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Publication Number:      Date:  May/June 2000
Issue No: Vol. 63 No. 6
Date: May/June 2000


The Partnership Initiative: A Unified Agenda for Highway Research and Technology

by Michael Halladay

Advancing innovation is the mainstay of our continued journey toward creating the safest and most efficient and effective highway and intermodal transportation system in the world. Research and technological advances can ultimately make the difference between success and failure, and indeed, when safety is concerned, between life and death.

Investing in innovation has been a continuing feature of federal funding for surface transportation. Congress supports important highway research and technology (R&T) programs that advance highway safety, heighten the economic efficiency of the nation's transportation system, help preserve and enhance the environment, and continually improve the public's access to activities, goods, and services.

Secretary of Transportation Rodney E. Slater agrees. The secretary has spoken of a transportation vision that meets the needs of the American people by building a transportation system that is International in reach, Intermodal in form, Intelligent in character, and Inclusive in service. Secretary Slater's fifth "I" is "Innovative in scope," and the Department of Transportation (DOT) is taking actions to significantly advance innovation in transportation R&T.

To Put It In Perspective

In 1920, the three standing technical committees of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) could collectively handle all the coordination of highway research that was needed - or, at least, desired. Over the years, surface transportation R&T needs have burgeoned, and the range of research topic areas has grown.

At the same time, highway R&T has become increasingly decentralized. Highway R&T now spans many sectors of the economy and involves federal, state, and local governments; universities; transportation research centers; associations; and private industry. Communication and coordination has become exponentially more complex.

For example, the number of TRB entities has grown to 190 committees and task forces organized by division, group, and section. About 3,000 of the nation's top administrators, engineers, social scientists, attorneys, educators, and others concerned with transportation serve on TRB committees and task forces to advance knowledge of the nature and performance of transportation systems. And that's just TRB alone.

Highway R&T is a multimillion-dollar industry in the United States. In fiscal year 2000, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) alone has $180 million authorized for R&T activities, not including Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), which has a separate budget. States will spend on the order of $130 million this year, and another $29 million will be spent in multistate cooperative research through the National Cooperative Highway Research Program. It is estimated that private industry will spend upwards of $100 million.

A Unified Voice

FHWA has typically received a lion's share of highway-related R&T funding from Congress, and FHWA has traditionally taken the lead in prioritizing needs, developing programs, and expending those funds.

In the 1970s and '80s, through the Nationally Coordinated Program (NCP), FHWA researchers actively brought people and ideas together to identify R&T priorities and gaps. In the late '80s and early '90s, a significant portion of FHWA's R&T resources and focus were directed toward major new programs - such as ITS, implementation of the products developed in the Strategic Highway Research Program, and others - decreasing the attention paid to NCP.

The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), enacted in 1998, funded total highway R&T at slightly higher levels than previous years. But this time, the funds had more strings attached. Congress shifted R&T resources and program flexibility away from FHWA; a higher portion of R&T funding was allocated to others, including state departments of transportation and universities.

Within the R&T community, many took Congress's action as a wake-up call. Whereas, in the past, FHWA had the predominant voice, it was now clear that the many diverse voices throughout the transportation community needed to come together in harmony to articulate the overall value and priorities for highway R&T. More collaboration was needed between all stakeholders interested in transportation R&T investment. The R&T process needed to be broader and more inclusive.

Inclusive Governing

Bringing together the many, many voices is just what leaders at FHWA, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), and TRB envisioned when planning a new framework for aligning R&T activities among research sponsors, practitioners, researchers, and other stakeholders.

This new framework, called the National Research and Technology Partnership Initiative, has several main goals:

By broadening the range of interaction within the user community, leaders hope to strengthen a national consensus on the need for highway R&T and to help provide a sense of priorities for highway R&T. This will lead to a national R&T agenda and the outlining of appropriate roles for all participants in implementing a robust R&T program. This broadening of contacts also helps FHWA focus federal R&T investments on priority needs that call for a strong federal role.

Innovation does not occur in a vacuum. It is the result of many minds learning from each other, collaborating with shared vision and enthusiasm. The framework does not replace existing mechanisms for managing research or disseminating research findings. Instead, its main intent is to better coordinate investments from all partners in highway R&T programs.

How It Works

TRB has assumed an active convening role in bringing the Partnership Initiative to fruition. This role is a natural outgrowth of TRB's mission to promote innovation and progress in transportation, and its position as an independent forum for advancing R&T.

The definition of the Partnership Initiative framework is evolving. But at its core are working groups representing broad-based research topic areas. Five have been identified: safety, operations and mobility, infrastructure renewal, policy evaluation and system monitoring, and planning and environment.

Each working group (with the exception of planning and environment) is open to all who express an interest. An existing TRB committee, the Surface Transportation Environmental Cooperative Research Program Advisory Board, is serving the dual functions of the Environment and Planning Working Group and of the Advisory Board, as outlined in TEA-21.

The Advisory Board membership is balanced with members from the transportation and environment communities representing academia, states, metropolitan planning organizations, transit, industry, and environmental organizations. The Advisory Board/working group strongly encourages input and feedback, as do all of the Partnership Initiative working groups. The Advisory Board has a Web site (http://gulliver.nationalacademies.org/~advisory).

TRB has identified chairpersons for each of the working groups and is providing a "secretary" to each group to assist with organization and logistics. Existing research committees will feed their opinions and information to the working groups.

A working group is simply a clearinghouse of ideas that will then be organized, expanded upon, and disseminated. This clearinghouse includes ideas on how research and technology would advance the working group's main topic focus (for example, safety or infrastructure renewal).

The working groups provide a forum for stakeholders to share their plans, receive feedback, and explore potential partnerships. Working groups will then make recommendations about gaps, strategic priorities, or particular program areas.

The working groups have been charged with identifying major issues in their area of interest, reviewing existing R&T programs, assessing the coverage relative to current issues to identify gaps and overlaps, determining high-priority R&T areas, publicizing the benefits of proposed future R&T initiatives, and facilitating partnerships to carry out these initiatives.

An Optimal Mix

Opening the doors to the broader community also risks the possibility of being inundated with too many people, too many opinions, and too broad a playing field. Leaders of the Partnership Initiative are willing to take this risk, however, for the sake of the collaborative process.

For example, at the first meetings of the Operations and Mobility Working Group, many traditional and long-standing traffic and transit members were present. Their participation is highly valued. Nevertheless, expanding participation to include freight haulers, providers of emergency medical services, parking structure managers, and others would also be valuable, and the expanded participation was subsequently sought.

Similarly, Partnership Initiative leaders want representatives of asphalt and concrete industry groups along with engineers and contractors responsible for infrastructure improvement to be part of the Infrastructure Renewal Working Group.

Project sponsors are also an active part of the process. "Sponsors" may include any entity that funds highway R&T. These include FHWA, private sector associations, universities, state departments of transportation, corporations, the vehicle manufacturing industry, and construction materials manufacturers and suppliers.

In a collaborative process, "customer" becomes "partner" in creating and executing joint opportunities. All of these groups working together will produce more than the sum of their parts.

Pulling It All Together

It is difficult for a single entity to simultaneously possess the capability for sustained oversight of this partnership framework and to satisfy the need for shared participation and inclusiveness. Oversight and facilitation generally require in-depth work by a few; inclusiveness requires participation by many.

Whereas the working groups satisfy the requirement to be inclusive, a larger "organizing" body is also seen as beneficial. The Research and Technology Coordinating Committee (RTCC) promises one arena for nurturing and monitoring the framework.

RTCC is a special TRB committee of about 17 members drawn from top officials in state departments of transportation, university and private-sector research agencies, highway suppliers, contractors and consultants, local government officials, highway users, and environmental and highway safety specialists.

RTCC provides formal consensus-based guidance to FHWA on highway research and technology opportunities and priorities. Their challenge is to create an environment in which the sometimes divergent perspectives and priorities are heard. Through this process, the sharing of a common vision can come about.

RTCC has been asked to take an active role in the Partnership Initiative - first, by assigning a liaison to each working group, and second, by reviewing the working groups'reports on R&T needs and opportunities. RTCC then expects to provide an overall report on the national highway research and technology program.

The working groups will probably also report their findings through other means. Stakeholders and the public will have an opportunity to carry forward their ideas into specific programs and projects.

The Continuum

The Committee for Study of a Future Strategic Highway Research Program (F-SHRP), a separate TRB committee that shares some common members with RTCC, is currently evaluating long-term research priorities. The F-SHRP Committee is responsible for identifying and fostering the next great breakthroughs in highways over the longer term (say, within the next 12 to 15 years). An F-SHRP report is due in 2001.

The Partnership Initiative, on the other hand, expects to focus on near- and mid-term R&T needs, including collaboration on existing research. Efforts should also transcend the immediate short-term legislative and budget needs to foster true long-term collaborative partnerships.

The working groups are planning to prepare initial reports by late 2000. Ideally, the working group recommendations will support and compliment the F-SHRP recommendations and vice versa, forming a highway-related R&T continuum for the next decade or two.

What the Future Holds

FHWA, TRB, and AASHTO stand firmly behind the development of a new way of achieving consensus about the national R&T agenda. As with any new program, there will be a continuing need for refinement - perhaps even radical changes to meet the overall intent.

The evolution of the Partnership Initiative after the individual working groups and RTCC have developed their reports will continue to be discussed as part of the collaborative process. The working groups may continue to serve in a collaborative and advisory role. They may disband and be replaced by different functional groups.

Regardless of how the next major phases manifest themselves, establishing a strong framework of doing business is an imperative to achieving true innovation in highway R&T. And setting reasonable expectations about what the framework can and cannot do will avoid disappointments. More importantly, it will help keep participants focused on the areas where we can achieve the most positive results.

A Working Group in Action

The working groups are off and running. Here's an inside look at the inner workings of the Safety Working Group.

The Safety Working Group held its first national Safety Agenda Workshop on Jan. 8, 2000. Thirty-eight people participated, including representatives from federal, state, and local government, and the private sector. At this first meeting and at a subsequent smaller task force meeting, the group developed its vision and mission statements, and it identified key components of its ultimate report.

"We received some excellent input during these initial meetings, which helped lay the foundation for the Safety Agenda, and we identified several key research concerns," said Leanna Depue, director of the Missouri Safety Center at Central Missouri State University and co-chair of the working group.

"Our objective is to identify the most promising short- and long-term research, development, and implementation activities that result in precipitous reductions in deaths, injuries, and crashes," said Thomas Bryer, director of the Bureau of Highway Safety and Traffic Engineering at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, and working group co-chair. "The process includes input and consensus-building from the entire safety stakeholder community - no easy task."

The group identified eight key theme areas, including high-risk driving, highway infrastructure and operations, and survivability in crashes.

They developed a year-long schedule to see the report preparation process through to its completion.

"The working group itself is composed of a wide spectrum of participants," Depue said. "But we are planning additional mechanisms to garner additional input from a larger group of stakeholders. For example, our work will be posted on the Web site for everyone to see. We will be submitting the draft report to nearly 100 individuals around the country for review. And we will be holding a workshop in June to receive in-person comment and discussion."

The group plans to finalize the document in October and make it available to the public by the end of the year.

Your Voice Counts!

Please join us! Everyone with an interest in transportation research and development is invited to provide input or to participate as an active member of one of the five working groups or as an informed observer of the process. You can find out more about the National Research and Technology Partnership Initiative on TRB's Web page at www4.nas.edu/trb/homepage.nsf.

Keep abreast of the latest developments by regularly visiting TRB's new Web site conferencing feature. The software, called WebBoard, allows open conferences in which public users may view and post comments for discussion. Moderated conferences permit the conference managers to guide and shape discussion forums.

Additional online conferences can be established to facilitate the flow of information among working group and committee members. The WebBoard can be found at www4.nas.edu/trb/homepage.nsf/web/r&t_forum.

For more information about the Partnership Initiative, contact Michael Halladay at (202) 493-3172 or Michael.Halladay@fhwa.dot.gov.

Michael Halladay is a senior program manager in the Federal Highway Administration's Office of Research, Development, and Technology, and he is a facilitator of the Partnership Initiative. Halladay was formerly the chief of the Technology Management Division within FHWA's Office of Technology Applications (OTA), where he managed FHWA's SHRP Implementation Program and served as the secretary to the AASHTO SHRP Implementation Task Force. Halladay joined FHWA in 1975, and his career has included assignments in federal-aid, design, construction, motor carrier safety, intelligent transportation systems, planning, and research and technology programs. He has a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Duke University, and he is a registered professional engineer in Virginia.



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