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April 22, 2019 Vincent Valdes Associate Administrator for Research, Demonstration, and Innovation Federal Transit Administration U.S. Department of Transportation 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE Washington, DC 20590 Dear Mr. Valdes, On December 12 and 13, 2018, the Transportation Research Boardâs (TRBâs) Transit Research Analysis Committee (TRAC) met with TRBâs Research and Technology Coordinating Committee (RTCC). In the same manner that TRAC advises the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), the RTCC advises the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) on its research, development, and technology (RD&T) plans and programs. The two committees chose to meet jointly for the first time in part to compare each administrationâs processes for planning, prioritizing, and executing research, and for furthering the dissemination, implementation, and evaluation of research results. Another important reason, however, was the growing recognition that the transit and highway modes and their research and innovation needs can no longer be viewed separate from one another. Both modes will continue to play key roles in meeting the changing mobility needs and expectations of a country whose population is aging, becoming more urbanized, and increasingly attuned to the safety, equity, and environmental impacts of its transportation choices. However, these modal roles are being recastâand in many ways meldedâby a fast-changing technological landscape that is transforming the operations, capabilities, and service models of each through more automation, connectivity, electrification, and sharing of mobility means. While a single joint meeting could provide TRAC and RTCC members with little more than an introduction to each agencyâs varied RD&T program and to the new opportunities for coordinated research, the presentations and follow-on discussions were nevertheless informative and engaging. Following this joint session, you and your staff provided TRAC with a more traditional update of developments in FTAâs RD&T program, albeit limited by the short time available following the joint sessions. This letter report, therefore, serves two purposes: (1) it provides TRACâs initial observations from the joint meeting about potentially promising areas for more research coordination by FTA and FHWA, and (2) it responds to questions raised during the FTA-specific briefing.
2 The findings and advice in TRAC letter reports are based on the professional judgment of its 14 members, appointed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine for their wide-ranging expertise in the public transportation field (see Attachment B for membership). The balanced and multidisciplinary committeeâdrawn from industry, academia, and the public and private sectorsâis charged with recommending actions FTA can take to ensure its research program is relevant, timely, and effective in meeting the diverse and changing needs of the public transportation sector. TRACâs standing charge is provided in Box 1. On behalf of TRAC, thank you for providing this opportunity to offer candid feedback on your program, which you have always sought out and accepted in a constructive manner. Accompanied by the material and briefings by FHWA, your and your teamâs presentations prompted stimulating discussions. The meeting agenda and a list of participants are attached. Box 1 TRAC Statement of Task TRAC, an interdisciplinary committee of experts from industry, academia, and the private and public sectors, will examine and recommend actions FTA can take to ensure that its research and innovation program is relevant, timely, and effective in meeting the diverse and changing needs of the public transportation community. To do so, TRAC will review the programâs Latest Section 5312 Research Report that highlights program activities and accomplishments; Strategic planning process, including approaches for setting research priorities and identifying research needs and opportunities; Procedures for obtaining and evaluating stakeholder input; and Means for evaluating research results, furthering their use, and understanding their value to the transit industry and broader public. TRAC will identify candidate areas of emphasis for FTA-sponsored research that are consistent with the stated goals of the U.S. Department of Transportation and with the Fixing Americaâs Surface Transportation (FAST) Actâs emphasis on improving mobility and infrastructure durability, reducing congestion, promoting safety, and preserving the transportation system and environment. Drawing on its interdisciplinary knowledge and experience, TRAC will assist FTA in identifying and examining emerging trends affecting the public transportation sector as well as transferable practices from outside the sector that can benefit public transportation. TRAC will make recommendations to FTA on research and innovation program strategies intended to strengthen the public transportation industryâs adaptation to new circumstances and adoption of new practices. TRAC will issue its findings and recommendations in biannual consensus letter reports, but with the option, per the request of FTA and subject to funding availability, to issue a longer consensus report that addresses elements of the task statement in more depth and over a longer time horizon.
3 The remainder of this letter report begins with a summary of FTAâs and FHWAâs RD&T programs, as presented during the meeting. Recognizing that neither program could be described at length in the constrained time available, both agencies were asked to provide brief overviews of their programs, including funding levels and sources, main focus areas of the work, and ongoing efforts to evaluate the results of the projects and programs. The brief overviews were intended to give TRAC and RTCC members essential program information but leave ample time to engage in dialogue in which more details would emerge through questions and answers. While this rich dialogue could not be recorded or even summed up effectively in this short letter report, it is my understanding from your wrap-up remarks that you and your team found the discussions to be productive, suggesting value in convening similar joint meetings in the future. Following this synopsis of the material presented during the joint meeting, the letter report concludes with the committeeâs recommendations for the research programs, as well as its observations stemming from the joint meeting about opportunities for more FTA and FHWA coordination and collaboration. SUMMARY OF JOINT MEETING PRESENTATIONS FTA RESEARCH Research Funding Levels and Sources FTAâs research program (abbreviated as TRI) is funded at approximately $28 million per year through the Fixing Americaâs Surface Transportation (FAST) Act of 2015. The administration has approximately $150 million of active projects throughout its portfolio, and about 70% of FTAâs funding goes to demonstration and deployment projects. Types of Research Programs Conceptually, the program focuses on three priority areas of safety, infrastructure, and mobility innovation. The types of projects and activities that are eligible to receive this funding encourage a âpipelineâ approach to research: innovation and development projects, which lead into demonstration and deployment projects, which lead into project evaluations. Automation of transit vehicles and understanding of new technologiesâ impacts are a focus of FTA research efforts, along with programs to help improve public transit infrastructure and rolling stock. While projects vary from year to year, one of the larger projects in recent years was a Low and No Emission Bus demonstration program at $55 million per year. That program existed from 2015 through 2017, at which point Congress shifted it from a research effort to an ongoing federal program. The administration has also spent approximately $8 million on a series of âMobility on Demand Sandboxâ pilot projects around the country; this funding was awarded in 2016 and evaluations of the resulting programs are ongoing.
4 Research Evaluation FTA staff described its research evaluation as a three-tiered process. The highest tier is the impact of the overall research portfolio, the middle tier is the result of each research priority area, and the bottom tier is an evaluation of each demonstration program. Evaluation efforts start at the most disaggregate level with the demonstration programs and include an independent external evaluator. These evaluations must be completed within two years of the grant award and must also be reported to Congress in FTAâs annual research report. From here, FTA staff consider the results of each research priority area in its effectiveness (whether the program achieved its goals), efficiency (the cost-effectiveness of the program), and quality (a measure that brings in social values such as quality of life). Finally, the results from each priority area allow TRI, and FTA as a whole, to âtell its storyâ about its impact on the transit industry and determine how successful the overall program is at producing innovations in public transportation. FHWA RESEARCH Research Funding Levels and Sources FHWAâs research program is significantly larger than FTAâs, totaling nearly $200 million within FHWA alone, and highway research funding is also available from other sources. FHWAâs Research and Technology funds, which are entirely within the administrationâs control, include $125 million for highway research and development and another $63 million for technology transfer and deployment. Beyond these two areas, FHWA also provides $24 million per year in training and education funds to graduate students, local and tribal partners, and the National Highway Institute. In addition, funding is available for highway research through the Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office ($100 million annually), the Bureau of Transportation Statistics ($26 million), and the University Transportation Centers program ($75 million). These programs work with all modes of transportation, but are additional resources for highway-related research funding. Beyond these federal research dollars, highway research funding is also possible through the state departments of transportation. FHWA oversees a total federal aid funding program of $42 billion in fiscal year (FY) 2018, with $208 million specifically dedicated to state planning and research efforts. The states work closely with both TRB and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) to program their funds. Types of Research Programs FHWAâs research plan is designed to align with the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) strategic plan and with administration priorities. The center of federal highway research is the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center, in McLean, Virginia, part of the greater Washington, DC, metropolitan area. FHWA has 95 staff based there, along with visiting researchers and fellows, working in the more than 20 labs onsite. Projects, both at Turner-
5 Fairbank and beyond, include improvements and innovations to safety processes and technologies, new or improved methods of construction, and more efficient monitoring and recording of transportation construction and operations. For its FY 2019-2020 highway research plan, FHWA identified and described 33 specific programs; 14% of the program funding applies to safety projects, 46% to infrastructure projects, 35% to innovation projects, and 5% to accountability projects. Research Evaluation A variety of outside stakeholders influences FHWAâs research plans; these groups include RTCC, AASHTO and TRB committees, and multiple technical working groups. Each provides feedback to FHWA about the value and prioritization of its research programs. As in FTA, FHWA staff find that measuring the complete impact of their research and developing a causal relationship between the administrationâs activities and outcomes is a challenge. RECOMMENDATIONS Based on the discussions over the two days, TRAC sees a number of research needs that are similar for both FTA and FHWA. This letter reportâs recommendations begin with those directed to both organizations working in cooperation. A second set of recommendations is directed to transit issues, with the awareness that many of these, with a modal twist, could also apply to FHWAâs research program. Cooperative Research Recommendations Right-of-way management is an issue of concern to both the transit and the highway industries and their many partners. There is a clear need to better understand and act on managing, operating, planning, and financing these rights-of-way, and FTAâs TRI, in cooperation with FHWA, can assist by suggesting right-of-way management standards for different types of roadways. In particular, in urban areas, transit agencies and cities have many questions about providing for the variety of users of public rights-of-way, including a need to accommodate both freight and passenger users. The few urban departments of transportation that have authority over the local transit agency may have valuable experience to share. Similar to right-of-way questions, automation questions continue to arise, both in transit and highway arenas. In both public transportation and long-distance freight industries, current employees have many concerns about the transition to increased levels of automation. FTA and FHWA can help by clarifying the long path to higher automation and the place of workers, from maintenance staff to drivers to management, at each milestone along the path. Workers, along with the public, need to understand that automation will not result in an immediate loss of many jobs but will instead be a gradual shift. In addition, this shift to increased automation will be smoother if clarity about rights-of-way management is provided in advance.
6 Transit Research Recommendations In an era of fast-moving technological change, any federal program can struggle to keep pace with the innovations and deployments coming from the private sector. This is a challenge without an end, but TRI should consider its own internal barriers to implementing pilots, new processes, and new delivery models. A clear-eyed look at its own challenges to innovation and attempts to address them would not only simplify the research-to-deployment pipeline but would also serve as a model for reviewing challenges present in transit agency and state and local government processes. TRI could convene interested agencies to develop recommendations on how to address federal transit regulations that are constraining work with new mobility providers; one example of such a regulation is the definition of a âtransitâ trip for the purposes of National Transit Database records. Transportation in general, and public transit in particular, are often described as having a significant effect on a communityâs quality of life. However, quality of life is difficult to measure, and the challenges associated with measuring it often mean that most analyses do not consider it to the extent that it could be. TRI could develop a series of indicators that serve as a proxy for quality of life, thereby providing more emphasis on this metric in costâbenefit analysis. Changing demographics and spatial patterns throughout the country lead to a wide variety of research questions for both FTA and FHWA. Specifically in transit, the country is facing increases in rural, suburban, and exurban transit needs, but has generally not been able to provide corresponding increased levels of service in these areas. TRI should develop a synthesis of which agencies are undertaking efforts to serve these less-urban areas and at what levels of success. Such a synthesis could include information on who is using new service delivery models, including microtransit and transportation network companies, to serve these areas, what the costs are of such delivery models, and who is providing the funding. The difficulty of providing transit service to all who need it is sometimes due to geographic and geometric challenges, and sometimes due to demographic challenges, including addressing populations without bank accounts as agencies move to personal transit smart cards. These challenges are not unique to the transportation industry. TRI could coordinate with education and health care industries, along with large individual employers, to address transit provision challenges. All of these industries and employers benefit from having better transportation for their users and employees. This coordination might take the form of workshops or studies of best practices. Finally, data acquisition and analysis is an ever-growing challenge and TRI can take multiple steps. First, TRI should consider developing a synthesis of best practices among transit agencies in sharing data with new mobility providers. Second, TRI staff could assist multiple agencies or cities in acting as a unit when negotiating data agreements with other providers. Third, TRI could also develop stronger data standards for trip planning data research, which would extend the existing and widely used General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) into performance metrics, ridership, and more. Among other benefits, stronger data standards could allow for better comparison among cities if, for example, standardized on-time
7 data are available. Fourth, the transit industry would also benefit from a better understanding of the state of the industryâs ability to manage and use data. TRI could provide benchmarking or other evaluations of agenciesâ abilities to digest and use data. CONCLUDING COMMENTS Once again, the members of TRAC and I appreciate the explanations from both your team and Hari Kallaâs team of the research efforts in the highway and transit industries. We appreciate the chance to provide feedback on these efforts. On behalf of TRACâs members, I thank all of the USDOT staff in attendance for providing us with overviews of your research programs and their evaluations, and the two days of discussions with us before we offer this advice. I look forward to consulting with you about the next TRAC meeting in late 2019. Sincerely, Anna M. Barry, Chair Attachments