was simply a compendium of activities authorized or appropri- ated rather than being strategic (TRB 2006). Thus, the various pro- 3 The administration proposal for this language was that it apply to “programs” rather than “projects”; the Government Performance and Results Act requires annual measurement and reporting at the program level.

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Principles for Highway Research and Technology Investments 87 grams authorized under Title V, conducted by FHWA and RITA, and reviewed by the TRB committee for that report will all be consistent with the RD&T plan, and therefore this principle is not considered fur- ther in this report. SIX PRINCIPLES INFORMING THIS ASSESSMENT To inform the assessment documented in this report, the committee refined the above eight principles to form a set of six. As will become apparent in the next chapter, not every principle or subprinciple applies to every program. For example, one would not expect to see deployment and training as a major element of an advanced research program. The six principles applied for this assessment are as follows: 1. The federal portfolio should cover the full innovation cycle, including – Agenda setting, – Conduct of research, – Support of research and technology transfer by the states, – Sharing of results, and – Deployment (including education and training). 2. Justification for federal investment requires that either – Activities be of national significance, – There be public benefit and suboptimal private investment, – Efficient use of federal funds by states and local governments be encouraged, or – The activity be the best means to support federal objectives. 3. The content of the federal RD&T program includes – Fundamental, long-term research; – Filling significant gaps; and – Policy and planning. 4. Stakeholder input is addressed. 5. Awards are almost always made on the basis of competition and merit review. 6. Programs include performance review and evaluation. In the next chapter, individual programs are assessed according to these principles. These assessments together provide an overall evaluation

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88 The Federal Investment in Highway Research 2006–2009: Strengths and Weaknesses of the federal investment in highway research and technology in terms of the principles articulated by Congress. Although the above list is fairly comprehensive and the committee agrees with these principles, this list by itself does not provide for a com- plete assessment of research programs funded by SAFETEA-LU. In Chapter 5, the committee applies other important criteria, such as the following: • Are the investments within each area adequate to address vital needs as identified by stakeholders or RTCC? • Are important areas of RD&T omitted from the programs funded? • Are important technical topics being neglected? REFERENCES Abbreviation TRB Transportation Research Board Brach, A. 2005. A Taxonomy for Stakeholder Involvement in Public Sector Transportation Research and Technology Programs. Public Works Management and Policy, Vol. 9, No. 3, pp. 223–231. National Highway R&T Partnership. 2002. Highway Research and Technology: The Need for Greater Investment. onlinepubs.trb.org/Onlinepubs/rtforum/HwyRandT.pdf. Accessed Aug. 29, 2008. TRB. 2001. Special Report 261: The Federal Role in Highway Research and Technology. National Research Council, Washington, D.C. TRB. 2006. Review of the USDOT 5-Year RD&T Strategic Plan. Letter Report. www.trb.org/ news/blurb_detail.asp?id=6582. Accessed Feb. 15, 2008.