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Coordinating, Developing, and Delivering Highway Transportation Innovations

 
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Publication Number:  FHWA-HRT-18-001    Date:  Autumn 2017
Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-18-001
Issue No: Vol. 81 No. 3
Date: Autumn 2017

 

Innovation Corner

by Tony Furst

Looking Out for Innovation

Innovation is critical to the transportation industry for many reasons. New processes and technologies can speed project delivery, improve safety, increase the durability of roads, better protect the environment, and help optimize the use of scarce financial resources. But introducing new processes and technologies comes with risk. Transportation agencies face an ongoing challenge to balance the benefits that new innovations can bring against the possible risks–financial, organizational, political, or otherwise.

“We are in an industry that approaches risk cautiously,” says Jeff Zaharewicz, acting director of the Federal Highway Administration’s Center for Accelerating Innovation. “But at the same time, we are an industry that relishes problem-solving. As new problems arise, we look for or develop new ways of solving them.”

“We should be looking for solutions in conventional and unconventional places.

— Fawn Thompson, FHWA’s AID Demonstration Grant Program Coordinator

 

Photo. An uncoated square steel test plate with grooves, three screws entering from below, and three screws entering from above to simulate the kinds of details and connections that would be found in bridge construction.
Photos: Tesla NanoCoatings.
Photo. A square steel test plate with grooves, three screws entering from below, and three screws entering from above to simulate the kinds of details and connections that would be found in bridge construction. The plate has been covered with a white protective coating.
MoDOT tested an innovative protective coating, developed by the oil industry, to assess its performance for use on bridges. Shown here is the steel test plate before and after the application.

The Center for Accelerating Innovation exists to help agencies overcome the barriers to deploying innovations–regardless of the genesis of the innovation. For example, the center offers the Accelerated Innovation Deployment (AID) Demonstration program to encourage transportation agencies to implement innovations in their projects. AID Demonstration grants provide funding, up to $1 million per project, to offset the cost of applying new technologies.

“Historically, the transportation industry has looked to its own research and development for solutions,” says Fawn Thompson, coordinator for the AID Demonstration grant program. “But because many technologies and systems can span industries, we should be looking for solutions in conventional and unconventional places.”

The goal is to consider the best ideas, no matter their source.

Offshore Inspiration in Missouri

A recent AID Demonstration project with the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) showcases how a new technology from outside the transportation industry was adapted for use on a highway project.

Practitioners at MoDOT learned of a protective coating that could significantly reduce the time it takes to paint steel bridge elements. The main application of the product was in the offshore oil drilling industry, not in transportation.

“We were skeptical at first,” says Bill Dunn, a structural liaison engineer at MoDOT. “But the technology appeared to be applicable to bridges. So, before we jumped in, we got samples and did our own testing. Once we verified the results, we decided to try it on a project.”

MoDOT started with a relatively low-risk effort. “For this first project, we chose a bridge that was not in the most difficult environment,” Dunn says. “That allowed us to have a test case before we use the coating more widely. We’re easing into it.”

The Center for Accelerating Innovation encourages this kind of measured approach—test, assess, and then look for opportunities for wider adoption.

“Managing risk is different than being risky,” Zaharewicz says. “Managing risk means evaluating the technology, exploring its impacts, and performing due diligence. You then determine if the risk is worth the reward. If so, try it.”

Other States have expressed interest in MoDOT’s project, says Dunn. “[They] are watching to see how it goes. If it is successful, they may field the technology as well.”

Dunn’s advice to other transportation agencies? “Be open, but be diligent. We owe it to the citizens of our State to spend their dollars as wisely as we can. If you’re not open to new technologies, I don’t think you can say you are doing that.”


Tony Furst is FHWA’s chief innovation officer and head of the Office of Innovative Program Delivery.

 

 

 

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