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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 62· No. 3 > The State of Research

Nov/Dec 1998
Vol. 62· No. 3

The State of Research

by Robert J. Betsold

The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) embodies President Clinton's and Secretary of Transportation Rodney E. Slater's vision of an integrated transportation system that can ensure America's prosperity and quality of life into the new century.

TEA-21 marks the beginning of a new era, one in which decision-making power moves from Washington, D.C., to the state and local officials who best understand the transportation needs of their communities. This new empowerment is as true in research and technology as it is in other fields, and it challenges us to work together to make the most of the opportunities it creates.

The impacts of TEA-21 will be widely felt. As the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) moves from making roads better to creating the best transportation system in the world, the significance of TEA-21 will become more apparent.

TEA-21 will transform the research and technology program as we know it today. FHWA will assemble the necessary stakeholders to determine the national research and technology priorities, coordinate implementing program activities on a federal governmentwide basis, and measure the results of those activities by partnering with the state transportation agencies, the private sector, and the academic community to deliver research that meets the needs of the traveling public.

Groups of states can pool funds for specific research projects. The new program requires a change in thinking by the decision-makers - federal officials, state officials, and industry leaders - especially focusing on partnerships as funding increasingly is provided directly to state and local officials.

Three potential sources of additional funding for national priority research exist: a voluntary contribution from all states as proposed by the Mississippi Valley Conference, increased contribution to national research needs by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP), and pooled funding from groups of states that recognize the need for a specific type of research.

New decision-makers - the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), its Standing Committee on Research (SCOR) and its Standing Committee on Highways (SCOH), all of the heads of the state highway agencies, and the directors of the university research centers - now have a much more significant voice.

Decisions will now be made by those closest to the action - the state transportation agencies who actually have responsibility for their system's operations. The officials at these agencies know the short-term problems of their road systems, the long-term needs, and the weight of public opinion.

The funding decisions are likely to come at different times. First, the states and universities must set priorities for their short-term research efforts. Second, all of the parties - FHWA, the states, universities, and private industry - must make the decisions that are necessary to create and pay for a long-term research agenda.


ISTEA-TEA-21 Comparison. There will be new procedures. FHWA and the states must reach agreements on how research funds can best be used and how federal and state officials can work together to produce an effective 21st century transportation system throughout the nation.

Today, we are faced with the short-term process to determine how these decisions will be made. FHWA and state officials have been engaged in discussions that began almost immediately after the enactment of TEA-21 and are continuing. Decisions on funding priorities, contributions, direction for the six-year life of TEA-21 - the kinds of decisions that are vital for a long-term research program - can take time. Working together will ensure that the players are doing the right research to solve the problems of today and to look beyond the horizon to prepare for the future.

In a July 24 letter to the chief administrative officers (CAOs) of the state transportation agencies, Francis B. Francois, AASHTO executive director, summarized the effects of TEA-21.

"TEA-21 reduces the central role of FHWA in highway research, heavily cuts funding to continue with SHRP [Strategic Highway Research Program] implementation and the LTPP [Long-Term Pavement Performance] program, includes a large number of earmarks directing funds to universities and specific research projects, and substantially increases state SPR [State Planning and Research] funding," Francois wrote.

"The states and AASHTO are facing major changes in the highway research program as a result of the enactment of TEA-21. The direct involvement of Congress in programming research funding, and the consequent decline in the role of FHWA, is probably indicative of a long-term situation that we should strategically assess. In the short term, it is clear that new arrangements and concepts are in order. I believe we should view this as a challenge and opportunity," he continued.

"The challenge is how do you put together a national research agenda? Who will do it, and how will we do it?" Francois said. "It is very difficult to get people to buy into a long-term research agenda. Enough people have to buy into it or doing it through NCHRP, or there won't be a national agenda."

He also expressed concern about the reduction in funding for the National Highway Institute - from $43 million under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) to $39 million. NHI provides education and training to transportation professionals.

FHWA's responsibility is to provide the leadership to bring together the essential partners.

U.S. Postal Service circulation form for Public Roads magazine. "I would like to see FHWA work with all of us and convene a national conference of universities, states, and industry to discuss the research agenda. The conference can lead to a new type of partnership and cooperation. We can discuss what we think is important and how we find the resources for it," Francois said.

Iowa has a success story that illustrates this kind of partnership. Thomas H. Maze, Iowa State University's director of the Center for Transportation Research and Education, said, "We have a unique partnership with Iowa Department of Transportation and the Iowa Asphalt Paving Association. One of our professors works part-time for the university and part-time for the state in with laboratory equipment paid for by the association."

TEA-21 partnerships in funding make these types of arrangements possible to continually improve the quality of our nation's highway system and its intermodal connectors.

As soon as TEA-21 was enacted, people involved with the research program recognized that major decisions were required - and they had to be made quickly. In early July, the Mississippi Valley Conference of AASHTO adopted a resolution backing a contribution of state NCHRP funds to help support the FHWA research program. States currently contribute 5.5 percent of their SPR funds to NCHRP for projects selected by AASHTO.

Because funding for SPR has increased substantially, NCHRP funds have also risen. Under TEA-21, NCHRP will receive $25 million annually instead of the $17 million it received through ISTEA.

The new funding distribution also dominated discussions in July and August at the LTAP meeting in Salt Lake City, the AASHTO Research Advisory Committee meeting in Nashville, the technology deployment meeting in Washington, D.C., and the university transportation centers workshop in Washington, D.C. All the groups emphasized funding research efforts are vital to the future of the transportation program.

With the increase in state research funds, the role of SCOR within AASHTO becomes more significant. The committee's charge is "to keep itself informed of all transportation research programs in the U.S. and [the committee] shall evaluate them from the perspective of known research needs. It shall solicit research problem area proposals from the several Member Departments and Association committees, screen such proposals, arrange [them] in accordance with priorities and needs, and recommend annual research programs for the consideration of the Association and [to be] conducted through the Transportation Research Board, and monitor the program and make appropriate recommendations and reports to the Association."

The chairman of SCOR is Allan L. Abbott, the director of the Nebraska Department of Roads. "There is more money for research than in the past," said Abbott. "How it is distributed is different. The challenge is to use it in a positive way to benefit the nation. There is a necessity for more state involvement if research is to be carried out on a national level. Without support from the states, FHWA won't have a program."

"The states will have to agree on a national program - not only in concept but with their pocketbooks. The states must now step up to the plate and say, 'This is a worthwhile investment, and we're willing to spend the money,'" he said.

A new element - the need for "salesmanship" - has been added to his responsibilities, Abbott said.

"The chairman of SCOR must review these programs and use salesmanship to the remaining CAOs on projects of importance instead of just administering NCHRP. It's a problem of salesmanship to the CAOs that wasn't there before."

Abbott cited two additional problems for a state-run research program. First, duplication. "We have to make sure we are not duplicating efforts. If you regionalize the program, you can duplicate efforts, and that's not desirable." Second, delays. "Development of projects will take longer. You have to satisfy 53 CAOs." He said changes can be expected in the research agenda but determining those changes will be a long-term process.

"It will now be how the states view it and whether they put up the money. TEA-21 has put the responsibility for decisions where I think it should be, but now we have to make decisions. We have to work with the universities and regional centers. We have to find and leverage funds so we don't come up with nothing," he said.

Abbott said states must provide the additional funds needed for the LTPP program and for the implementation of SHRP. LTPP funding was reduced from $15 million annually to $9 million, while SHRP implementation received no designated funding.

"LTPP and SHRP implementation are my major concerns," Abbott said. "We have gotten the Superpave process for better asphalt pavements, and we have made major advances in concrete pavement. We couldn't have gotten these results from anyone else because the industry would not have accepted them. As chairman of the LTPP and SHRP Implementation Committee, I will make a pitch for more funding."

Important for this year is to make sure that essential programs, such as LTPP and SHRP implementation, receive the necessary funds while the decision-making process for the long-term research program is taking place. With the long-term structural changes in the program still being considered, many FHWA initiatives may not have sufficient funding this year. The states will be required to make decisions on which of those programs that "fall off the table" should be caught before they hit the floor.

"Unless you have people thinking out of the box, you just don't move forward," Abbott said. "We have to find new and better ways of getting the transportation system developed that lasts as long as possible with as little destruction [as possible] to the environment. Unless we have people thinking ahead, it can't be done."

Francois said, "Our goal is to build roads that last longer and that can be constructed faster. The construction processes and materials must have a greater reliability. The only way to do that is through research. If we could do it now, we wouldn't need research. We need the best minds assembled to apply the knowledge they have. There are so many arenas where we need to know more than we do."

Maze said, "The Iowa State model is 'science with practice.' We believe a meaningful partnership with the state DOT and industry is the only way to apply what is learned in the classroom."

The partnerships in funding brought about by TEA-21 will require working together, thinking strategically, setting priorities, continuing education for transportation professionals, and making decisions that are in the best interest of the nation. TEA-21 is more than funding; it is about people. The people in FHWA working with the people in the state transportation agencies, the academic community, and private industry to deliver research that leads to the best transportation system in the world.

This article was written for simultaneous publication in TR News, the bimonthly magazine of the Transportation Research Board, and Public Roads.

Robert J. Betsold is FHWA's associate administrator for research and development. After graduation from the University of Massachusetts, he served a tour of duty with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; then he returned to the University of Massachusetts for his master's degree in civil engineering. His management training includes the Highway Management Institute, the Federal Executive Institute, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and a master's degree in public administration from American University. Prior to joining FHWA in 1964, he taught at two universities and worked as a transportation planning consultant. For almost 25 years, he has served in leadership positions in FHWA research and development and in technology transfer.

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