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Construction Program Management and Inspection Guide

2. Background

Historical Developments in Construction Inspection

Early History

During the early years, the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) was the main technical source for State highway agencies and county road departments. BPR field engineers were frequently looked upon to help solve complicated design or construction problems. All active construction projects, other than those under the Secondary Road Plan, which was initiated in 1954, were typically inspected once a month. The National Highway System Designation Act of 1995 (NHS-1995) eliminated the Secondary Road Plan.

The Early Interstate Period

When Congress funded the Interstate Highway Program in the 1950s, only a few State highway agencies were staffed with enough engineers to design and construct a national highway network of such magnitude. The BPR, therefore, made monthly field reviews of all projects and conducted rigorous inspections-in-depth (IIDs). Most BPR engineers had strong field construction backgrounds, and their advice was actively sought on contract matters and field changes.

The Blatnik Era

In the early 1960s, with increased dollars being spent on construction of the Interstate Highway System, came charges of waste, fraud, and corruption. Many of the news media, including the Huntley-Brinkley Journal, Reader's Digest, and Parade Magazine, called the Federal and State governments to task for failing to control activities and expenditures.

A number of investigations were conducted by the Blatnik Committee of Congress (chaired by Rep. John Blatnik of Minnesota, former Chairman of the House Committee on Public Works), the General Accounting Office, and the BPR's Project Examination Division-forerunner of the Office of Audits and Investigations and later the Office of Inspector General. IIDs were used as a method to investigate corruption and fraud in response to the charge to the highway community to assure that its own house was in order.

Evolution of Highway Agencies

In 1967, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) was formed, and the BPR became the Federal Highway Administration. By the 1970s, the FHWA had developed considerable confidence in the technical competence and abilities in construction management of State highway agencies. A number of other topics, particularly social, economic, and environmental considerations, were vying for FHWA's attention.

Workers on a highway projectFHWA faced the dilemma of not being able to maintain the previous level of project-level reviews. The answer to this problem was to turn a greater degree of direct project responsibility over to the States in the form of Certification Acceptance, an alternative authorization procedure for administering non-Interstate Federal-aid projects, and to rely on a process review approach for the assurances that the Federal Government needed. The theory was that if the process was good, the product would be, too. This new independence may have been good for the States, but many FHWA field engineers coming aboard in the last two decades have not had the same field experience and technical exposure that FHWA engineers once had.

The enactment of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) dramatically changed the Federal-aid Highway Program and the Federal role. The Federal-State partnership was changed by offering the States more independence in carrying out a significant portion of the program by enabling FHWA to delegate to them, upon their request, the majority of Title 23 project decisions. These delegations are defined through stewardship agreements between the respective FHWA division offices and the STAs. Non-Title 23 activities, however, such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), civil rights, and right-of-way could not be further delegated. NHS-1995 and ISTEA provided additional flexibility, and the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century of 1998 (TEA-21), eliminated Certification Acceptance as an FHWA program.

A New Era of Engineering Awareness and Stewardship

In recent years, events have occurred that support FHWA's renewed construction involvement. This involvement is not the traditional project-level activity, but is focused more on overall, program-level management.

Increases in transportation funding have dramatically increased the numbers of projects under construction at any time. This growth in highway construction will probably continue in the future since more roads are operating near capacity and an increasing percentage of roads are in need of repair. Many of our older highways have outlived their original design life and are in need of rehabilitation or reconstruction. Heavy traffic complicates preservation and reconstruction projects. STAs are experiencing increased workloads, personnel cuts, and attrition of seasoned construction personnel.

In order to ensure that the public is realizing a quality product, FHWA has increased construction program involvement and technical assistance (Appendix A, Policy Memoranda Regarding Stewardship). This emphasis on increased construction involvement for FHWA has resulted in renewed attention to engineering while recognizing that a return to the old way of doing business is not possible. The FHWA needs to maximize its use of resources by selecting the most appropriate review programs and methodologies to fit each situation.

Operating with limited resources requires that FHWA focus its efforts and resources in high-risk areas. FHWA field engineers need to develop and carry out construction programs in concert with their STAs. In addition to its oversight responsibility, FHWA's involvement should complement and supplement the STA's construction program administration. The depth and consistency of this involvement should be as deemed necessary by each division's risk management analysis.

Flexibility and Accountability

Division Office Flexibility

The posture of FHWA's headquarters management is to delegate the maximum amount of authority and responsibility to the division office level. This gives the division administrator a great deal of flexibility in designing the division construction management program to meet local conditions and needs while still assuring proper stewardship. This delegation carries full accountability for the quality of the program and the final product. Definition of the division's oversight roles and responsibilities should be included in the local FHWA-STA stewardship agreement.


Prior to 1991, FHWA's policy guidance encouraged project-level monitoring and inspection. In the 1990s, FHWA experienced a transition from project- to program-level oversight. The stewardship policy issued on June 22, 2001, titled "Policy on the Stewardship and Oversight of the Federal Highway Programs" (Appendix A) encouraged program-level oversight with project-specific verification. The memorandum "Stewardship and Oversight of the FHWA Construction Program," dated January 8, 2003 (Appendix A), continues to strive for assurance by reemphasizing FHWA's role in construction program management.

This Guide is a tool to assist the divisions in developing their construction management program and project-level involvement to assure a quality product. Each division is encouraged to periodically review and supplement the Guide as needed with additional guidance or instruction to address areas of concern or to meet the needs in its State.


FHWA must be able to assure Congress and the American public that Federal-aid highway construction funds are expended in accordance with law, regulation, and policy and that the public is getting a quality product. Accountability resides with the division administrator in each State. Assurance can only be made when division offices have, as part of their stewardship programs, adequate construction involvement to be familiar with their STA's construction program and its delivery effectiveness. The role of FHWA headquarters is to provide policy guidance and technical assistance to the division offices. The FHWA Resource Center (https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/resourcecenter/) and other field offices are also available to provide training and other technology support as requested.

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Updated: 06/27/2017
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