The nation’s economy and the lifestyles of its citizens depend heavily on a safe and efficient highway system. More than 90 percent of all trips in the United States are made by private automobile; highway vehicle-miles traveled are increasing about 3 percent every year. Trucks move more than 14,000 ton-miles of freight each year for every person in the country, and this usage is also increasing about 3 percent each year. At the same time, the highway system faces unprecedented challenges. Congestion, by any measure, is getting worse as the total number of drivers and the amount of travel outstrip growth in capacity. Despite numerous improvements in both vehicles and highways, more than 40,000 people lose their lives in traffic crashes each year. Environmental challenges are at the heart of contentious debates about where, how, and even whether to add new capacity. The providers of highway transportation face many problems that require innovative solutions.
The federal role in highway research and technology (R&T) is vital to highway innovation. Only the federal government has the resources to undertake and
sustain high-risk—but potentially high-payoff—research, and only the federal government has the incentives to invest in long-term, fundamental research. In the committee’s judgment, the R&T program of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is missing an opportunity to address this critical federal responsibility. This chapter presents recommendations for improving and strengthening the federal highway R&T program.
FHWA’s R&T program should focus on fundamental, long-term research aimed at achieving breakthroughs in the understanding of transportation-related phenomena. In the judgment of the committee, at least one-quarter of FHWA’s R&T research expenditure should be invested in such research.1
Fundamental, long-term research goes beyond solving problems incrementally. It involves and draws upon basic research results to provide a better understanding of problems and develop innovative solutions. For example, fundamental research aimed at improving understanding of the properties of pavement materials at the molecular level could lead to better asphalt and concrete pavements by improving the predictability of the life-cycle performance of different pavement designs. Similarly, fundamental research on individual travel behavior, lifestyle choices, and household activity patterns could lead to the development of better predictive models of regional travel demand to replace current descriptive models calibrated with aggregate data. Such research has the potential for high payoffs, even though it tends to be risky and typically requires longer to complete. Current expenditures for fundamental, long-term research at FHWA are less than 0.5 percent of the agency’s R&T budget. The consensus of the committee is that this funding level is too low for such an important activity that is appropriate to a federal agency, especially since the state and private-sector highway R&T programs are unlikely to undertake this type of research.
FHWA’s R&T program should undertake research aimed at (a) significant highway research gaps not addressed in other highway R&T programs and (b) emerging issues with national implications.
State, private-sector, and university highway R&T programs encompass successful problem-solving efforts, but they do not invest in certain kinds of research for several reasons, including scope, scale, and time frame. For example, although the private sector has undertaken research on how to produce improved retro-reflective pavement markings, it has had little interest in pursuing research to develop a mobile retroreflectometer that would enable public agencies to determine whether existing markings meet safety standards. Such research has been undertaken by the public sector. Similarly, research on emerging issues is appropriate for federal agencies. For example, the federal government could examine how traffic diversion due to increased congestion on urban freeways can affect the performance of alternative routes not built to Interstate design standards.
The committee recommends that FHWA adopt the goal of allocating approximately one-half of its R&T resources to topics addressing significant gaps in other highway R&T programs and emerging issues with national implications.2
This share would leave one-quarter of FHWA’s R&T resources for other activities related to the agency’s federal mission responsibilities, including research related to policy and regulations, technology transfer and field applications, education and training, and technical support.
FHWA’s R&T program should be more responsive to and influenced by the major stakeholders in highway innovation.
These stakeholders include the federal, state, and local government agencies that construct, maintain, and administer the nation’s public highways; the private companies that supply materials, equipment, and services used by these agencies; and a wide array of highway users, communities, and public interest groups. FHWA’s recent solicitation of highway research needs through the National Highway R&T Partnership Forum activity is a noteworthy first step toward obtaining broad stakeholder input. Although the forum has produced useful information on research needs, more substantive stakeholder involvement in the decision making, priority setting, and resource allocation for FHWA’s research program is essential to ensure that the program addresses the problems faced by
those building, maintaining, using, and affected by the nation’s highways. A significant challenge for the agency is informing Congress about stakeholder perceptions of highway research needs and priorities.
Although a systematic approach to stakeholder involvement begins with problem identification, such involvement must carry through to implementation.
To maintain an appropriate program focus on fundamental, long-term research, decisions about what research to pursue should balance stakeholder problem identification with expert external technical review regarding which research areas and specific research directions hold promise for significant breakthroughs. Such decisions should also reflect a strategic vision for the national transportation system. FHWA’s R&T program should be based on open competition, merit review, and systematic evaluation of outcomes.
Competition for funds and merit review of proposals are the best ways of ensuring the maximum return on investment of research funding and addressing strategic national transportation system goals. Designation of specific projects or research institutions without open competition occurs at the expense of missing creative proposals prepared by the most-qualified individuals and organizations throughout the nation and does not reflect the consensus of national highway stakeholders on research needs.
Merit review and evaluation should include panels of external stakeholders and technical experts. To ensure nationwide representation on such panels, Congress should provide FHWA with funds and the authorization to meet this need.
Travel expenses for external stakeholders and technical experts involved in merit review and evaluation panels can be considerable. It is important that Congress recognize these costs and provide administrative funds for their reimbursement.
FHWA’s highway R&T program should promote innovation by surveying research and practice worldwide, with the aim of identifying promising technologies, processes, and methods for use in the United States. The information from such surveys should be disseminated to the full range of highway stakeholders.
FHWA’s research managers are well positioned to assume this role because of their extensive interactions with state highway agencies, private industry, other federal agencies, universities, and key highway research organizations throughout the world. They can leverage these interactions to undertake and promote the identification of promising innovations and disseminate this knowledge to all highway stakeholders. The agency’s research on pedestrian safety measures used in Europe, for example, suggested several methods of crosswalk marking, signal operation, and traffic calming with application in the United States.
Two key elements of the federal highway R&T program are the University Transportation Centers (UTC) program and the State Planning and Research (SP&R) program. The UTC program is one of few opportunities for highway and transportation researchers to pursue investigator-initiated research. Although the amount of funding made available to individuals is quite modest, such funds are vital for attracting and supporting some of the nation’s best young minds to highway and transportation research and thereby play an important role in graduate education.
University transportation research funded under the UTC program should be subject to the same guidelines as FHWA’s R&T program—open competition, merit review, stakeholder involvement, and continuing assessment of outcomes—to ensure maximum return on the funds invested.
The SP&R program, which originated more than 60 years ago, has become an important component of the national highway R&T effort. Congress should continue to authorize this program.
The research portion of the SP&R program is the centerpiece of state highway agency R&T programs. The federal SP&R research funds, which amounted to $185 million in 2001, are matched by state funds on at least a 20:80 (state-to-federal) basis; although this contribution to research is significant, some states spend additional state funds on highway research. The SP&R program not only facilitates individual state highway R&T programs but also fosters research collaboration and partnering among the states in pooled-fund projects.
The committee endorses the findings and recommendations of the congressionally requested study to determine the need for and focus of a Future Strategic Highway Research Program (known as F-SHRP).
The report of that study [titled Strategic Highway Research: Saving Lives, Reducing Congestion, Improving Quality of Life (TRB 2001)], which is being released concurrently with this report, calls for a large-scale, fixed-duration strategic research initiative aimed at the most important problems currently facing public highway agencies. F-SHRP is designed to yield research products for immediate use. It will provide a natural complement to a federal highway R&T program focused on fundamental, long-term research. F-SHRP is aimed at making substantial progress toward four critical research goals:
Developing a consistent, systematic approach to performing highway renewal that is rapid, causes minimum disruption, and produces long-lived facilities;
Preventing or reducing the severity of highway crashes through more accurate knowledge of crash factors and of the cost-effectiveness of selected countermeasures in addressing these factors;
Providing highway users with reliable travel times by preventing and reducing the impact of nonrecurring incidents; and
Developing approaches and tools for systematically integrating environmental, economic, and community requirements into the analysis, planning, and design of new highway capacity.
It is important that the proposed funding for the F-SHRP research—derived from federal-aid highway program allocations to the states that would otherwise be spent on construction, maintenance, and other authorized activities— not be viewed as a substitute for funding for other state and federal highway R&T programs.
The above recommendations call for a strong federal highway R&T program designed to maximize the investment of public funds in a research effort that is vital to the nation’s economy and the quality of life of all its citizens. The recommendations directed at FHWA call for strong leadership, clear vision, stakeholder involvement, and accountability in all facets of the program. If these reforms are implemented, the committee would support a significant increase in the agency’s R&T budget.
An FHWA R&T budget of twice the current level, while significant, would nonetheless amount to only about 1 percent of annual total public highway expenditures. Even this increase would leave the funding low compared with research expenditures in other important sectors of the economy or other federal mission agencies.
Finally, the committee recognizes that reforming the federal highway R&T program in accordance with the above recommendations will require the cooperation and contributions of Congress, FHWA, and highway R&T stakeholders. Congress provides the funding and funding flexibility; FHWA manages the program and conducts research; and highway R&T stakeholders contribute in many ways, including implementing innovations.
Therefore, if Congress agrees with the committee’s recommendations for an improved federal highway R&T program, it should provide FHWA with the funding and funding flexibility needed to undertake the recommended changes. Without such changes in its R&T funding and funding flexibility, FHWA will be unable to reform its R&T program as the committee has recommended. If FHWA’s highway R&T program cannot be reformed, highway R&T stakeholders should explore with Congress other mechanisms for carrying out federal highway research.
Highway transportation is too important, the stresses on the system too severe, and innovation too critical to do anything less.
TRB Transportation Research Board
TRB. 1994. Special Report 244: Highway Research: Current Programs and Future Directions. National Research Council, Washington, D.C.
TRB. 2001. Special Report 260: Strategic Highway Research: Saving Lives, Reducing Congestion, Improving Quality of Life. National Research Council, Washington, D.C.