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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 72 · No. 6 > Guest Editorial

May/Jun 2009
Vol. 72 · No. 6

Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-09-004

Guest Editorial

Meeting a Daunting Challenge

A photo of Byron Lord, Program Coordinator Highways for LIFE Federal Highway Administration

It's no secret that the Nation's system of roads and bridges is aging. Much of the system has exceeded its design life, some is in poor condition, and the backlog of needed work is significant. The current economic situation has resulted in major budget shortfalls at all levels. On top of that, drops in travel have resulted in a corresponding loss of revenue from fuel taxes to fund the investments needed. Some have called this a perfect storm.

But how often, especially in times of crisis, has the highway industry risen to a challenge and pulled together the hard work and creativity necessary to overcome adversity? Whether the problem is a bridge knocked down by a barge in Oklahoma, a melted freeway entrance ramp in northern California, or pavement washed away by a hurricane in Florida, the highway community has a long tradition of successfully responding to difficult situations. The difference here, of course, is the magnitude of the situation.

To help the United States meet the current infrastructure problems, many innovative approaches are available and ready to deploy. More are being developed all the time. These proven innovations can produce better quality, longer lasting roadways and bridges. And they can help highway agencies complete construction projects faster, more safely, with less impact on the driving public and, in many cases, at a lower cost.

But the true challenge is not simply coming up with such innovations; rather, it's making the decision — as individuals and organizations — to use them. The key is resolving to drop the old way, the "way it's always been done," in order to move on to alternative approaches. Too often, it takes years or even decades to adopt as standard practice innovations that can benefit road users. And that timeframe is no longer acceptable, especially in the face of the current financial situation.

To speed up the deployment process, in 2005 the U.S. Congress established within the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) a pilot program called Highways for LIFE. Specifically, Highways for LIFE provides incentives to encourage highway agencies to use innovations and customer-focused performance goals to build highways and bridges. The program uses proven marketing approaches and dedicated teams to demonstrate how to deploy innovations faster and more effectively.

FHWA created a training program to teach these techniques to the highway community so they can champion new approaches and accelerate the deployment of innovations. Highways for LIFE is also helping private industry move prototypes of promising innovations into the marketplace where they can benefit the traveling public.

An article in this issue of Public Roads, "A Mix of Innovations Succeeds in Minnesota," describes how the Minnesota Department of Transportation, an early recipient of Highways for LIFE funding, successfully applied several innovative approaches on a recent highway project. Also, see page 44 to learn more about the new National Highway Institute course Leap Not Creep: Accelerating Innovation Implementation.

Thus, this perfect storm affords the Nation the perfect opportunity, not simply to find better ways of building highways, but to change how the industry responds when those better ways are offered. The question that needs to be answered is, How will the highway community meet this daunting challenge?

Byron Lord

Program Coordinator Highways for LIFE

Federal Highway Administration

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