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Highways for LIFE

Arrow Marketing Plan: Making Work Zones Work Better

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A review of historical documents reveals a steady progression in the construction tools used to build roadways in the United States. Early road machinery pulled by horses and oxen evolved to motorized equipment, and then to state–of–the–art equipment featuring lasers and global positioning systems (GPS). But what sometimes goes unnoticed in analyzing photos of those early efforts is what's not there—designated work zones. Those early workers are shown simply doing their jobs with little regard for traffic. Of course, a significant amount of road construction at that time was new construction, on sites not opened to traffic. When work was performed on an existing road, apparently traffic demands were so low that carving out a portion of the roadway for workers was not necessary.

By the time the Interstate System was in full swing, things had changed. America's Highways, a coffee table style book published in 1976 by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), describes how highways evolved in this country. The book notes that, from 1964 to 1974:

As highway facilities became more and more congested and more people with their respective vehicles were fighting for this precious space on the streets and highways, the public began to resent the highway worker with his equipment taking up space on the public right–of–way, even if it had to be maintained. The cry was, "Can't you find some other time to do that; you can't block the road at this time of day." So a new emphasis was placed on road maintenance. Since 1971, the Federal Highway Administration, when requested, has assisted State organizations interested in discussing the basic components of a maintenance management program.

Today, of course, "space on streets and highways" has become even more precious. Considering that the number of new facilities being constructed each year is limited and the number of vehicle–miles traveled is rising, more and more highway construction is occurring under traffic conditions. Today, work zone–induced delay and congestion already represents 10 percent of the total nationwide delay and congestion, and approximately 1,020 highway workers and the driving public lose their lives each year in work zones.

That impact is increasing. Highway construction projects are getting larger, more complex, and costs often enter the billions of dollars. Their importance to the public is such that elected officials are keenly aware that the success or failure of a transportation project or program can have a major impact on their administrations. Surveys bear this out:

  • The 2001 report, "Moving Ahead," which presents the findings of three public satisfaction surveys, showed that the driving public equates highway construction with congestion. The report notes, "There has been a large increase Marketing Plan Making Work Zones Work Better 2 (20 percentage points average) in dissatisfaction with all elements of traffic flow on major highways during the past five years. In 2000, 43 percent of respondents expressed dissatisfaction with traffic flow, compared to 23 percent in 1995. This may explain some of the 6 percentage point increase in dissatisfaction with highways. Thirty–two percent of respondents expressed dissatisfaction with work zones, the second highest indicator of dissatisfaction among attributes of major highways."
  • The 2005 version of the annual "Drive for Life" survey conducted by Mason–Dixon Polling and Research, Inc., showed that traffic delays were second only to other drivers' behavior in the rankings of what aggravates drivers most.

The time is ripe for a dramatic change in how work zones are created and managed. On September 9, 2004, the FHWA published the Work Zone Safety and Mobility Rule. This new rule updates and renames the former regulation on "Traffic Safety in Highway and Street Work Zones" in 23 CFR 630 Subpart J. All state and local governments that receive Federal–aid highway funding are are required to comply with the updated provisions no later than October 12, 2007. Along with its sponsorship of the rule, FHWA determined to offer significant assistance to states in conforming to the rule's requirements, and the agency's Office of Operations determined to develop a multi–faceted program to that end. This would include communications, one–on–one assistance, and scanning tours and demonstrations of successful applications.

Meanwhile, the Highways for LIFE (HfL) program was established to find ways of getting innovations and new highway technologies put into practice faster, thereby dramatically improving the American driving experience. These innovations might be ways of building highways faster, smoother, safer, or of better quality so that there would be less frequent repair crews disrupting traffic. Every highway construction project has to deal with the traffic management issue, so the goals of the Office of Operation and HfL with regard to making work zones work better obviously had common ground.

HfL determined that one way of accelerating the rate that members of the highway community embraced new technology might be through improving the process used in what is referred to as "technology transfer." In the late 1990s, FHWA underwent an organizational restructuring. One piece of the restructuring was the dissolving of the existing organizational unit which had the corporate responsibility for technology delivery. Funds previously used by that entity were distributed to the individual program offices (Infrastructure, Safety, Operations, etc.), and these program offices were charged with managing their own efforts of deployment.

The HfL team therefore made a proposition to the heads of the three program offices: If they would select an innovation or technology that they believed their office urgently needed to get implemented nationally, the HfL program would support it Marketing Plan Making Work Zones Work Better 3 with funding, marketing expertise, and by championing it to the leadership of the agency, as well as the highway community as a whole. The following were the selected innovations:

  • Office of Infrastructure: Prefabricated Bridge Elements and Systems (PBES)
  • Office of Safety: Road Safety Audits (RSA)
  • Office of Operations: Making Work Zones Work Better (herein referred to as MWZWB)

Each of the Offices agreed to assemble a team of individuals with expertise in the particular area of innovation, and these were to include people from all areas of the organization—headquarters, resource center, and divisions. Where possible, the Federal Lands Highways division would be included as well.

The teams were encouraged to meet with the HfL team offsite for a day–long discussion of what Highways for LIFE was all about, what sort of goals they were being asked to strive for, and to develop a preliminary approach to attaining those goals.

The intent of the MWZWB plan is two–pronged. It will assist state departments of transportation (DOT) in implementing strategies, ideas, and technologies designed to improve safety, reduce congestion and construction times, as well as in achieving compliance with the Work Zone Safety and Mobility rule. The MWZWB program will reach these goals through three primary efforts:

1. Work zone peer–to–peer (P2P) program
2. Focused technical workshops
3. Project assessment assistance

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Scott Wolf
Center for Accelerating Innovation

This page last modified on 04/04/11

United States Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration