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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 67 · No. 6 > Congestion Is the Challenge

May/June 2004
Vol. 67 · No. 6

Congestion Is the Challenge

by Scott Battles

An FHWA team addresses one of the agency's toughest priorities by tackling work zone delays.

Photo: Roadway work zone.  Oncoming traffic is re-directed by a flashing arrow indicator and sign 'Road Work Ahead'
In 2001, work zones like this one caused 3.5 billion hours of delay and 5.7 billion gallons of excess fuel consumption. FHWA is striving to reduce the impact that work zones have on driver safety and mobility.

Highway congestion threatens the mobility that is so essential to the quality of the air Americans breathe, the satisfaction of highway users, and the Nation's economic vitality. The Texas Transportation Institute's 2003 Urban Mobility Report estimated that the cost of congestion in 75 of the Nation's large urban areas in 2001 was $69.5 billion. Corresponding to the dollar losses were 3.5 billion hours of delay and 5.7 billion gallons of excess fuel consumed.

Simply put, congestion occurs when traffic demand exceeds available capacity. Causes of recurring congestion include insufficient facility capacity and ineffective management of existing capacity (such as poor signal timing). Causes of nonrecurring congestion include work zones, incidents, weather events, special events, and emergencies.

From the user's perspective, highway construction work zones are among the more irritating causes of nonrecurring congestion. At any time during the peak construction season, work zones are in force on 20 percent of the National Highway System, and, according to an Oak Ridge National Laboratory report titled "Temporary Losses of Highway Capacity and Impacts on Performance," published May 2002, work zones are the cause of 24 percent of the nonrecurring congestion on our Nation's highways.

Even more important is their impact on the safety of the motoring public and the construction workforce. In 2002, 1,181 fatalities and more than 40,000 injuries resulted from crashes in work zones. Each year, an estimated 130 workers lose their lives in work zones.

Still, work zones are necessary to meet the need to maintain and upgrade the U.S. aging highway infrastructure. As much of the Nation's transportation infrastructure approaches the end of its service life, the need for preservation, rehabilitation, and maintenance will increase. At the same time, traffic continues to grow and create more congestion. The combination of more work zones and heavier traffic volumes will result in more impacts on mobility and safety. According to the FHWA report, Moving Ahead: The American Public Speaks on Roadways and Transportation in Communities (FHWA-OP-01-017), American drivers cited work zones as second only to poor traffic flow in causing traveler dissatisfaction. The top improvements suggested by the public relate to roadway repairs and work zones: more durable paving materials, repairs made during nonpeak hours, and reduced repair time.

The challenge before the highway community is not to eliminate work zones, but to reduce their impact on safety and mobility. This goal can be accomplished by applying a variety of strategies to decrease the need for work zones and their duration, and to improve the operational and safety characteristics of those that are necessary.

The Goal

The importance of this problem is reflected in the fact that mitigation of traffic congestion is one of FHWA's vital focus areas. To address the "congestion" priority, FHWA is working toward three specific objectives.

The first objective is to mitigate the overall impacts of congestion through effective local partnerships. The goal is to establish at least 52 State and local partnerships focused specifically on implementing State and local strategies for the mitigation of congestion. During the first year, the focus is on establishing the partnerships. During the second through fifth years, FHWA will identify work zone improvement strategies and implement mitigation measures at a national level.

The second objective is to reduce work zone delays over the next 5 years by ensuring that all 50 States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Federal Lands offices are engaged in aggressively anticipating and mitigating the congestion caused by work zones. The target objective is for all 50 States through local FHWA Division Offices and Federal Lands offices to implement aggressive work zone initiatives by 2007, as measured in part by a national work zone self-assessment process initiated in 2002.

The third objective is to reduce incident delays over the next 5 years by ensuring that all States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Federal Lands offices are engaged in aggressively anticipating and mitigating congestion caused by traffic incidents. The target is for up to 30 States containing the largest 75 metropolitan areas to implement aggressive programs to manage traffic incidents by 2007, as measured in part by the FHWA Office of Operations through a best practices self-assessment process initiated in 2003.

FHWA will develop a composite national measure of progress using the traffic incident management and work zone self-assessment results from each State. FHWA units will proactively assert their leadership with transportation stakeholders by championing implementation of innovative solutions to reduce traffic delays caused by incidents and work zones.

The FHWA Office of Operations' Work Zone Mobility and Safety Program addresses construction-related congestion and crashes by researching, developing, and promoting:

  • National policy and guidance initiatives that focus on congestion and safety in and around work zones

  • Reduced work zone duration and traveler exposure through the use of full closures, night work, and accelerated construction techniques

  • Innovative project management strategies that involve effective corridor planning, intelligent transportation systems (ITS) in work zones, innovative contracting methods, and work zone incident management

  • Communication and training by sharing best practices, conducting work zone workshops, and enhancing National Highway Institute courses to include work zone operational strategies

A Closer Look at Available Tools

Real solutions to the challenge of work zone congestion come from a fundamental change in the way projects are planned, estimated, designed, bid, and, finally, constructed. A comprehensive approach to work zone management includes policies, safety and mobility impact assessments, and transportation management planning.

Work zone safety and mobility policies are necessary to support systematic consideration of work zone impacts across all stages of project development and address the safety and mobility needs of road users, workers, and other affected parties. Many States find work zone policies an effective tool to guide their efforts in minimizing work zone impacts on the traveling public. On May 13, 2004, FHWA published a Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (SNPRM) for the Work Zone Safety and Mobility Rule that required, as one principal component of the proposed rule, that States have a work zone policy that addresses the safety and efficiency of roadwork activities through the planning, design, and operation of work zones to reduce congestion and crashes in and around work zones.

Work zone safety and mobility impact assessments are necessary to understand the type, severity, and extent of the work zone impacts associated with various project alternatives and to incorporate appropriate mitigation measures and strategies in project design, construction, transportation management and operations, and traffic control. FHWA developed "QuickZone," an easy-to-use delay estimation software tool to assist transportation professionals in determining the impacts of work zones on vehicle travel. QuickZone can help the transportation professional determine the times and days that are best for a given project, as well as the best approach for managing traffic.

Transportation management planning is the culminating element in the planning and design process that includes elements such as temporary traffic control, transportation operation management strategies, and public information and outreach to help mitigate work zone impacts. The goal of transportation management planning is to provide strategies for handling traffic flow safely and efficiently through the actual work zone; operational strategies that focus on the use of incident management, intelligent transportation systems (ITS), travel demand, and so forth; and public information and outreach strategies to communicate information about the project and expected impacts to affected road users, the public, residences and businesses, and the appropriate public entities.

FHWA's Vision, Mission, and Vital Few Focus Areas

The agency's vision is to improve transportation for a strong America by facilitating transportation solutions, thinking beyond highways, and collaborating on multimodal solutions. The mission is to enhance mobility through innovation, leadership, and public service, which includes stewardship, accountability for public funds, and listening to the public and FHWA's partners.

The agency has established three "vital few" priority areas—congestion, safety, and environmental stewardship and streamlining—that represent the most critical performance gaps that must be addressed to achieve FHWA's mission and vision.

Intelligent Transportation System Technologies

A growing focus of traffic management during construction and repair activities is the use of ITS technologies. These technologies are used in and around work zones to help mitigate the impacts of work zones on traffic congestion. An FHWA publication, Intelligent Transportation
Systems in Work Zones: A Cross-Cutting Study
(FHWA-OP-02-025), discusses the application of ITS in work zones in four locations, plus benefits and lessons learned. In 2004, FHWA plans to publish a guide for implementation of ITS in work zones and detailed case studies of four types of ITS applications in work zones.

Photo: Variable speed limit sign in a work zone.

Variable speed limit signs, like this one in a work zone, use sensors to monitor traffic flow and adjust local speed limits accordingly.

Full Closures

Experience has shown that full road closure of roadways and other transportation facilities during rehabilitation can reduce both crashes and work zone-related congestion. In closure projects, the roadway is closed, traffic rerouted, and the contractor given full access to the roadway with the expectation that construction time will be reduced dramatically. An FHWA brochure, "Shorter Duration, Safer Work Zones, More Satisfied Travelers: Successful Applications of Full Road Closure in Work Zones" (FHWA-OP-03-086), and a study report, Full Road Closure for Work Zone Operations: A Cross-Cutting Study (FHWA-OP-04-009), discuss the use of full closure, including benefits and lessons learned at six locations.

Updated Regulations

FHWA recently published a Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that proposes changes to 23 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) 630 Subpart J that could alter the way State and local agencies approach consideration and management of work zone impacts. The proposed rule explores broadening the existing regulations to include a requirement for State work zone mobility and safety policies, consideration of work zone impacts through assessment, and identification of strategies for mitigating safety and congestion impacts. The comment period for this rulemaking effort will close on June 14, 2004.

Photo: Workers in a work zone.
FHWA and State DOTs plan to cosponsor workshops on new and emerging technologies and practices focused on reducing congestion and crashes in and around work zones like this one near Georgetown, TX.
Photo: Center for Transportation Research, The University of Texas at Austin.

Other Initiatives

While the transportation industry studies and implements strategies such as ITS applications and full closures to minimize work zone impacts, other initiatives are underway to reduce crashes and congestion due to work zones. Some of these other initiatives include an update of the FHWA publication, Work Zone Operations Best Practices Guidebook (FHWA-OP-00-010), which shares success stories and lessons learned. Best practices covered include policies and procedures, public outreach, contracting, construction methods, enforcement, and ITS.

Final reviews are being completed on a "New Driver Training Program," a computer-based work zone simulation tool that puts the new driver in work zone situations. This training tool emphasizes the conditions and hazards usually found at a roadway construction or repair site and enables the new driver to become aware of work zone standards and activities in a classroom environment.

To engage transportation professionals in discussions on improved work zone strategies, the FHWA Work Zone Mobility and Safety Program has partnered with States to conduct a series of "Making Work Zones Work Better" workshops to share information on new and emerging technologies and practices focused on reducing congestion and crashes in and around work zones. Over the past 2 years, FHWA has conducted 20 of the workshops in 19 States, reaching more than 2,000 participants. The workshops were designed to provide information on new technologies and methods, as well as to gather new information on what is being done by various States and local governments to reduce crashes and congestion due to work zones.

Achieving the Congestion Vital FewGoal

Through a variety of efforts and program initiatives, FHWA is aggressively addressing the agency's "vital few" goals. Improving highway safety and reducing congestion is the principal goal of the Work Zone Mobility and Safety program and is the guide-on for future programs. It is achieving that goal through the program initiatives currently in progress that address effective corridor planning, research and promotion of strategies that reduce public exposure to work zones, development of tools to support efficient transportation management during road work, and communication of work zone mitigation strategies by providing education and training opportunities to FHWA's transportation partners.


Scott L. Battles, R.A., is the team leader of FHWA's Work Zone Mobility and Safety Team in the Office of Transportation Operations in Washington, DC. His responsibilities include developing and disseminating work zone mitigation strategies that consider the impacts on road users and workers to improve safety and mobility. He has worked in the design and construction field for more than 22 years and is a registered professional architect in California, Arizona, and Alabama.

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