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Federal Highway Administration Research and Technology
Coordinating, Developing, and Delivering Highway Transportation Innovations

This report is an archived publication and may contain dated technical, contact, and link information

Publication Number: FHWA-RD-98-139
Date: June 1999

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A Quarter Century of Geotechnical Research

Chapter 6: Associated Geotechnical Research and Technology Programs

In the beginning, the Geotechnology Research Program was assigned to the Federally Coordinated Program (FCP) of Research and Development for FHWA. The FCP was the brainchild of FHWA's Director of Research, Dr. Charles Scheffey, in the early 1970's. He was very fond of reminding everyone that it was a "federally coordinated" program, not a "coordinated federal" program. FCP program managers were not expected to supervise and direct non-FHWA research programs, but they were expected to play a leadership role in coordinating these other research programs from Federal, State, and private sector organizations conducting research in their respective areas.

During the 1970's and 1980's, a number of agencies and outside organizations were actively engaged in geotechnical engineering research. FHWA played an active role in encouraging coordination and partnering with these other organizations, especially in the beginning when there wasn't an "umbrella" type organization to provide central leadership. This function was later taken over by the Geotechnical (GT) Board of the National Academy of Sciences shortly after it was established in the middle 1980's. This seemed to work very well for a few years until the Board was de-commissioned in the early 1990's during an economy drive to consolidate programs.

As a result of losing the Geotechnical Board, which was very popular in the GT community, a group of leading geo-engineers came together at a workshop in May 1994 to focus on the problems associated with the loss of the GT Board and other setbacks, both recent and potential future losses. One of the positive outcomes of the workshop was the agreement to establish a nongovernment umbrella organization called the Geo Council.

The Geo Council was established by a group of national experts in early 1995 to be an independent organization to fill the void left by the GT Board. The objective is to expand the sphere of geotechnical influence by creating a unified base of geo-professionals from the Federal, local, academic, and private sectors of the geotechnical community. The former executive director of the GT Board, Mr. Peter Smealie, was elected as Executive Director of the Geo Council to serve for an indefinite term period. The Council serves to further the general interests of geotechnology that are common to most, if not all, the separate organizations that comprise the membership. It is an organization of organizations that does not compete with the specific goals of its individual members, such as the ADSC, Deep Foundation Institute (DFI), United States University Council of Geotechnical Engineering Researchers (USUCGER), ASCE's Geo-Institute, Association of Soil and Foundations Engineers (ASFE), and several others with common interests. The Geo Council recently took control of the NGES program to further serve the GT community.

The Geo Council serves as a forum for exchanging ideas and information among geo-engineering associations and professions, construction organizations, and government agencies. It also seeks to ensure that geotechnologies are able to play their proper role in addressing national needs such as mineral and energy exploration and production, civil infrastructure, national security, and environmental quality.

The Geo Council

The formation of the Geo Council is of great importance because many of our most pressing national issues relate in some way to geotechnologies and the work done under the auspices of council members.

For instance, geotechnologies are literally the underpinnings of our daily lives, dealing with the foundations upon which all buildings and bridges sit, the tunnels our subways run through, the sewers and water systems that run underground, and almost everything that comprises our national infrastructure.

Geotechnologies contribute to managing hazardous and radioactive waste, which are often stored underground. They help us gain energy independence and predict and mitigate natural disasters like earthquakes, volcanoes, and landslides.

Geotechnologies also help ensure national security by developing ways to create underground defense facilities capable of surviving nuclear and high-explosive attacks.

And geotechnologies are key factors in exploring our remaining frontiers on earth, such as the polar regions and the ocean floor, and they will certainly be a part of our exploration of the universe beyond Earth itself.

The Geo Council and the former GT Board have been very valuable partners to FHWA's GT research program. They have served as advisors in the development (and re-direction when necessary) of the overall program plan, and helped to disseminate important research findings.

Other valuable partners have included National Highway Institute (NHI), Transportation Research Board (TRB), National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP), Highway Innovative Technology Evaluation Center (HITEC), National Science Foundation (NSF), American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and the U.S. Army Waterways Experiment Station. Highlights of the activities of these partners and a few others are now presented to document some of their contributions.

6.1 National Highway Institute (NHI)

For the past 25 years, through its NHI, the FHWA has developed and presented to the SHA's technical training that is not readily available from other sources and which these agencies would not ordinarily develop for themselves. Numerous geotechnical courses (1 to 5 days) are offered nationally through the NHI primarily to the States. In each fiscal year, hundreds of these short courses are presented to thousands of participants.

State and local government personnel and private sector personnel are charged a fee for NHI's short courses; the fees for State and local personnel are half the cost of instruction, while private sector personnel pay full fees. State and local agencies pay fees ranging from a total of $1,000 for a 1-day course to $4,000 for 4- to 5-day courses. The $1,000 fees cover 30 to 40 students. FHWA geotechnical personnel assist in the instructional duties for these courses.

A considerable portion of the NHI State Program budget is spent to offer very comprehensive, graduate level curricula needed by mid-level highway engineers and managers to supplement their previous academic studies. One of these courses is the Geotechnical Engineering course. This comprehensive graduate level course is for 4 weeks and is aimed at the top two or three people in highway departments who will serve as the State's geotechnical specialists.

The course is divided into 11 training modules, each of which can be offered as a stand-alone NHI course, or several modules can be grouped together to address specific training needs. A state-of-the-art manual, which will serve for later use as a practical reference, was developed for each module. Instructors for each module are recognized experts in each topic area.

6.2 FHWA Office of International Programs

The GT team is working through FHWA's Office of International Programs to expand its program of interaction internationally. The agency has formalized its scanning process for finding transportation technology that can aid the United States in improving the durability of its infrastructure and the safety and operation of its facilities. As the international network expands, the agency will increase the number of focused technical trips abroad to facilitate the exchange of technology in various geotechnical topics. The FHWA geotechnical specialists will continue their strong participation in committees and task forces of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and of the Permanent International Association of Road Congresses (PIARC). Formal geotechnical research coordination agreements have been established in France and Japan and are pending in other countries.

6.3 Transportation Research Board (TRB)

The Transportation Research Board (TRB), a unit of the National Research Council, supports research efforts concerning the nature and performance of transportation systems, disseminates research information, and encourages the application and implementation of appropriate research findings. The continual interaction between geotechnical specialists occurs through a variety of forums and media:

6.4 National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP)

The National Cooperative Highway Research Program is a unique contract research effort designed to pool state funds into a national program that can respond quickly and efficiently to the needs of the State highway and transportation departments and provide an effective attack on the pressing problems in any area. The NCHRP is a program of applied, rather than basic, research and as such is totally committed to providing practical solutions at least cost. As solutions become available, every effort is made to help the administrators and engineers put them to early use. Although the Transportation Research Board administers the NCHRP, the content of the Program and the rules and regulations that guide it are solely the prerogative of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and its member departments.

FHWA works as a partner organization of TRB and AASHTO as the principal participants in the NCHRP program operation. Each partner carries out clearly defined, mutually supportive roles. A large number of quality research projects in the geotechnical area have been successfully completed in the past 25 years. These studies were coordinated with the FHWA program described in the main body of this report, and they served to enhance the overall success of both programs.

6.5 American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO)

The FHWA and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) have had a long relationship, covering much of this century. Through the AASHTO, standards and specifications are reviewed and approved by the States and subsequently adopted by the FHWA for use on Federal-aid highway projects. Consequently, since the States are responsible for the planning, design, and construction of highways nationally, the AASHTO is critical to the adoption and use of new highway geotechnology among the member states.

In the overall design of the FHWA technology transfer program, FHWA's technical program officials and field offices are enlisted in the outreach process to ensure that new technology and innovations get into the hands of the users as quickly as possible. Geotechnical staffers often serve as project managers for on-site geotechnology demonstrations, bringing their expertise along with them and gaining an opportunity to further expand their expertise by interacting with other experts in the field.

The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), which was signed into law in June 1998, increases research investment to a record level; and marks the beginning of a new era in which decision making power moves closer to the State and local officials who best understand the research needs of their localities. AASHTO is now empowered to develop national research programs through its Standing Committee on Research (SCOR) in cooperation with FHWA and all of the heads of the state highway agencies. Decisions will now be made by those closest to the action, who know the short-term problems, the long-term needs, and the importance of public opinion.

The role of AASHTO is more important than ever, because it is very difficult to get the individual parties to accept a long-term research agenda. Through its various committees, such as SCOR, it will have a much more significant voice. AASHTO and FHWA will provide the essential leadership to assemble the necessary stakeholders to develop a national research agenda, coordinate technology transfer functions, and measure the results of these activities that deliver products to meet the needs of the travelling public.

TEA-21 provides more money for research and implementation activities than ever before, however, it also changes the distribution system. There is now more money going to the States, and less money going to FHWA. The States will now play a much greater role in developing a national research program. AASHTO will provide leadership and help to minimize duplication of efforts and delays that might occur because so many different entities must agree on a national agenda.

6.6 The Highway Innovative Technology Evaluation Center (HITEC)

The Highway Innovative Technology Evaluation Center (HITEC) is a nationally recognized service center and clearinghouse for implementing highway innovation, one that serves as a focal point for the collaborative evaluation of innovative technologies (new products) and helps to expedite their transfer into practice. HITEC evaluates products for which recognized standards or specifications do not exist.

The HITEC process accommodates both "high-tech" and "low-tech" products, intended for use in any aspect of the highway community, including design, construction, operation, or maintenance. HITEC has established a close working relationship with many highway-related organizations, including AASHTO, ASCE, FHWA and TRB. These groups, along with the individual State, county, and municipal agencies, provide HITEC with a broad and diverse pool of expertise to draw upon in the formation of its Technical Evaluation Panels. FHWA GT specialists are an important part of the expertise pool.

6.7 Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI)

During the late 1970's, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) initiated a major geotechnical research program in response to industry requests for improved analysis and design capabilities for the foundations of electrical transmission line structures. The initial objective and scope of this project was to focus on static axial loading of drilled shaft foundations. Subsequently, the project was expanded to include other loading modes such as lateral, torsional, bending moment, cyclic, and combined loadings.

The bulk of this research was conducted at Cornell University under the supervision of Professor Fred Kulhawy as the Principal Investigator. More than 30 reports were prepared and disseminated to help EPRI designers select methods most appropriate to their specific geotechnical needs. The Cornell work resolved many uncertainties in the electric power industry's understanding of foundation engineering for transmission line structures. Benefits from this research program were also applied to highway structure foundations and vice versa through a coordinated exchange program among EPRI, Cornell and FHWA. Details and a complete listing of all reports can be found in Summary of Transmission Line Structure Foundation Research, EPRI Report No. TR-105206, September 1995.


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