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|Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 76 · No. 2 > Federal-Aid Essentials|
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-12-006
by Rob Elliott and Steve Moler
FHWA has launched a new information-sharing initiative to help local public agencies manage their highway projects.
Local roads and bridges constitute the lion's share of the Nation's vast highway network. Counties, cities, and towns -- or local public agencies -- own and operate 75 percent of the country's roadways -- some 2.9 million miles (4.7 million kilometers). These agencies build and maintain this network using a variety of funding sources, including dollars provided through the Federal-Aid Highway Program. Of the nearly 28,000 local public agencies in the United States, each year an estimated 7,000 of them are actively managing about $7 billion in Federal-aid projects -- roughly 15 percent of the total program. Projects can range from smaller ones like sidewalks and pavement overlays to larger ones that include complex interchanges and bridges.
When local public agencies receive Federal-aid funding, they work closely with their respective State departments of transportation (DOTs) to meet all Federal-aid requirements, such as those for environmental reviews, civil rights, right-of-way acquisitions, safety, and construction and contract administration. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) works with the State DOTs to support these agencies in their efforts to deliver their transportation projects successfully. A clear understanding of the Federal-aid requirements is essential so that project staff at FHWA, State DOTs, and local public agencies can work together to complete these projects safely, on time, within budget, and while achieving a high level of quality.
In cooperation with State and local partners, FHWA recently launched a new information-sharing initiative designed to help local officials administer their Federal-aid projects more efficiently and to assist State and local agencies in attaining their project delivery goals. Known as Federal-aid Essentials for Local Public Agencies and available through FHWA's Web site, the initiative offers an abundance of information, including short videos covering numerous aspects of the Federal-aid program.
On-Demand Video Library
An important feature of the Federal-aid Essentials Web site is a resource library of about 80 informational videos and related materials. Each video focuses on a single topic in a critical area related to delivery of Federal-aid projects. The library contains relatively short (less than 10 minutes) videos, professionally narrated in nontechnical language and supported with graphics and animations that highlight the most essential content. Users can view the videos in any sequence from any computer or mobile device with Internet access.
"This cutting-edge approach puts Federal-aid essentials at the fingertips of local public agencies anytime and anywhere in the country in the most convenient way," says Bernetta Collins, director of FHWA's Resource Center. Collins and Amy Lucero, director of FHWA's Office of Technical Services, are cosponsors of the Federal-aid Essentials project. "Rather than sitting through lengthy training courses and thumbing through thick manuals, busy local public agency professionals now can view a wide range of short, informative videos from one Internet location to help them improve project delivery. After viewing the videos, they'll know where to go for additional information and how to get help."
When users first log onto the Web site at www.fhwa.dot.gov/federal-aidessentials, they can view a brief introductory video about the Federal-aid Essentials initiative and how to navigate the site. From there, they can access the resource library via a convenient drop-down menu that presents seven categories of videos: Federal-aid Program Overview; Civil Rights; Environment; Finance; Right-of-Way; Project Development; and Project Construction and Contract Administration.
Once the user selects a category, such as Environment, a menu of videos for that category appears next to the video viewing screen. Users simply click on the desired video title and the presentation begins. From the same page, users can access a number of companion materials, including a printable transcript of each video, helpful reference information, and links to additional online resources. Another function enables users to share feedback on a particular video, the resource library, or the Web site in general.
The State Resources button, located on the main page, provides access to a list of contacts at the FHWA division offices and State DOTs, as well as links to State manuals for local public agencies, the applicable sections of the Code of Federal Regulations, Local Technical Assistance Program (LTAP) centers, and other resources. Another dropdown menu on the lower part of the main page, titled "I want to know about...," helps users find information about most Federal-aid topics quickly and conveniently.
The video format is conducive to viewing in a variety of settings, including in the office, at jobsites, on mobile devices, or in meetings with project teams, stakeholders, and partners. State DOTs and local public agencies also can use the videos to augment training at the local level. When watching the videos, viewers acquire enough knowledge to know what questions to ask their State DOT counterparts, what appropriate technical terminology to use, and how and where to access additional assistance.
"I think this is a great idea," says Alan Chapman, deputy director for program delivery in Gwinnett County, GA. "In the past, information about Federal-aid requirements tended to be fragmented in many different places. Thanks to this innovative approach, we can get everything we need in one location. These videos and the companion materials greatly improve communications and give those of us at the local level current and accurate information."
How the Initiative Was Conceived
The need for a central information resource for the Federal-aid program surfaced after a series of FHWA internal reviews and risk assessments revealed gaps in local public agency oversight of projects, which resulted in some instances of noncompliance at the local level. One significant issue was delivering accurate information about Federal-aid requirements to the local roads community. Most information about the Federal-aid program had been scattered among various Web sites and manuals. The transportation community needed a central repository of fundamental policies, procedures, and guidance.
In early 2011, FHWA officials formed a development team for the Federal-aid Essentials project. The team came up with the concept of creating an innovative delivery system addressing key Federal-aid concerns that would target a vast audience, provide concise and consistent information, and be available on demand.
At first, FHWA developed self-paced, Web-based training modules, but early prototypes proved too long and complicated. The team then shifted focus to an information-sharing Web site and resource library concept based loosely on the Khan Academy, a nonprofit educational organization that offers some 3,000 brief instructional videos posted online covering subjects ranging from mathematics and science to finance and history.
"I had been using the Khan Academy model in preparing some of my other FHWA training courses," says Michael Smith, a project management engineer with the FHWA Resource Center. "I showed it to the project development team's leadership, and they liked it so much, they decided to run with the idea."
FHWA next assembled a larger team of subject matter experts, content managers, script writers, and production specialists to create the videos. Each video had to meet several requirements: It had to be fairly short, cover a single important topic within the Federal-aid program, provide only the most essential information, display easy-to-understand visuals, and be narrated in nontechnical language. All videos were subjected to rigorous policy and legal reviews within FHWA to ensure accuracy of content and proper interpretation of the relevant sections within the Code of Federal Regulations.
Meeting Local Needs
To ensure that the videos would meet the needs of local public agencies, FHWA initiated a series of activities to assess the quality and utility of the Federal-aid Essentials materials and obtain feedback from various State and local roads representatives. In November 2011, during the project's early development, FHWA formed a focus group of six representatives from local public agencies selected from across the country, two staffers from State DOTs, and two representatives from the Local and Tribal Technical Assistance Programs (LTAP-TTAP). The latter is a national network of 58 centers that delivers training, information, and technical assistance to the local roads community. The members of the focus group answered questions about their past Federal-aid experiences and future needs, and how they might use the Federal-aid Essentials Web site. The focus group also provided feedback on sample videos.
"We were very interested in the videos because they were targeted," says Georgia's Chapman, a focus group participant. "If you have a specific issue, you can go straight to the Web site, find the video you need, and learn what to do, whom to contact, and how to move forward. I see the video library as a day-to-day resource -- it's immediate information that you can get in the field, and you don't have to interrupt a project. You can find answers quickly and keep moving."
After viewing some of the earlier videos, Donna Shea, director of Connecticut's LTAP center, found the resource library to be a convenient way to distribute educational materials to local transportation officials. "The [videos] are cleverly done so that they're short, concise, and easy to understand. We're excited to get them," she says.
In fact, the Connecticut LTAP center liked the Federal-aid Essentials initiative so much that it formed a statewide team of representatives from FHWA's Connecticut Division Office, the Connecticut Department of Transportation, metropolitan planning organizations, and local public agencies to evaluate ways to integrate additional training materials with the Federal-aid Essentials program. As a result of the team's discussions, the Connecticut LTAP is developing a new section on its Web site that integrates the Federal-aid Essentials resource library with customized Connecticut-specific videos and other resources, such as examples of successful projects, funding sources, key contacts, and frequently asked questions and answers.
In addition to the feedback from the focus group, FHWA solicited input from an internal leadership group known as the Office of Technical Services Advisory Group, which provided the project development team with general guidance on how to best meet State DOT and local public agency needs. The advisory group vetted the initiative's original implementation plan, critiqued some of the earlier videos, and provided suggestions for a simple, conversational language style as well as insights that led to the inclusion of companion materials.
FHWA used information from the focus group, advisory group, and internal reviews and risk assessments to determine the seven video categories. Specific videos within each category were developed to address many aspects of the Federal-aid program, including such topics as disadvantaged business enterprises, the Americans with Disabilities Act, project closeout, Buy America Act, quality assurance, value engineering, the National Environmental Policy Act, and internal financial controls, to name a few. Each video can be updated if needed, and new videos will be added over time to accommodate new policies and regulations and to meet State DOT and local public agency needs.
As the summer 2012 launch date neared, FHWA continued to engage State and local partners in refining and improving the initiative's materials. For example, FHWA sponsored four townhall webinars during which 145 representatives of local public agencies, LTAPs, and national transportation organizations reviewed and provided feedback on the Federal-aid Essentials materials.
"You've got to have reliable and accurate resources to go to," says Lewis Cooksey, a focus group participant and transportation project manager in Gwinnett County, GA. "You've got to be able to sort out facts from opinions. The Federal-aid Essentials program helps us accomplish this and reach consistency in interpreting the Federal regulations."
States Give Additional Support
State DOTs also have taken steps in addition to the Federal-aid Essentials initiative to help local public agencies manage their Federal-aid projects. Some States have ramped up training, including starting or upgrading certification programs that are helping local public agencies meet minimum requirements for administration of Federal-aid projects. States also have implemented local stewardship agreements that clarify roles and responsibilities and ensure proper monitoring of projects.
Some States also have updated or published new guidance manuals for local public agencies. The manuals now are accessible as companion materials on the Federal-aid Essentials Web site. Further, some States are encouraging local public agencies to use checklists for tracking project milestones and to hold early and frequent project meetings. The Nebraska Department of Roads (NDOR), for example, recently put several improvements in place, including updating and expanding its LPA Guidelines Manual for Federal-Aid Projects, developing checklists for each Federal-aid focus area, and delivering classroom and Web-based training. NDOR also revamped its Web site to improve access to information and guidance on State and Federal regulations, including State stewardship agreements, downloadable forms, and guidelines for disadvantaged business enterprises.
"We have more than 125 local public agencies in our State, and oversight has definitely been a challenge," says Anthony Dirks, an urban transportation engineer in NDOR's Local Projects Division. "Expertise varies widely from one local public agency to another, so we started putting initiatives in place to help get more consistency with both State and Federal compliance."
The Federal-aid Essentials initiative and recent State DOT efforts are steps toward helping the transportation community pursue better, faster, and smarter ways of delivering the Federal-aid program, with the overall goal of ensuring a strong, safe infrastructure serving the public interest.
Rob Elliott is the team manager for the Construction and Project Management Technical Service Team in the FHWA Resource Center and has served as project manager for the Federal-aid Essentials project development team. He joined FHWA in 2003 and has worked in construction operations, contract administration, innovative contracting, construction inspection and oversight, construction training, specifications, and cost estimations. Previously he worked for 11 years with the Florida Department of Transportation. Elliott holds a B.S. in civil engineering from Auburn University.
Steve Moler is a public affairs specialist in FHWA's Office of Public Affairs, Office of Public Communications. He has been with FHWA since 2001, assisting the agency's field offices and partners with media relations, public relations, and public involvement communications. He has a B.S. in journalism from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
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