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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 59· No. 3 > The National Highway Institute: A 25-Year Record of Achievement

Winter 1996
Vol. 59· No. 3

The National Highway Institute: A 25-Year Record of Achievement

by Charles Barton

France has its famous School of Bridges and Roads, which has trained French road engineers since 1747. Although not as old, the National Highway Institute (NHI), the training arm of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), is equally famous and is the country's principal source of course materials and training in new highway technology.

NHI, 25 years old in 1995, has become highly esteemed both at home and abroad for its role in technology transfer and as a vital provider of highway technology to the national and international highway communities. Students and professionals from all parts of the United States and from around the world attend its courses, receive its fellowships, and participate in loaned staff arrangements.

Much has been accomplished in the years since the U.S. Office of Road Inquiry was established in 1893, but 1970 was the real "year-one" of NHI history. By then, the organization had been through several name changes and had become the Federal Highway Administration. FHWA's emphasis on internal training helped provide economical staffing for new and massive federal-aid highway programs and helped persuade Congress to authorize the creation of the National Highway Institute as part of the 1970 Highway Act.

The stated purpose of NHI was "to develop and administer, in cooperation with the State highway departments, training programs of instruction for Federal Highway Administration and State and local highway department employees engaged or to be engaged in Federal-aid highway work."

Originally, NHI was composed of four organizational units: Federal Programs, University and Industry Programs, International Visitors Program, and State Programs. The State Programs unit was, and remains, the cornerstone of NHI.

Thus established, NHI was not a physical facility, such as a school with classrooms, but an administrative element funded from FHWA's regular appropriation for administrative expenses. Initially, of course, this tended to limit the amount of direct training NHI could undertake.

The NHI Mission

From the beginning, the main thrust of NHI has been the development and delivery of training for state and local highway organizations within the United States.

"That was our mandate, and that continues to be our mandate," says Dr. Moges Ayele, the current director of Special Strategic NHI Initiatives. "We are truly proud of the accomplishments of NHI since its establishment in 1970. We are also aware of the future challenges. Due to rapid changes in technology and new information, there will be a greater need for training to upgrade the skills of transportation personnel. Transportation organizations will require continuing education programs to benefit from the products of new technology and research, and they need the training in a timely fashion."

NHI's State Programs Division has employed a variety of means to fulfill this mandate. The primary mode of training delivery has been short courses one to five days in new and evolving technical areas, research findings, or emphasis areas. About 75 different courses covering such subject areas as civil engineering (33 courses); right of way (5 courses); environment (10 courses); planning, including statewide planning and urban planning (17 courses); financial management (1 course); civil rights (1 course); and highway safety (5 courses) are now available.

It is not too boastful to claim that any veteran state highway/transportation employee has participated in at least one NHI training experience. NHI has developed more than 300 different courses, which have been presented to more than 300,000 people.

At the same time, NHI has been selective in determining what courses to develop and present.

"One of the things that we emphasized in NHI was that we would not do something that the states could do better for themselves," said Alfred L. (Al) Miller, a training officer who has been with the State Programs Division since its second year. "What we wanted to do was to develop the technology that was either so esoteric or so expensive that it wouldn't be developed without federal help. Our allegiance went initially to legislation such as the Clean Air Act. There was very little training material for air quality, except in California and New York. So, we took what was available and built on it, and thus met legislative mandates. Since 'management' was also on the rise at the time, we moved into various programs of management equipment management, maintenance management, and bridge management programs."

"We also gave attention to hot spots the critical challenges. We addressed the seismic retrofitting of bridges even before the recent, major earthquakes in California. That was one of the earliest things NHI did, and we opted to do it because it was so expensive, the expertise so rare, that only the federal government could pull together the resources necessary to develop it. At that time, nobody cared about earthquake resistant structures except California. Now we see that even Virginia is susceptible. Most people don't understand that even states like Arkansas have had devastating earthquakes," said Miller.

The State Programs Division is also called upon to deliver, often on very short notice, headquarters-mandated training for senior staff in crucial areas such as environmental justice and quality initiative.

With the development of global communications, the expansion of the world market, and the concomitant role that highways play in economic development and commerce, the international sharing of information and training related to new highway technologies has become increasingly important.

These international programs are not giveaways, points out Bill Brown, chief of the University, Industry, and International Programs Division of NHI. They are of mutual benefit to the United States and the receiving countries. "When we go to a country, we teach American methods and also introduce them to American industry," Brown said. "If there's a conference, representatives of American industry go with us and interact with potential customers. The intent is to interest the foreign officials and engineers in U.S. technology, so when they want to build or maintain a highway or do something else related to their highway program, they will come to the United States for help. We hope that in the long term this international effort will help make the United States the leader in highway technology around the world and in the process improve the competitive position of the United States in world markets."

When the University, Industry, and International Programs Division was organized in 1992, there were something like 15 technical transfer centers outside the United States, and now there are 65. The U.S. does not pay for these centers. Each country, trade association, university, or highway department that wants NHI training provides the funding.

"They are encouraged, once they gain the knowledge, to train other people in their country," Brown said. "It's really a myth that the National Highway Institute has to go several times to these countries with staff and programs. The countries continue the courses long after NHI has trained the trainer."

This is all about the flow of ideas from conception to research to implementation to early adoption. Harry Hersey, also a training officer with the State Programs Division, put it this way, "Our role in this process is as a technology transfer organization. We facilitate, through training, this flow in the adoption of technology."

Legacy of NHI

Among the many accomplishments of NHI, two stand out in their historic and far-reaching significance. Miller described them this way:

"When I first entered the highway/transportation arena, there weren't very many sources of related training material. So, I would say that NHI helped create an industry a source of highway/transportation-specific training material where there had been none before."

NHI staff and state training directors."The other accomplishment is the establishment of associations of state training officers in the many geographical regions of the country. When the interstate highway program began to create one of the finest highway systems in the world, training in the states began in earnest. Because there was little, if any, commercially available training material, training officers began to look to each other to share materials developed by their agencies. One of the first initiatives of NHI was to formalize the organization of these training associations to capitalize on their ability to network with each other. These associations were assisted by a federal counterpart in the FHWA division office in each state. The divisions channeled essential feedback regarding training needs to NHI."

"At the present time, the association of state training directors is taking on a national character and growing each year. It holds an annual meeting with NHI as a contributing partner. Hopefully, this association will someday earn status as an operational unit within AASHTO (American Association of State Transportation Officials)."

NHI Today

State Programs

NHI's current priorities are derived from the provisions of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA, usually called "ice tea"). The act contains requirements to develop systems to manage safety, congestion, maintenance, pavements, intermodalism, and bridges. So, the NHI State Programs Division has developed and presented courses in the management of those areas. The division also interpreted the regulations to mean that it's a unified management system, rather than six separate systems. Some states set up six different management systems. "That's not what we had in mind," Miller pointed out.

Members of the States Program Division.ISTEA also stresses the environmental aspects of transportation. At the present time, NHI supports federally mandated training for top federal administrators in environmental justice and environmental issues.

In response to ISTEA's urging to expand overseas efforts, NHI has presented courses in Finland, Latvia, Norway, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and countries in South America. George M. Shrieves, a former director of NHI, went to Russia to help set up an NHI-type organization there. Bill Williams, the coordinator of NHI's international programs, did the same thing in Finland.

"Although our primary client is the state transportation agency, ISTEA has expanded the responsibility to other levels metropolitan, county, and local organizations so we're offering our training to these groups too," Brown said.

In addition to transferring technology both at home and abroad, NHI is trying to reach the private sector by sharing training with contractors and consultants associated with the transportation industry.

The many and varied NHI courses in the National Highway Institute Course Catalog are listed under the following category headings:

  • Civil Engineering Structures and Hydraulics.
  • Civil Engineering Materials, Pavements, and Base Design.
  • Civil Engineering Geotechnical.
  • Civil Engineering Design and Traffic Operations.
  • Civil Engineering Construction and Maintenance.
  • Right of Way.
  • Mathematical Sciences.
  • Environment.
  • Planning.
  • Urban Planning.
  • Automatic Data Processing.
  • Financial Management.
  • Civil Rights.
  • Highway Safety.
  • Communications.

Each NHI training officer is in charge of one or more course areas. For instance, Hersey, with NHI since 1982, handles traffic management courses for the State Programs Division. These include traffic safety, traffic operations, smart cars, and the use of sensors and television to monitor and control traffic on the so-called smart highways.

Distance Learning and Computer-Based Training

"We're beginning to prioritize our course development and looking for new ways to deliver courses more economically while maintaining their quality," explained Ayele.

One of the bigger costs of training is the support and travel expenses involved in getting people to training sites. So, NHI is developing a nationwide, satellite, long distance delivery, training system. The goal is to design courses that are generic enough to be taught twice a year to 2,000 to 4,000 people, as opposed to taking 24 months to get out to 24 locations to teach the same number of people.

Last year, NHI signed a contract with the National Technology University (NTU) of Fort Collins, Colo., a consortium of major universities with engineering schools, to conduct "distance learning" via satellite transmission.

Wendell (Mac) McAdams, another NHI training officer, is directly involved with this kind of training.

"Since I've been here, we've delivered by satellite transmission a 'Load Resistance Factors in the Design of Highway Bridges' course a five-day course that I was a little skeptical about because of its length. We delivered the course twice, in March and in April this year. First to the eastern half of the United States and later to the western half, purely for customer convenience. The California folks didn't want to get up at 3 o'clock in the morning to start doing television programs," said McAdams.

The course was delivered through the University of Maryland, a member of the NTU system. But the university did not use NTU's encoded transmission format. It was broadcast in the clear so that people could receive it on any satellite band that is used for certain kinds of training and continuing education.

The networked delivery of instruction is another area of NHI distance learning. McAdams is currently working to put the Pan American Institute of Highways catalog online in the FHWA's electronic bulletin board system. NHI has been using this system to disseminate course listings, the NHI catalog, and news flashes with regard to training opportunities, but so far not for delivering training courses. Eventually, NHI will be delivering courses online through computer networks or through modem-connections.

"There is no reason in the world why that can't be done, or shouldn't be done," McAdams said. "You have tremendous flexibility as far as the student and the instructor being able to interact and exchange. You just don't sit in the same classroom at the same time. "

McAdams also wants to do a lot more computer-based training by floppy disk. The first steps have been taken. In March 1995, NHI released a metrics course on floppy disk. This conversion of an existing NHI course to computer-based training was done in partnership with a small company in Minnesota that offered to match funds with NHI.

One problem in delivering NHI courses to the right people at the right time is that many potential participants in local road and highway organizations find it hard to get the money to attend courses. Possible solutions could be computer -based courses or some other form of distance learning.

McAdams is currently trying to get someone specializing in instructional technology from the George Mason University Graduate School of Education in Virginia to come to NHI on a personnel exchange program to convert one of NHI's smaller, more manageable, one-day courses to an interactive, full-motion-video, multimedia, instructional package.

NHI is also interested in electronic performance support systems (EPSS). Suppose someone, somewhere within FHWA or within a state department of transportation gets stuck on a bridge design problem, for example. How can they solve it? With an electronic support system in place, they turn to their computer; key in certain parameters the problems, the situation; and the EPSS system will lead them through a series of step-by-step choices. It will still take human intelligence to make decisions at the critical decision points, but the system will lead the users through those steps, enabling them to brush up on those things they may have studied years ago but haven't used much since.

Virtual reality the development of simulation to give people the virtual experience of various roadway and traffic hazards or to introduce them to the operation of various transportation and road building equipment is another area of interest.

"In the 35 years I've been involved in training, I haven't been as excited about anything as I am right now about the potential of this new technology," McAdams said. "We won't solve all problems, but we've already come a long way toward solving some that have been plaguing us for a long time."

Congress Expands the NHI Mission

University, Industry, and International Programs

"FHWA organized the University, Industry, and International Programs Division in 1992," said division chief Bill Brown. "ISTEA formally expanded the mission of NHI to include education, international work, and industry training, all of which had to some degree been undertaken by NHI since its inception in 1970." Now countries and organizations all over the world ask for NHI help.

Recently, the World Bank turned to NHI for help with the bank's Provial (for pro vias or pro routes) program, designed to raise the awareness in all countries of the need for highway maintenance and of the consequences of not maintaining the roads. It is estimated that, worldwide, approximately $2 billion of road infrastructure are lost each year due to lack of highway maintenance. It is a serious drain on national economies to reconstruct what could have been less expensively maintained. The Provial concept is to take that message to politicians, economists, finance specialists, and engineers in the hope that they will adjust their national priorities to include a stronger emphasis on highway maintenance.

Al DiMillio makes a presentation to the participants of the NHI International Bridge Maintenance Training Course.NHI is also responsible for the federal highway portion of the University Transportation Center Program. "We have 13 universities around our country that get a million dollars a year, and then they have to get matching funds to carry out research, education, and tech transfer activities," explained Brown.

"We believe in personnel exchanges," Brown said. "If you have somebody come to this country and spend a year with you and then carry the knowledge back to their country, you know that they will be able to solve their highway problems. If we do more of this in the future, we'll be able to solve some of the problems that arise from differences in culture and differences in the way things are done in highway systems around the world. And, in the process, we will help produce the world's top highway professionals."

Universities and Grants Programs

In 1985, NHI launched the Grants for Research Fellowship (GRF) Program to make the unique facilities of FHWA's Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center (TFHRC) in McLean, Va., available to academia.

The GRF program provided opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to conduct full-time research for three to 12 months at TFHRC. The students were compensated with a monthly stipend and full tuition and fees, and they had the opportunity to work with a FHWA researcher while working with a faculty advisor. The success of the GRF Program brought NHI another program, said Brown.

ISTEA gives the secretary of transportation the authority to administer the Dwight David Eisenhower Transportation Fellowship Program. Because of NHI's experience with the GRF Program, the secretary has delegated the new responsibility to NHI. The program is funded at $2 million a year for the seven-year life of ISTEA. Eisenhower fellows are selected from about 200 applicants per year by a national panel.

Ilene Payne, director of the Universities and Grants Program, said about 250 students completed the GRF Program during its existence, and this year, under the Eisenhower Program, a new group of 32 Eisenhower fellows will arrive at TFHRC to augment 15 or 20 fellows remaining in the program from previous years.

This multidisciplinary program has become world-renowned. "In some cases, we're looking at careers that didn't exist 10 years ago," Payne said.

College Curriculum Program

Technology is moving so fast that some college courses in the highway field do not benefit from the latest technology. So, NHI is making material available to them at minimal cost through the College Curriculum Program. "One of the technical developments that helps with this," Brown said, "is that we are able to scan our manuals and course materials and put them on computer disks. So, we no longer have to send a $50 book, just a 50cent computer diskette. In developing future courses, NHI will ask contractors to put everything on diskettes, including slides, vu-graphs, and charts."

lnternational Training Program

Before his assignment at NHI, Bill Williams, head of international training, was part of the FHWA division that created the first technology transfer centers. These centers have become very important in the whole process of technology transfer, both within the United States and abroad, and Williams feels very strongly that a technology transfer center must produce something.

"You don't want people just sitting in an office. The only reason a tech transfer center is worth anything is if it saves you money, gets something done quicker, or better, or more long lasting. You have to be out marketing your technology every day. Tech transfer is intense work. I would hope that, in two or three years, we'll have a world network of technology transfer centers," said Williams.

"NHI is working toward that end in its International Training Program. We offer training all over the world, but in reality, we are offering tech transfer and tech assistance," he said.

Pan American Institute of Highways

The Pan American Institute of Highways (PIH) was created in 1986 at a meeting in Mexico of the Pan American Highway Congress (PAHC). The congress an association of highway officials from countries in North, Central, and South America declared it would be in the common interest to have a network of technology transfer centers to share information, documentation, and technology in the Americas.

PAHC in 1991 approved a charter for PIH and recognizing the excellence of NHI and its connection with TFHRC, known throughout the world as a leader in highway research requested that the headquarters of PIH be located within NHI.

Gregory Speier, educated in Puerto Rico, is the bilingual executive director of PIH. In his view, PIH programs showcase the excellence of NHI programs.

"Typically, we help to sponsor and coordinate between 40 and 50 major, international training events each year," says Speier. "Our budget to do that is $100,000, and when you think that just to fly to Argentina costs you pretty close to $2,000, you can see that we've been very efficient and very effective, leveraging a little bit of the highway trust fund dollars, to make it possible to showcase U.S. industry, U.S. technology, and also to help the centers work together."

In addition to the training events in which NHI participates, about 40 other courses presented elsewhere without NHI sponsorship are spinoffs. For example, an environmental course initially presented in Columbia was subsequently presented in Honduras and Argentina. "Doesn't cost us a penny, but we do get the right technology in the right place," Speier explained.

NHI is trying to set up technology transfer centers along the Mexican border to assist the implementation of the North America Free Trade Agreement.

"We realize that our Mexican states and our U.S. states often don't even know each other, and yet they're going to have to provide a seamless transportation system. So, part of what we're trying to do is to get people talking to each other and to do this through technology transfer centers. To do that, we've got to set them up first with a mission to serve people on both sides of the border," said Speier.

Since the headquarters of the PIH was established at NHI in 1991, the network of technology transfer centers in the Americas has grown from 11 centers in eight countries to about 65 centers in 20 countries. That growth is based on the ability of the NHI to interact with the many different countries, universities, trade associations, and other local organizations involved with highway transportation. NHI makes good things happen.

Speier said that PIH is also looking to develop stronger communication tools through the Internet. "Hopefully, most of our centers including our own headquarters center here at NHI will come on line with a full series of internet home pages where people from anywhere in the world can dial in, bring up the home page, and find exactly who's who, what's going on, what type of activities are coming up in the next six to eight months."

NHI Has Made Its Mark

Former Directors of NHI, (left- right): Roy Tidwell, Lester Herr and Emmett Karrer."When I went to college way back in 1958, all the engineering courses had footnotes referring to the Corps of Engineers. It was my hope that, in time, footnotes would refer to the National Highway Institute. They now do. Texas A & M uses our traffic engineering courses, Purdue uses our concrete courses. They are the premier universities in those subjects. I think we've arrived now that Purdue and other old line civil engineering universities routinely use NHI course materials." said former director Shrieves, who retired in March 1994 after 15 years at the helm of NHI.

"We advanced the state of the practice in course preparation by enlisting the help of experts not only from academia and the highway departments, but also from the private sector and international sources. Once we developed comprehensive courses, like the six-week highway materials course and the four-week bridge course, we made them available to colleges and universities," Shrieves continued.

Technology is turning over faster than it used to. In 1970, when NHI first got started, courses stayed on the books maybe 10 or 15 years. Now the course list turns over in about five to 10 years.

Of course, the best time to have training is right at the time you need it. If you're out on a bridge inspection, for example, and you find something that's new to you, it would be nice to tap into the NHI data base of course material with your computer, ask how to inspect a certain kind of plastic, and have the answer come up on the screen with the specific steps to follow. That's what some call "just-in-time training. In the near future, this type of training will be readily available, said Shrieves.

The United States may not have a French-style School of Bridges and Roads; nevertheless, it does have the National Highway Institute, an internationally esteemed, world-class provider of the state-of-the-art highway technology.

Charles Barton is a retired U.S. Navy captain and freelance writer. He is the author of Howard Hughes and his Flying Boat, which was recognized by the Aviation Space Writers Association as the best non-fiction aviation book of 1982. Barton is also a China area specialist, and he speaks Mandarin Chinese.

The Origins of NHI

The steps leading to NHI's mission of education and technology sharing started with the establishment of the ancestor of today's Federal Highway Administration, the U.S. Office of Road Inquiry, set up in the Department of Agriculture in 1893. General Roy Stone, the first "special agent and engineer" to head the new office, was directed to limit his authority to investigating and disseminating information and was specifically forbidden to seek to influence or control road policy in the states or counties.

At that time, few roads had been built to sustain automobile traffic. Most of the existing paved roads were built to carry light, horse-drawn traffic and bicycles. Photos of that time commonly show rutted country roads and vehicles mired in mud.

Gen. Stone, despite the limits to his authority, instituted an "object lesson road program" of building short sections of roads in various states to instruct local road makers in the best methods available and to educate the public about the economic advantages of better roads.

By 1903, the existing shortage of trained highway engineers had become so serious that then director Martin Dodge recommended that Congress establish a National School for Road Building. No action was taken on this recommendation.

In 1905, Logan Walter Page became director of the Office of Public Roads (OPR), as the agency was now called. A distinguished geologist and recent head of the agency's road materials laboratory, Logan tackled the engineer shortage by creating an in-house training program for young civil engineering graduates. This OPR training program included practical road building in the field with the OPR's object lesson road teams and instruction in testing road materials in the laboratory. During a 10-year period, some 70 engineers were hired and trained, but about half resigned within a year or so to accept positions with colleges, counties, and state highway departments.

Director Page was philosophical about this brain drain. In his 1911 annual report he wrote: "The practice of permitting these engineers to resign is detrimental in one sense to the service, in that the office is constantly losing some of its best men, but the benefits derived by the various states and counties through the distribution of trained men to all sections of the country are so great as to be a vindication of the wisdom of the project."

In 1909, Page surveyed the status of highway engineering training in technical schools and colleges throughout the United States. Based on shortcomings the survey revealed, Page decided to furnish advisors to help schools set up practical courses in highway design and construction. He also aided in setting up a number of first-class testing laboratories in selected schools and even provided lecturers from his own staff in some instances.

This marker on the battlefield of Gettysburg, honors Gen. Roy Stone.

Gen. Roy Stone, first chief of the organization that evolved into FHWA, was a hero of the Civil War. This marker on the battlefield of Gettysburg honors Stone, who was a colonel at Gettysburg.

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