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Highway Quality Compendium

Formula for Success

by Jim Sorenson

Asset management equals oversight plus accountability, sound engineering, and economic decisionmaking.

Today's transportation agencies face significant pressures to handle more challenges with fewer resources. Traffic congestion is increasing, as is the need to preserve and enhance an aging infrastructure and address public frustration with travel delays and work zones.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is pursuing numerous avenues to improve the Nation's surface transportation system. State and local agencies have been traditional partners of FHWA in these efforts, and the newly passed highway legislation-Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU)-institutes a number of new opportunities for partnerships with the private sector. By working together, solutions will be found, and public satisfaction with transportation programs should increase.

Whenever public dollars are used, governments are responsible for more than just keeping their constituents satisfied. Governments also must account for the use of the public's money and the resources devoted to the projects and programs under their direction. Agencies at every level of government have a responsibility to be good stewards of the transportation infrastructure and to maintain the public's trust and confidence that constituents do receive value for every tax dollar spent.

"Without public trust and confidence, the resources will not be made available to address the immense challenges that face the transportation community today and that we will continue to face in the future," says Acting Federal Highway Administrator J. Richard Capka.

FHWA plays a key role in protecting the Nation's transportation investments and has an overarching stewardship responsibility for managing federally funded programs efficiently and effectively. The stewardship includes effective management of public funds entrusted to the organization. FHWA accomplishes this stewardship by being a value-added leader, sharing innovations in technology, and providing sound technical advice and support to its State partners and stakeholders.

"Financial stewardship and accountability are embedded in all aspects of the agency's mission, both in headquarters and in field offices," says FHWA Executive Director Frederick G. Wright. "It is imperative that we ensure integrity in the expenditure of public funds through strong financial accountability and oversight."

Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta has confirmed that financial accountability is one of the top priorities of the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT). The recently issued Financial Integrity Review and Evaluation (FIRE) program documents how FHWA will take action to improve its financial management role. As indicated by Wright, "It is imperative that FHWA effectively evaluate the systems, controls, and procedures that are in place to protect the funds entrusted to the agency."

The FIRE program directs FHWA division offices to perform a number of reviews in support of the annual certification of financial controls to support the agency's financial statements. FIRE includes a toolkit that provides detailed information for implementation and contains review guides for the various processes to be reviewed. FIRE covers internal controls as well as Federal-aid funds management. Just as FHWA must meet the fiscal controls, it must ensure that the product being purchased with Federal dollars gives the expected performance. Looking at system performance and highlighting areas for further reviews is vital for construction program management.

Oversight, a primary element of stewardship, is key to meeting the public's expectations of quality in transportation projects. FHWA's oversight responsibility involves ensuring that the Federal-Aid Highway Program is delivered in accordance with applicable laws, regulations, and policies. This responsibility incorporates minimizing the potential for waste, fraud, and abuse, as well as advocating the national values expressed in environmental laws, public participation requirements, and safety design standards.

FHWA's oversight methods have changed over the years as the emphasis has shifted from building new highways to preserving and enhancing the existing infrastructure. During that time, FHWA has developed resources and tools that State and local government partners can use to enhance their own oversight efforts.

FHWA's focus remains unchanged: working with its partners to ensure that Federal dollars achieve defined national goals and maintain the public's trust that its money is well spent.

"Our roles and responsibilities in the administration of the Federal-Aid and the Federal Lands Highway Programs have evolved in past authorizing legislation; however, the expectation that we maintain an appropriate level of oversight and accountability in those programs has been constant," Wright says.

Challenges for Today

Today's transportation agencies work in an era of increasing demands on budgets and staff resources. The transportation professionals responsible for oversight face a number of challenges in their day-to-day operations. One of the greatest challenges is meeting customers' expectations. In addition, Federal, State, and local departments of transportation (DOTs) all face similar staff reductions and budget challenges.

Contributing to the staffing challenge is the attrition of seasoned transportation and construction personnel. Many field engineers who were on the front lines during the major highway construction projects of the 1960s and early 1970s have retired, and many of today's transportation professionals have not had the opportunity to acquire as much experience in construction project management and oversight. As in the past, these field engineers are the eyes and ears for transportation agencies.

Despite the staffing challenge, the level of highway construction and hence oversight are not expected to decline. More roads than ever are operating near capacity, and an increasing percentage of highways have outlived their original design lives and now face needed rehabilitation or reconstruction. Yet there are fewer personnel to provide oversight on existing infrastructure enhancements and operational needs in addition to the oversight needed for development of new or reconstructed roads.

Requirements to preserve and enhance the aging infrastructure within budget parameters make it necessary for agencies to set priorities as to which of many critical projects to undertake now and which to postpone until another budget cycle. Although construction and rehabilitation projects are generally higher profile and, in the past, have received priority, today States are finding that a minimum (5 to 10 percent) investment in a dedicated preservation program is both improving the condition of roads and bridges in their jurisdictions and freeing up their budgets for the capital improvements desired.

In addition, the public continues to raise the bar on its expectations of the highway system. Although in the early days of highway construction, the priority was simply to have paved roads to get from farm to market, today the public demands a safe, efficient, long-lasting national highway system. Many industries depend on just-in-time delivery to minimize overhead costs and move products throughout the Nation and overseas. Given the new global economy, the ability of the United States to compete internationally is directly related to its capacity to move goods from the plains to the ports.

Along with the public's high expectations comes increasing frustration with growing traffic congestion and highway construction delays. FHWA's 2000 traveler satisfaction surveys found that 43 percent of respondents expressed dissatisfaction with traffic flow on major highways, up from 23 percent 5 years earlier. Thirty-two percent expressed frustration with work zones.

Overall, the Nation's highway program has become increasingly complex, with environmental commitments, urban planning needs, operational requirements, and budget and political pressures all vying for the limited time of transportation agency personnel and tight financial resources. Juggling construction, maintenance, public safety, and financing presents a definite challenge to every transportation organization.

Moving Forward on Oversight

In this challenging environment, FHWA's primary focus continues to be on stewardship and oversight to meet the public's expectations for quality-including safety characteristics, operational efficiency, and durability-and accountability as guardians of the Nation's transportation system.

The focus involves working in partnership with State and local transportation agencies, which have similar stewardship responsibilities to the public for the transportation infrastructure under their management and the Federal tax dollars entrusted to them to operate their programs.

Today, FHWA's emphasis is on initiatives that concentrate on broad program areas because these focuses are more likely to yield systemic improvements and result in higher payoffs for the effort invested. FHWA conducts its oversight through a wide range of mechanisms, including process reviews, program evaluations, program management activities, and project involvement activities.

In years past, when FHWA's staffing level was nearly twice that of the 2005 level, engineers were actively involved in the oversight of numerous individual highway construction projects. Although there has been a shift from project oversight to program oversight, FHWA's responsibility to assure the proper use of Federal resources remains unchanged.

FHWA's evaluation of State and local transportation agencies' construction programs, for example, involves an assessment of State procedures and controls for assuring that transportation improvements are constructed in accordance with approved standards and contracting methods.

"We will be far more efficient if we focus on ensuring that the processes that produce project decisions are right, rather than trying to track each individual decision," FHWA's Director of Field Services-West Christine Johnson told attendees at the FHWA 2005 Western Area Engineer's Conference. "However, to be good program managers, we must not lose sight of the core skills needed to understand project decisions." Every process review requires a sampling of the projects to assure that the process is being followed and that it is effective at producing the product or activity desired.

Effective evaluation of management and financial issues is also key to oversight. An example that Johnson cited was focusing on getting the right materials for the roadway's asphalt mix, but losing the value of having the right materials because the construction project bid was off or the construction schedule was delayed because the funding was estimated incorrectly. "Those tend to be management issues rather than technical issues. Nevertheless, they are just as important," she said.

FHWA provides technical assistance in solving problems, recommends improvements to ensure high-quality construction, and shares information on innovations in materials, equipment, construction practices, and contracting methods. The recent success in carrying out the Accelerated Construction Technology Transfer program is an example of the leadership and technical support that FHWA can provide.

Inspections at the program level and on carefully selected projects are the primary methods that FHWA uses to fulfill its construction program oversight responsibilities. FHWA's objectives in conducting inspections include defining the progress and quality of work, identifying problem areas and innovations, documenting resolution of those problems, and sharing innovations and new technologies. The number and type of reviews conducted annually are determined by the FHWA division administrator's periodic risk assessment. This assessment takes into account the staffing and skills of the State DOT, program size and complexity, contractor and supplier availability, as well as FHWA division staffing and other factors.

FHWA conducts various types of inspections. Process reviews and product evaluations, for example, assure that State processes, procedures, and controls conform to Federal requirements. In depth inspections are detailed reviews to track the processes necessary to correct problems or promote processes that produce high-quality products on a project, district, or statewide basis.

The FHWA reviews generally confirm that the work is in reasonably close conformity to the plans and specifications or that certain areas might need future attention.

Reviewing Processes and Programs

Each FHWA division office is responsible for developing a construction management program that defines the types and frequencies of inspections needed to maintain a reasonable level of confidence in the construction program it oversees.

To help carry out its oversight responsibilities, the FHWA Illinois Division developed guidelines for conducting annual process reviews. Under the guidelines, available at www.fhwa.dot.gov/construction/cpmi04c2.htm, FHWA and the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) jointly select five or six topics a year for review, establish review teams, and develop a purpose and scope for each review.

Topics of reviews conducted in 2005 included bridge expansion joints, construction program estimates, roadside safety assessments, environmental documentation, and the Chicago Department of Transportation's authorization process and construction documentation. "Process reviews are part of our continuous improvement process," says Eric Harm, IDOT deputy director and assistant chief engineer. "Working with FHWA on reviews gives us an extra set of eyes to take a look at our processes to see where we can improve them."

Joint coordinators from FHWA and IDOT head each review team, which can include representatives from other State and local transportation agencies affected by the review topic. Each team interviews staff in each IDOT district and reviews construction projects related to the topic. After the team completes the review, it holds a meeting with district staff to discuss what it observed and develops a report on its observations and recommendations for each district.

In addition, the team develops a statewide report that summarizes the results of the process review, documents observations that apply to the entire State, and outlines action items with specific deadlines to resolve or improve any problems it observed.

"What the Illinois process shows is that you can establish good partnerships with a State agency and make mutually beneficial progress," says Dean Mentjes, an FHWA Illinois Division mobility engineer who has participated on several review teams.

The Illinois reviews have resulted in a number of process improvements and specification changes over the years. Using cost and performance data collected during a review of bonded concrete bridge deck overlays a few years ago, the team produced guidelines and rewrote specifications on when to use different types of overlays and preoverlay treatments.

As a result, IDOT adopted new policies and is now obtaining better performance from bridge decks. "Anytime we can improve performance on something like a bridge deck, we ultimately save money by not having to rehabilitate it as often," says Harm.

FHWA's Washington Division develops annual performance reports on its construction project inspections, program evaluations, systematic reviews, and financial audits of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). The reports describe the reviews conducted during the fiscal year and provide a synopsis of FHWA's findings. WSDOT, in turn, posts the FHWA reports on its "Accountability" Web site and prepares media releases to demonstrate the accountability of its construction program to the public.

In addition, WSDOT State Construction Engineer Kevin Dayton cites FHWA's independent reviews of State projects as useful in providing feedback to the Washington State Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee, which conducts performance audits of State programs. In one instance, when a committee member commented that she believed WSDOT did not have an adequate number of field staff, WSDOT officials replied that FHWA inspection reports indicated that the agency was doing a satisfactory job.

FHWA's California Division developed a program review/product evaluation (PR/PE) initiative, which it used during the 1990s and is now reviving. Program guidelines are available at www.fhwa.dot.gov/construction/cpmi04c1.htm. The program calls for annual evaluations of the adequacy of processes, procedures, and products used by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) in project development and construction activities.

These reviews can be broad in scope, covering a major activity or program such as conceptual studies or preliminary plan development for construction projects, or more specific, covering products or elements such as pavement design, safety features, materials quality control, or construction management. Based on the reviews, FHWA can determine whether a process is being implemented as intended and is producing the desired result.

Under the guidelines, the PR/PE team develops an annual schedule of reviews based on input from several sources, including the State DOT, FHWA headquarters, and trends found in other division offices. The effort is to identify national and statewide policy concerns, and to obtain Caltrans management input on high-risk or problem areas. The team also looks at data from past design reviews, construction inspection reports, and related activities.

In addition, the team reviews a list of special emphasis areas, which are potential major review elements for the PR/PE program. The list covers a multitude of phases in the development, design, and construction of Federal-aid projects-from seismic analysis and bridge design to project staffing and supervision.

The team uses a criteria assessment model to evaluate each potential topic to determine the need for a PR/PE review. Topic selection criteria include the level of Federal interest, technical complexity, the degree of concern, and the statutory requirements related to it.

Guide to Better Inspections

The guidelines developed in Illinois and California for process and program reviews and the positive working relationship found in Washington State and many of the FHWA division offices are just some of the many tools available for local and State transportation personnel to adopt and use in carrying out oversight activities.

The guidelines are included in FHWA's Construction Program Management and Inspection Guide (FHWA-IF-04-013), available online at www.fhwa.dot.gov/construction/cpmi04tc.htm. To help engineers improve their technical knowledge and select a balanced program of construction management techniques, the guide highlights proven techniques for construction inspections.

"The guide can familiarize newer staff members with the construction management and oversight process, as well as serve as a refresher for veteran engineers," says Jeffrey Lewis, field operations engineering team leader in the FHWA California Division and a member of the FHWA Construction Quality Improvement Team, which developed the publication.

In addition to being a resource for FHWA staff, the guide is useful for State and local staffs as they plan, construct, and monitor projects using Federal-aid funds, Lewis says. "They need to understand the FHWA philosophy and intent when they act on FHWA's behalf," he says. "The guide helps explain what that encompasses."

The guide discusses the steps necessary to implement an effective construction management program. The steps include defining the types and frequencies of inspections needed to assure a quality construction program, performing inspections and reviews, preparing and distributing reports, and following up on findings.

Among the tools in the guide is a checklist of items to consider when conducting an inspection, such as progress and quality of work, construction operations and features, project records, changes, and time extensions. The guide also contains an outline of the contents that a construction management report should incorporate, including details on observations, findings, resolutions, and quality management initiatives.

In addition, the guide has sample inspection report forms, such as bid review and design project checklists. Engineers can use the forms to streamline the writing process for reports and make them easy to follow.

The online version of the guide will be updated as new products, processes, guidelines, and sample reports become available that would benefit engineers carrying out oversight responsibilities. "It's designed to be an evolving document," says Lewis. "This is just one of the tools we have made available to assist our younger engineers and midcareer employees."

More Tools to Use

In addition to the Construction Program Management and Inspection Guide, FHWA has developed several workshops and maintains a number of Web sites that provide valuable information and tools for transportation professionals involved in construction management and oversight.

A National Highway Institute (NHI) workshop based on the Construction Program Management and Inspection Guide provides engineers and transportation specialists with proven methods and tools for performing effective construction oversight. The workshop covers the changing roles of FHWA's field staff and provides participants with an understanding of construction stewardship with an emphasis on construction inspection techniques. Another NHI workshop on Conducting Reviews That Get Results covers methods for planning construction reviews, collecting and analyzing data, presenting review results, and formulating recommendations that can be implemented successfully. Information on scheduling these workshops can be found at the following Web sites:

"One of the beauties of these workshops is that the instructors are a blend of FHWA staff from the Resource Center, division offices, and headquarters, so participants benefit from that interaction," says Lewis, a workshop facilitator and Construction Quality Improvement Team coleader. "By the time participants walk out of the class, they're ready to go to a project and be comfortable doing a review. We can't make up for years of experience [that] we as an agency have been losing the past 10 years, but with this workshop and the tools provided, we do add confidence to our newer employees."

Workshop facilitators encourage local, State, and Federal teams to attend sessions together and bring examples from upcoming reviews to discuss. "If we can include our State and local partners in a workshop, then when we perform reviews with them on the team we can all use the same tools and the same terminology and get the most out of the process review," says the FHWA Illinois Division's Dean Mentjes, who helps deliver the workshop.

NHI offers several other courses related to construction program management, including Drilled Shaft Foundation Inspection (13207A), Driven Pile Foundation Inspection (132069A), Safety Inspection of In-Service Bridges (130055A), Shallow Foundations (132037A), and Use of Critical Path Method (CPM) for Estimating, Scheduling, and Timely Completion (134049A). The NHI course catalog is available at http://www.nhi.fhwa.dot.gov/training/brows_catalog.aspx.

"What we get out of training workshops is the latest available information on a specific topic and any developments going on nationwide or even internationally that can help us do things better in Illinois," says IDOT's Harm.

The "Construction and Maintenance" Web site, maintained by FHWA's Office of Asset Management at www.fhwa.dot.gov/construction, provides an overview of resources and links, including highway construction specifications, Federal-aid construction program regulations, accelerated construction technologies, the latest memoranda and publications on construction and maintenance topics, and related research.

The "National Highway Specifications" Web site at www.specs.fhwa.dot.gov consists of a searchable library of highway specifications from across the country. This publicly available site is the result of a partnership between FHWA and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) Subcommittee on Construction. The site also features discussion forums on the development and use of various types of construction specifications.

The "Generic Construction Related Review Guidelines" site at www.fhwa.dot.gov/construction/reviews.htm provides engineers with examples of reviews undertaken by FHWA field offices on topics such as asphalt pavements, bridge decks, right-of-way appraisal, and traffic control in work zones. These generic samples can be modified to meet specific program needs.

The "Construction Program Guide" site at www.fhwa.dot.gov/construction/cqit/index.htm features a list of links on construction topics such as advertising for bids, design-build contracting, quality assurance, safety, and warranties. The links, in turn, provide information on laws, regulations, policies, guidelines, and training on each topic.

Public Trust and Confidence

Just as the transportation community of 50 years ago faced the challenge of building a national interstate system, today's transportation community is looking at how to best use resources, protect the environment, reduce congestion, enhance safety, and increase the longevity of the infrastructure.

FHWA plays a major role in addressing these issues by promoting innovative practices and working with State agencies to find new solutions to highway problems. In addition, FHWA conducts oversight activities that assure the best use of taxpayers' dollars in meeting the needs of the traveling public. FHWA has an important role working with its State partners to manage public investment in the Nation's highway assets.

This renewed recognition of the need for construction oversight does not mean turning back the clock to more Federal oversight. Instead, today's emphasis is on working with State partners to ensure that the processes that produce project decisions are effective, rather than trying to track each individual decision.

FHWA's focus is on being proactive in meeting public expectations for quality and accountability and earning the public's trust and confidence as the guardian of the national transportation system.

"Agencies are charged with ensuring that the programs they oversee are conducted in a manner that best meets the public interest," says Acting FHWA Administrator Capka. "The public expects agencies to maintain the highest standards of integrity, demonstrate competence, make wise decisions, communicate openly and clearly, and meet commitments. By meeting those expectations, the agency earns the public's trust and confidence."

Jim Sorenson, senior construction and system preservation engineer in FHWA's Office of Asset Management, is responsible for technical assistance, policy development, and research guidance in the areas of construction and maintenance, operations, transportation system preservation, asset management, and quality management. During his three-decade career, Sorenson has worked in a variety of assignments in FHWA field and headquarters offices and participated in a number of FHWA initiatives, including the Superpave Technology Delivery Team, the Strategic Highway Research Program's Highway Operations Technical Working Group, and the Integrated Mobility and Safety Team. He has a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Montana State University.

Reprinted from Public Roads, November/December 2005.

Evolution of FHWA Oversight

The FHWA oversight role has changed over the years, but the agency's responsibility as the guardian of the national transportation system remains the same.

"Much of our oversight and approval for eligibility has been delegated to our State partners," said Christine Johnson, FHWA's director of field services-west, at the FHWA 2005 Western Area Engineer's Conference. "However, our accountability has not been delegated. We have a responsibility to verify that the processes and safeguards that a State is supposed to have in place are in place and are being followed."

From the early 1900s to the 1950s, FHWA's predecessor, the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR), used a partnership approach in which States administered Federal-aid highway projects and BPR made the checks necessary to protect the Federal interest. BPR was the main technical source for State and local agencies, and BPR field engineers stepped in frequently to solve complicated design and construction problems.

In 1956, the Federal-aid program expanded to build the national interstate system. From 1956 to 1974, authorizations under the Federal-Aid Highway Program increased more than 900 percent, while FHWA staff increased to an agency maximum of about 5,200 employees.

When a U.S. House of Representatives special investigative committee raised concerns in 1959 about a lack of construction quality and waste, fraud, and abuse in highway construction, BPR changed its oversight role and stepped up the level of project inspections. The focus of the division offices changed from providing advice to providing project-level actions that included detailed reviews and approvals. As the interstate construction program continued its rapid growth, and the State highway agencies gained experience and technical expertise, BPR began delegating some oversight responsibilities to the States.

By the early 1970s, FHWA (created when the U.S. Department of Transportation was formed in 1967) faced the dilemma of not being able to maintain its previous level of project reviews, despite its larger workforce. Meanwhile, FHWA was gaining confidence in the States' technical competence and ability to manage their own construction projects.

In 1973, Congress reduced the scope of Federal monitoring of Federal-aid highway projects on all but the interstate system. A 1974 FHWA study recommended a transition from project reviews to process and program reviews. Then-FHWA Executive Director R.D. Morgan initiated a stepped-up program of training in core areas and renewed emphasis on both program and project reviews, and division office program reviews and annual reporting was required.

The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) changed the Federal oversight role by giving States more authority to ensure that projects are constructed to expected quality levels and shifting the Federal role primarily to program-level oversight.

The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) further delegated authority to the States by releasing oversight functions under agreement between FHWA and States. At the same time, TEA-21 increased Federal oversight for megaprojects, major construction projects with budgets that total more than $1 billion each.

A 2001 FHWA policy statement reaffirmed that, regardless of the project responsibilities delegated to States, FHWA is ultimately responsible for Federal highway programs. The policy emphasizes stewardship and oversight initiatives that focus on broad program and process reviews with project-specific verification.

What Is Asset Management?

FHWA and AASHTO define asset management as "a strategic approach to managing transportation infrastructure. It focuses on … business processes for resource allocation and utilization with the objective of better decisionmaking based on quality information and well-defined objectives."

Asset management involves combining engineering principles with sound business practices and economic analysis to provide tools that facilitate an organized and logical approach to informed decisionmaking. Asset management provides a framework for both short- and long-term planning. It is about having a systematic process for maintaining, upgrading, and operating assets in a cost-effective way.

Implementation of asset management processes helps an organization use its available resources, human as well as financial, to provide customers with the most efficient and effective transportation system possible. The principles of asset management apply to all aspects of the program, from planning through project development, construction, operation, preservation, and maintenance.

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Updated: 06/27/2017
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