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The Federal Investment in Highway Research 2006–2009: Strengths and Weaknesses 5 Assessment of Authorized Programs This chapter presents the committee’s assessment of the Title V–authorized programs described in Chapter 3 according to the principles delineated in Chapter 4. The program areas assessed include advanced research, infrastructure, operations, planning and environment, safety, policy, and the University Transportation Centers (UTC) Program. As in Chapter 3, the intelligent transportation system (ITS) research projects funded by the Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA) but managed by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP) 2 are discussed under the appropriate topic areas (operations and safety for the former, and infrastructure, operations, safety, and planning and environment for the latter). ADVANCED RESEARCH Assessment Based on Principles of the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users The Exploratory Advanced Research Program adheres to the principles articulated by Congress, as refined for this assessment. 1. Full Innovation Cycle The Exploratory Advanced Research Program is specifically dedicated to fundamental, long-term research and provides a critical opportunity to improve understanding that can lead to enhanced applications. 2. Justification for Federal Investment The program is clearly a federal responsibility. Very little advanced research in highway transportation is being conducted. The private
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The Federal Investment in Highway Research 2006–2009: Strengths and Weaknesses sector has little or no incentive to perform this sort of work, and state research and development (R&D) is devoted almost exclusively to applied, problem-solving research. As noted in Special Report 261 (TRB 2001), this area of research by FHWA will ultimately help provide new ideas for state and federal applied research programs to pursue toward implementation. 3. Content The Exploratory Advanced Research Program is the only FHWA program dedicated to fundamental, long-term highway research. As noted in Chapter 3, there are also two substantial earmarks for asphalt research—one awarded to a single institution totaling about $3.4 million annually and another to that same institution totaling $6.2 million annually, shared with four other partners—most of which is advanced research. 4. Stakeholder Input FHWA sought stakeholder input for the initial program Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) during three stakeholder forums held in 2005 and 2006. This information was used to help shape the focus areas of that BAA. Stakeholders for advanced research differ from those for applied research. In applied research, the problem is well defined, and much of the research involves testing known solutions; appropriate stakeholders are those with an understanding of the problem and the potential for known strategies to address it. In advanced research, there may be some idea of the problem to be solved, but the solutions are unknown; thus, appropriate stakeholders are those with a long-term vision and expertise in fundamental areas of research who can guide decisions about promising opportunities for investment (Brach 2005). FHWA interacted with such individuals in preparation for the second round of funding for the Exploratory Advanced Research Program in 2008. 5. Awards Based on Competition and Merit Review FHWA awards funds on the basis of review of preproposals invited through full and open competition solicited through a BAA. Merit review is conducted by staff experts and experts external to FHWA and the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) from the National Institute for Standards and Technology, the National Science Foundation,
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The Federal Investment in Highway Research 2006–2009: Strengths and Weaknesses the Transportation Research Board (TRB), RITA, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). 6. Performance Review and Evaluation Proposals funded under this program are by definition “longer term and higher risk” than the applied research typically funded by USDOT. Therefore, a different set of standards for review and evaluation should apply. Agreements with researchers are designed with regular milestones appropriate for evaluating advanced research. Lead staff for each project are responsible for engaging outside experts with appropriate technical expertise to help in reviewing results once initial projects selected for the program have been completed. Assessment Based on Additional Criteria The Research and Technology Coordinating Committee (RTCC) views the Exploratory Advanced Research Program as a genuine opportunity to expand the federal investment in R&D in a fashion that complements the highly applied activities of state programs and the majority of the FHWA program. The current level of investment in the Exploratory Advanced Research Program (about 6 percent of FHWA’s program) is well below the 25 percent recommended by the committee in Special Report 261. As indicated above, if the asphalt earmarks and SHRP 2 Safety Program funds are included in the definition of advanced research, then the share of FHWA’s Title V and SHRP 2 funding devoted to advanced research increases to 15 percent. As discussed in the following section on infrastructure research, development, and technology (RD&T), the committee believes that advanced research should not be earmarked. The committee was previously concerned about the funding requirements imposed on the Exploratory Advanced Research Program. The 50-50 match required for the program by the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) appeared to be inappropriate for this kind of research and inconsistent with funding for advanced research available in other federal agency programs. This requirement may well have been inhibiting university faculty and other researchers with promising new concepts from participating in the program. Fortunately, the 2008 Technical Corrections legislation reduced the match to 20 percent.
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The Federal Investment in Highway Research 2006–2009: Strengths and Weaknesses The committee is also concerned about some elements of program execution. The first round of research solicitations appropriately cast a broad net to gather ideas from researchers. The topics for the second round depended more on previous scanning and research by FHWA, thus resulting in a narrower set of potential topics. The committee is concerned about the extent to which this strategy is narrowing the field of possible research topics. Moreover, about 23 percent of the funding allocated through fiscal year (FY) 2008 was retained for intramural research (research conducted by FHWA staff or contractors). Such research, although appropriate at a modest level, is not subject to the same level of competition as extramural research. Thus, the committee would prefer to see most of the advanced research funding allocated for extramural research. INFRASTRUCTURE RD&T Assessment Based on SAFETEA-LU Principles Brief assessments of each infrastructure program described above in terms of the SAFETEA-LU principles are contained in Appendix C and are summarized in Table 5-1. The following consolidated assessment covers all the FHWA and SHRP 2 programs, with variations noted as appropriate. 1. Full Innovation Cycle The wide variety of research activities in the infrastructure area encompasses agenda setting, advanced research, applied research, evaluation, and technology transfer (deployment and training).1 The Fundamental Properties of Asphalts and Modified Asphalts Program is, as its name suggests, conducting advanced research, along with the Asphalt Research Consortium, albeit, as discussed below, earmarking is inappropriate for this type of research.2 Specific programs for deployment include the 1 It makes better sense to apply this principle to FHWA’s entire portfolio of programs rather than attempting to apply it to each program; some programs are limited in scope by their nature (applied research, technology transfer). 2 FHWA estimates that about 60 percent of consortium funding is advanced research, and about 40 percent is applied.
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The Federal Investment in Highway Research 2006–2009: Strengths and Weaknesses TABLE 5-1 Summary Assessment of Infrastructure RD&T Programs Based on SAFETEA-LU Principles Program Average Annual Funding ($ millions) 1. Full Innovation Cycle 2. Justification for Federal Investment 3. Content 4. Stakeholder Input 5. Competition and Merit Reviewa 6. Performance Review and Evaluationb Innovative Pavement Research and Deployment 18.6 Mainly deployment and evaluation Suboptimal private investment/efficient use of federal dollars Gap filling/deployment ETGs 70 percent competed through RFPs TRB Pavement Technology Committee Long-Term Pavement Performance 8.3 Data collection Suboptimal private investment/efficient use of federal dollars Gap filling Ongoing external review committee Competitive selection of main contractor TRB LTPP committee Alkali–Silica Reactivity 2.0 Development, deployment Suboptimal private investment Gap filling/deployment Alkali–Silica Reactivity ETG Competitive contractor selection Alkali–Silica Reactivity ETG Fundamental Properties of Asphalts and Modified Asphalts 3.4 Advanced Not a national priority Advanced FHWA funding through its limited discretionary funds None (earmark) None required (earmark) Asphalt Research Consortium 6.2 Advanced/applied Suboptimal private investment Gap filling FHWA funding through its limited discretionary funds None (earmark) None required (earmark)
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The Federal Investment in Highway Research 2006–2009: Strengths and Weaknesses Program Average Annual Funding ($ millions) 1. Full Innovation Cycle 2. Justification for Federal Investment 3. Content 4. Stakeholder Input 5. Competition and Merit Reviewa 6. Performance Review and Evaluationb Long-Term Bridge Performance 6.4 Data collection/applied Suboptimal private investment/efficient use of federal dollars Gap filling AASHTO support along with local governments Competitive contractor selection AASHTO bridge subcommittee review Innovative Bridge Research and Deployment 14.6 in FY 2006 and 2007 Full cycle Efficient use of federal dollars Mainly gap filling Road maps developed with stakeholders Grant program competed; RD&T conducted at FHWA Usually reviewed by end-user groups High-Performance Concrete Bridge Research and Development 4.0 in FY 2006 and 2007 Full cycle National priorities Mainly gap filling Guided by working group of stakeholders About 35 percent competed, remainder intramural Usually reviewed by end-user groups Ultra-High Performance Concrete Research 0.5 Full cycle Suboptimal private investment/ efficient use of federal dollars Mainly gap filling/ deployment Stakeholders guide work to be done None—all internal Usually reviewed by end-user groups
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The Federal Investment in Highway Research 2006–2009: Strengths and Weaknesses Higher-Performing Steel Bridge Research and Technology Transfer 3.4 Full cycle Nationally significant/efficient use of federal dollars Mainly gap filling/deployment TWG guidance 50 percent of funding competed TWG evaluation Steel Bridge Testing 1.0 Applied/deployment Not a national priority Gap filling/deployment Stakeholder guidance Full and open Stakeholders Seismic Research 2 Applied/deployment National priority Gap filling Stakeholder guidance None (earmark) Stakeholders Polymer–Wood Composite Materials and Structures 0.7 in FY 2006 and 2007 Applied Not a national priority Gap filling None None (earmark) None required (earmark) SHRP 2: Renewal 7.9 Applied/deployment Suboptimal private investment/efficient use of federal dollars Gap filling/deployment Stakeholder governance, merit review, peer review Full and open with merit review by expert stakeholders Peer review by expert stakeholders NOTE: AASHTO = American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials; ETG = Expert Task Group; RFP = request for proposals; TWG = Technical Working Group. aMerit review of FHWA programs is normally conducted by technical staff from various offices. External experts are occasionally involved. bVarious levels of project and program review are conducted by FHWA staff and managers; this applies to each program in this column. The cells in this column comment on external/stakeholder evaluation of products and peer review of completed research.
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The Federal Investment in Highway Research 2006–2009: Strengths and Weaknesses Innovative Pavement Research and Deployment Program, the Innovative Bridge Research and Deployment Program, and elements of the Alkali–Silica Reactivity (ASR) Program. The vast majority of the infrastructure RD&T program is applied research and technology transfer to the states and local governments through deployment, training, preparation of manuals, and the like. Although deployment is a major theme of the FHWA program, the committee questions whether RD&T deployment activities at FHWA are organized to be most effective. As a result of FHWA reorganizations beginning in 1998, virtually all deployment activities have been decentralized to the program offices. This change coincided with substantial cuts in funding for FHWA’s technology transfer activities. In the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), compared with a request for $100 million annually, Congress provided only $40 million, and much of that total was earmarked (TRB 1999). In a September 2007 letter report to FHWA, the committee noted that the lack of a central resource within FHWA with explicit expertise in technology transfer could be hampering deployment activities, an observation based on a previous RTCC report (TRB 1999). There is something of a science to technology transfer that requires matching an appropriate strategy to a new technology or practice. There are certainly innovative practices occurring in some programs (see the discussion below regarding operations). The committee also applauds FHWA’s efforts to (a) identify, market, and track the deployment of market-ready technologies and (b) develop and implement a strategic plan for deployment across all of its pavement activities (TRB 2008a). The committee also applauds the Highways for LIFE program, which is funded and being conducted outside of the RD&T program. SAFETEA-LU authorized $75 million in funding for Highways for LIFE—$15 million for FY 2006 and $20 million annually for FY 2007–2009 for activities including demonstration construction projects, stakeholder input and involvement, technology transfer, technology partnerships, information dissemination, and monitoring and evaluation. The missing element among all of FHWA’s deployment activities appears to be a resource within the agency with explicit expertise in technology transfer and deployment that could provide guidance to the various efforts agencywide.
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The Federal Investment in Highway Research 2006–2009: Strengths and Weaknesses 2. Justification for Federal Investment Most of the research funded under infrastructure RD&T could easily be justified by the criterion of public benefit and suboptimal private investment. Virtually all the nation’s roads and bridges are owned and operated by some level of governmental or public authority; hence, research to reduce the cost and improve the performance of these assets is public-sector by nature. Much of the research can also be justified under the criterion of national significance. The Long-Term Pavement Performance (LTPP) Program, for example, once brought to fruition, should significantly enhance knowledge about loadings and environmental factors that significantly affect highway design. Given that the nation invests more than $10 billion annually in pavements and that the influence of loadings and environmental factors on pavement service life and performance has not been established, this activity promises considerable future benefit. Most of the infrastructure RD&T on pavements and bridges is also designed to assist states and local governments in making decisions about infrastructure investments that should improve efficiency, another criterion justifying these investments. Evaluation of past FHWA RD&T programs in materials and structures has found substantial savings (and extension of the service life of assets) that far exceed the cost of the research (Battelle et al. 2003). Some of the research authorized by Congress in the infrastructure area fails to meet the criterion of national significance. FHWA would not have proposed the Steel Bridge Testing Program, given that it considers existing nondestructive evaluation techniques for detecting flaws and cracks to be adequate. Nor is the earmark for research on polymer–wood composites, for which there is little public-sector demand, of national significance. 3. Content Almost all of the infrastructure research discussed here is filling gaps that are not being addressed by other programs (see Table 5-1). Most of these gaps, but not all, are significant, as indicated above. A small portion of the research is fundamental or advanced in nature. None of it could be classified as planning or policy research, and this represents a significant gap in the program. State departments of transportation (DOTs) face many
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The Federal Investment in Highway Research 2006–2009: Strengths and Weaknesses policy decisions regarding levels of investment in fixed assets that could be informed by research to address questions such as the following: How much should be invested in maintenance to optimize the lifecycle performance of pavements and structures? What is the minimal level of asset condition below which replacement costs exceed maintenance and rehabilitation costs? What should it cost a state DOT to achieve a percentage point increase of its pavements to an acceptable condition, and what is the benefit–cost ratio of doing so? What should government entities negotiate for in concession agreements regarding asset condition at the end of a term, how should this be monitored, and what incentives are required to ensure that private-sector managers meet this commitment? With the recent sharp increase in the cost of petroleum and as the cost of asphalt approaches that of concrete, what is the tipping point at which states would make a better investment, on a life-cycle basis, in concrete pavements? There are many such policy questions in the infrastructure area that are of concern to the states but are not being addressed in the federal program. 4. Stakeholder Input A number of mechanisms exist across infrastructure RD&T programs for engaging a variety of stakeholders. SHRP 2 is perhaps the most impressive in this regard, in that stakeholders have more than an advisory role, actually setting priorities, deciding about research topics, and approving funding levels and contractors for individual research projects. Several programs in FHWA’s pavements and structures area have impressive stakeholder involvement as well. FHWA staff have participated with the asphalt and concrete industries and other pavement stakeholders in the development of research road maps that have influenced the agency’s pavement research (to the extent possible given that most pavement research in FHWA’s budget is earmarked or designated). The bridge subcommittee of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and other bridge stakeholders have been involved in agenda setting and program design in several of
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The Federal Investment in Highway Research 2006–2009: Strengths and Weaknesses the structures research programs, and products are routinely reviewed by end-user groups. In a presentation to the committee, the chairman of this AASHTO subcommittee commended FHWA for its extensive engagement with the state DOT bridge community. In the pavements area, the LTPP Program has had an external committee of state stakeholders and pavement experts from industry, states, and academia providing ongoing program review and guidance since 1992. FHWA established a high-level committee of experts and stakeholders to provide similar guidance for its entire portfolio of pavement research and deployment activities in 2006. FHWA routinely forms Technical Working Groups (TWGs) representing industry, states, and academia to provide guidance in particular technical areas. For example, a TWG representing state DOTs, industry, consulting, and academia was formed to provide feedback on the ASR Program. The long-standing congressional earmark for the Fundamental Properties of Asphalts and Modified Asphalts Program, which dates back to at least 1992, has been a notable exception to stakeholder involvement. Funding decisions and research topics have been set by the recipient itself, with little input or support from external stakeholders in the asphalt community. To help address this problem, FHWA asked the Asphalt TWG to review the program. 5. Awards Based on Competition and Merit Review Of the designated programs that FHWA administers, some [LTPP, Long-Term Bridge Performance (LTBP), Steel Bridge Testing] are completely subject to full and open competition. Several programs devote a share of funding to in-house staff and contractors. Most award at least some share of their funding through competition and merit review. In the Higher-Performing Steel Bridge Research and Technology Transfer Program, half of the funds are competed outside of FHWA. In the High-Performance Concrete Bridge Research and Development Program, 35 percent of funds are competed. In the Innovative Bridge Research and Deployment Program, 70 percent of funds are competed. A good argument can be made that some share of RD&T funding should be intramural to ensure that FHWA staff remain current in their technical fields and have opportunities to make technical contributions. Indeed, RTCC
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The Federal Investment in Highway Research 2006–2009: Strengths and Weaknesses and other key policy questions. Examples of such questions are how important megaregions are to future economic development and highway demand, whether and how to divide federal revenues between states and regions for maximum public benefit, what the potential is for intercity passenger rail to compete with congested intercity highways, and whether there is adequate redundancy in the freight and passenger systems to respond to natural and man-made disasters. 4. Stakeholder Input The primary constituencies for FHWA’s policy research are policy makers in the administration and Congress. States are also vitally interested in national highway policy. Presumably, FHWA receives direct feedback on the efficacy of its work from its primary customers—the administration and Congress. The Office of Policy and Governmental Affairs has been responsive to stakeholders. In 2000, for example, FHWA adjusted the models it developed for national estimates of cost allocation to make them useful to the states. In 2007, after BTS reported that it could not support the NHTS, stakeholders appealed directly to the Secretary of Transportation, and, as noted above, FHWA volunteered to undertake the management of and collection of revenues for this important national survey. 5. Awards Based on Competition and Merit Review Without funding during this authorization cycle, there has been little contract activity on which to comment. 6. Performance Review and Evaluation The primary reports of the Office of Policy and Governmental Affairs receive considerable scrutiny by FHWA, USDOT, and the Office of Management and Budget before being submitted to Congress, where they receive similar scrutiny. Assessment Based on Additional Criteria As indicated above, policy research was virtually eliminated in FY 2006 and 2007 as a result of SAFETEA-LU, with funding in the area declining from approximately $9.5 million annually to only $225,000. Restoring
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The Federal Investment in Highway Research 2006–2009: Strengths and Weaknesses the prior levels of funding would be adequate to revive FHWA’s programmatic activities in this area but would still fall far short of the level needed to fund the research needed to fill the gaps identified above. UNIVERSITY TRANSPORTATION CENTERS PROGRAM Assessment Based on SAFETEA-LU Principles Universities are valuable assets that should be relied on for highway research. The UTC Program as currently designed, however, does not make the best use of the assets universities have to conduct research, particularly advanced research. 1. Full Innovation Cycle UTC funding covers the full innovation cycle, from advanced research through training and technology transfer. Technology transfer to local governments occurs at 13 UTCs that house a Local Technical Assistance Program center, but all UTCs are required to include technology transfer in their program plans. The strength of most universities is in basic and fundamental research; however, the current matching requirement of the UTC Program drives UTCs toward applied research. As noted earlier, when state DOTs provide the match, as is often the case, they typically are most interested in highly applied, problem-solving research. 2. Justification for Federal Investment Federal investment in the UTC Program is justified by the national significance of innovation, while the program’s educational mission reflects federal interest in developing a future nationwide skilled transportation workforce. It is difficult to know how well the output of the UTC Program is meeting market demand for these workers. Rates at which UTC graduates are placed in transportation agencies or firms that work for such agencies would be one indicator, but it is one the UTCs are not required to collect and report. Justifying a federal investment in some other elements of the UTC Program is more difficult. As noted, the applied research to which the match requirement drives UTCs is already supported through State
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The Federal Investment in Highway Research 2006–2009: Strengths and Weaknesses Planning and Research (SP&R) funds and most FHWA-funded programs, though arguably at lesser amounts than could be justified. Moreover, although the UTC Program probably does not fund a great deal of duplicative research, it is supporting research in similar areas and of a similar nature to that being funded by FHWA and state programs in an uncoordinated fashion. The large number of UTCs funded under SAFETEA-LU also raises questions about whether so many programs are needed; this is especially true for institutions earmarked in TEA-21 and SAFETEA-LU that did not previously house transportation education and research activities. A fragmented approach to research, characterized by uncoordinated research across myriad topics and universities, arguably is not the “best means to support federal policy goals”—one of the criteria for justifying federal investment. 3. Content A review of UTC research under way in FY 2008 reveals that UTCs are engaged in research on a wide variety of technical and policy topics, but the research is almost exclusively applied in nature. The lack of advanced or basic highway research within the university community suggests a significant flaw in the program. UTC research probably does fill gaps in applied research. About 30 percent of research projects in the UTC Program are identified by the source UTC as addressing policy or planning topics.8 Because of cutbacks elsewhere, the UTC Program is the only source of policy research under SAFETEA-LU, but only about 5 percent of UTC research addresses policy topics. 4. Stakeholder Input Stakeholder input in the UTC Program is addressed for some stakeholders through the program’s matching requirements. RITA also requires UTCs to engage stakeholders and peers through merit review of their proposed research and through advisory boards for the centers. Centers have a variety of processes for engaging stakeholders, but those processes must be approved by RITA as part of program plans. 8 The category of policy research encompasses legal topics.
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The Federal Investment in Highway Research 2006–2009: Strengths and Weaknesses 5. Awards Based on Competition and Merit Review Most UTCs (62 percent) and most funds for UTCs (58 percent) are earmarked with no competition and merit review.9 As noted, all UTCs must award funds they receive through a merit review process, but competition for these funds is not required. There is competition and merit review in part (38 percent) of the overall program. The 10 regional centers are awarded competitively (4-year awards made in August 2006), while the 10 Tier I UTCs are competed every fourth year (the Tier I centers recompeted for FY 2007–2009 awards, which were announced in October 2006). The 10 national centers and 22 Tier II centers are not required to compete. 6. Performance Review and Evaluation The Government Performance and Results Act requires all federal programs to establish quantifiable performance measures by which the programs’ effectiveness in achieving desired outcomes can be evaluated. UTCs are required to report annually on the number, types, and cost of research projects funded through the program; the number and types of courses offered; the number and types of students enrolled; and the number of transportation seminars, symposia, distance learning classes, and the like conducted for transportation professionals. Centers are also required to have their research activities peer reviewed. The results of such reviews, however, are not shared beyond the center, so the judgment of peers about the quality of a center’s research is not part of the public record. This makes it difficult to judge the quality and value of the research produced through UTC funding without examining a sample of the completed research. One measure that would help in this regard would be publication in peer-reviewed journals, but this is not a metric the UTCs are required to collect. Assessment Based on Additional Criteria One of the structural weaknesses of the UTC Program is the lack of opportunity USDOT’s mission agencies have to influence the centers’ 9 There are several universities and research institutes earmarked in sections of SAFETEA-LU in addition to those earmarked in the UTC Program. The total percentage of UTCs in Titles III and V receiving earmarked funding in this authorization is 67 percent.
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The Federal Investment in Highway Research 2006–2009: Strengths and Weaknesses Scientific Earmarks The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific society, has been in the forefront of the debates about the harmful effects of earmarking on science. AAAS has long supported the awarding of research funds on the basis of merit review by peers. AAAS Resolution: Reaffirmation of Commitment to Scientific Peer Review “Whereas the partnership between the government and the community of scientists is essential to the advancement of science, and “Whereas without broadly based, consistent, critical, and professional evaluation of proposed expenditures for scientific work, there is a growing danger that the quality of research and education in science will be jeopardized, “Be it resolved that the Council of the AAAS reaffirm its commitment to the principle and practice of scientific peer review as indispensable to the allocation of public funds for the scientific enterprise.” [Adopted by the AAAS Council, May 30, 1985.] SOURCE: archives.aaas.org/docs/resolutions.php?doc_id=372. Accessed Sept. 3, 2008. research activities. Clearly there is a benefit to giving universities independence in the selection of research topics, but the UTC Program does not work this way in practice. Because of the 50-50 match, the entities providing the match have the greatest influence in setting a UTC’s research agenda. SAFETEA-LU itself prohibits using most federal funds for matching purposes; hence FHWA and other administrations have little leverage over the topics pursued.
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The Federal Investment in Highway Research 2006–2009: Strengths and Weaknesses Funding based on the multitiered structure of the program also appears to lack a rationale. Funding for the regional centers was understandably increased in SAFETEA-LU after having been fixed at $1 million per center since 1987. But there is no apparent research or educational justification for providing the national centers $3.5 million annually or the Tier II centers $500,000. As discussed above, the state DOTs are a primary source of matching funds for UTC research. The states have varied perspectives on the UTC Program. Some states, such as California, are pleased with the program. Other states, particularly smaller ones with limited SP&R funding, do not wish to have most of their SP&R funding devoted to matching funds for UTCs that are not necessarily focused on serving the state DOT’s interests. A roughly equal proportion of state research directors rate the program positively (48 percent) rather than negatively (44 percent), but this is the only highway research program that more research directors (44 percent) believe to be overfunded rather than underfunded (7 percent) (CTC and Associates 2007). SUMMARY Overall Assessment Based on SAFETEA-LU Principles FHWA manages several highway RD&T programs and funds SHRP 2, which is managed by TRB. RITA manages two research and technology (R&T) programs—the UTC and ITS Programs—that have significant highway research components. FHWA’s Corporate Master Plan for Research and Technology commits the agency to adhering to the principles for RD&T called for by Congress. Full Innovation Cycle As required in SAFETEA-LU, the above programs collectively cover the full innovation cycle, from agenda setting through deployment and evaluation. While most FHWA programs include deployment activities, however, it is questionable whether the scale of these activities is adequate to meet the need and whether FHWA is appropriately organized to carry out an effective effort in this area.
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The Federal Investment in Highway Research 2006–2009: Strengths and Weaknesses Justification for Federal Investment The R&T activities discussed in this chapter are justified either by the national significance of the topics addressed; a lack of private investment in the area; or the importance of facilitating efficient use of federal aid by states, counties, cities, and municipalities. Content The program content comprises largely either applied research or deployment and technology transfer. The bulk of FHWA’s activities are in areas that fill gaps in state programs. RTCC would prefer that a larger proportion of FHWA’s RD&T funds be invested in advanced research, which is most suited to the federal role. Too much of the funding under the UTC Program is invested in the same applied research and deployment activities supported by other programs. This applied R&T bias in the UTC Program is driven by the dollar-for-dollar matching requirement. The content principle calls for advanced, applied, and policy or planning research. The committee believes that far too little funding is invested in the latter research, at both the national and program levels. Many significant policy debates are underinformed on such important issues as the total level of demand for highway transportation and how it might change with sustained high fuel prices and the large-scale population and demographic shifts now under way. At the program level, such questions as how to optimize expenditures on capital assets are not being examined at a level commensurate with their importance to state and local policy makers. There are also significant data gaps involving passenger travel behavior, freight demand, and other important issues. Stakeholder Involvement In recent years, FHWA has adjusted its R&T programs to involve stakeholders increasingly in agenda setting, merit review, and product evaluation. A complete lack of discretion over its budget, however, provides FHWA limited opportunities to expand these activities more completely and systematically. The lack of discretion is a result of the constraints on Title V funds. SHRP 2 programs are models of stakeholder involvement,
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The Federal Investment in Highway Research 2006–2009: Strengths and Weaknesses as stakeholders make decisions about topics to be investigated, prepare RFPs, provide merit review, decide which projects will be approved, and perform peer review of projects and their products. RTCC endorses RITA’s emphasis on the UTCs’ creating advisory committees for improved stakeholder involvement and applauds FHWA’s efforts to foster stakeholder involvement in significant earmarked activities at universities outside of the UTC Program. Competition and Merit Review Most FHWA programs distribute funds through competitive processes, but some funding is retained for intramural research and support for FHWA laboratories. Significant portions of FHWA’s programs (18 to 38 percent10) and RITA’s Title V UTC Program (62 percent) are earmarked, thus failing the test for competition and merit review. RTCC would prefer to see less reliance on IDIQ contracts for FHWA research projects, as the awarding of individual tasks limits opportunities for competition. Performance Review and Evaluation FHWA has systematic processes for internal and staff-level evaluation of its R&T programs. Stakeholders are involved in review of the output of many R&T initiatives. More systematic use of external stakeholders in peer review would be desirable but is infeasible on a broad scale given the lack of dedicated resources for the purpose. SHRP 2 projects and products are evaluated by stakeholders and peers, and the entire program will be evaluated by GAO. The UTC Program requires peer review of UTCs, but the results of these reviews are not made public, so there is no ready means of evaluating the quality of these individual programs. Information on the publication of UTC research in peer-reviewed journals would be a useful indicator of the quality of UTC research. 10 The percentage of FHWA’s share of the Surface Transportation Research, Development, and Deployment (STRDD) component of Title V and SHRP 2 funding that is earmarked depends on how one classifies SHRP 2 funding. If it is classified as an earmark, which RTCC does not consider it to be, then 38 percent of FHWA’s share of STRDD is earmarked; if it is not, then 18 percent of FHWA’s share is earmarked.
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The Federal Investment in Highway Research 2006–2009: Strengths and Weaknesses Program-Specific Findings FHWA’s new Exploratory Advanced Research Program is a very important initiative. The committee has long advocated for an effective program of this sort. The earmark of approximately $7.6 million annually for asphalt research that is advanced, however, eliminates the important quality control mechanism of competition and merit review that has been the hallmark of advances in American science and engineering over the past century. Also, the area of research earmarked is not as important as those addressed by other, underfunded programs. In principle, the universities funded through the UTC Program should be conducting much more advanced research; however, the dollar-for-dollar match diverts UTC research from its originally intended purpose. As noted, most matching funds are provided by state DOTs, which are interested in highly applied and developmental research. Elimination of the match requirement would end this distortion of purpose and allow UTCs to focus more of their research on the knowledge development that is the universities’ greatest strength. FHWA’s infrastructure program covers many core topics of deep interest to state DOTs and adheres to the principles of SAFETEA-LU. Individual components of the program, however, such as the long-term pavement and bridge research efforts, cannot realize their potential because of cutbacks necessitated by the constraints on Title V funding. FHWA operations and safety programs embody the SAFETEA-LU principles. However, both programs were subjected to substantial cuts in SAFETEA-LU (operations by 50 percent and safety by 27 percent) and appear to be underfunded relative to national needs. FHWA’s planning and environmental program was reduced by at least 13 percent between TEA-21 and SAFETEA-LU. The only substantial R&T activity remaining under this program is the STEP Program. FHWA makes considerable effort to reach out to stakeholders of the STEP Program but also must rely on it for program support and technical assistance, thereby limiting its use for addressing complex and contentious environmental and planning issues through research and evaluation. If funding for program support and technical assistance could be restored, the STEP Program could work more as was originally envisioned by stakeholders.
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The Federal Investment in Highway Research 2006–2009: Strengths and Weaknesses Beyond restoring the lost RD&T funds for planning, new initiatives are required. Given the legal and regulatory requirements imposed on regional planning agencies and their travel forecasting models, the federal government could do much more to improve travel forecasting models and modeling practice. The research, development, and deployment proposals set forth in Metropolitan Travel Forecasting: Current Practice and Future Direction (TRB 2007) provide sound guidance for such an effort. Many important transportation policy questions are going uninvestigated because of a lack of funding for this purpose, forcing infrastructure owners to make decisions without the necessary information. The lack of policy-relevant research has significantly hampered the work of the two commissions created by Congress in SAFETEA-LU to advise it on, among other things, the future viability of motor fuel taxes for funding highway and transit infrastructure. For example, gaps in knowledge about how sensitive travelers are to rising fuel prices and increased congestion, or how freight traffic might switch modes for these same reasons, undermine confidence in projections of future revenue streams for the Highway Trust Fund—one of the key policy concerns in reauthorization of the highway program in 2009. About 62 percent of Title V UTC funding is earmarked, causing this program to fail to meet the requirement for competition and merit review, and funding is dispersed across too many institutions. Universities are a key resource for highway research and education, but the 50-50 matching requirement hinders them from conducting the advanced research that is the strength of universities and is needed by the highway sector. The diffuse and uncoordinated research conducted through the UTC Program highlights the need for a communitywide consensus on research priorities at a level of specificity that could guide research. With such a prioritized agenda, it might be possible to steer UTCs more toward national priorities. Finally, SHRP 2 is a model in conforming to the SAFETEA-LU principles and promises significant contributions. However, the strategic nature of the program is compromised by the loss of 64 percent of its anticipated funding and 2 years of its originally planned duration.
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