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Date:03/04/2003
Session:108th Congress (First Session)
Witness(es):Robert E. Skinner, Jr.
Witness(es):Skinner
Credentials:  Executive Director, Transportation Research Board, The National Academies
Chamber:House
Committee:Highways and Transit Subcommittee, Committee on Transportation and infrastructure, U.S. House of Representatives
Subject:Transportation Programs Reauthorization

THE FEDERAL ROLE IN SURFACE TRANSPORTATION RESEARCH

Statement of

Robert E. Skinner, Jr.

Executive Director

Transportation Research Board

The National Academies

before the

Subcommittee on Highways, Transit and Pipelines

Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure

U.S. House of Representatives

March 4, 2003

[<dd>]Good morning, Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee. My name is Robert Skinner. I am the Executive Director of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) of The National Academies, which comprises the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council (NRC). TRB was founded in 1920; its mission, in brief, is to promote innovation and progress in transportation through research. It fulfills this mission by maintaining approximately 200 standing technical committees covering all modes of transportation, hosting an Annual Meeting that attracts about 9,000 transportation researchers and practitioners, publishing reports and collections of peer-reviewed technical articles, administering two contract research programs, and undertaking special studies at the request of the Congress and executive branch agencies.

[<dd>]I am pleased to have this opportunity to comment on surface transportation research in the United States. In this prepared statement, I will focus on highway research, but I should note that TRB is very involved in public transportation research as well. In particular, TRB manages the Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP) on behalf of the transit industry and the Federal Transit Administration. The Congress initially authorized TCRP in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991.

[<dd>]Now turning to highway research, I will begin with a brief overview of highway research programs and then highlight key recommendations from recent TRB reports that bear upon the reauthorization of federal transportation research, development, and education programs.

[<dd>]The United States highway system will face many challenges in the years ahead--challenges that cannot be successfully addressed without new knowledge and innovations of all sorts. For example, how can highway agencies and their contractors reconstruct heavily used urban freeways while maintaining service and minimizing traveler delays and community disruption? Can the application of “intelligent” information and communication technologies reduce motor vehicle crashes, squeeze additional capacity out of existing highways, and improve the reliability of motor vehicle travel? How do roadways affect the natural environment, and what can be done to mitigate their impacts? Can we develop affordable materials that will significantly extend the lives of highway pavements and bridges?

[<dd>]As users of the nation’s highway system and residents of communities affected by highways, most of us can identify with questions like these. Answering them requires research—research that expands our knowledge about highways, their performance, and their impacts. The stakes are significant because highways are closely linked to economic development, public health, environmental quality, and life style, as well as being a substantial public expense.

[<dd>]The highway industry is highly decentralized in our country—about 35,000 public agencies administer portions of the highway system, and tens of thousands of private companies provide products and services to state and local agencies. Our highway research and technology programs are also fairly decentralized, and this is appropriate because it allows the potential users of research results to participate at many different levels, keeping the programs relevant and facilitating the transfer of innovations from the laboratory to practice. State and federal transportation agencies, universities, contractors and material suppliers, and others all participate. There are many participants, but the federal government is clearly the most important single participant in highway research in the United States. It has played multiple roles over the past 80 years, and without its involvement and leadership, there would be many fewer success stories to report. The federal government has provided:

Support for State Research Programs—Through State Planning and Research (SP&R) requirements, the Congress currently requires that state departments of transportation spend at least one-half percent of their highway federal-aid dollars on research. With these funds, states sponsor in-house research and other innovation-related activities, contract research with universities, and cooperative research with other states. In addition, the states voluntarily pool funds for the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP), which is a merit-based research program administered by TRB. Typically, state-sponsored research, including NCHRP, is highly applied, addressing specific technical problems that need near-term solutions and often lead to new specifications and design guidelines. Many states also play a leadership role in introducing innovations to local governments, which have little research capability of their own.

Direct support for research—Acting primarily through the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the federal government maintains its own research laboratories, supports university research, and manages competitive contract research programs.

Technology transfer—The federal government has promoted innovation through technology transfer programs and training activities and, at times, through regulations governing design and specification requirements for federal-aid highways. With offices in every state and a technically oriented staff, the FHWA is well positioned to fulfill this role.

Special research programs—On occasion, with encouragement from state departments of transportation, the Congress has authorized special, highly focused research programs to fulfill a specific mission. A large-scale pavement testing program was completed in the early 1960s, and the five-year Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP), started in 1988, explored several, mostly materials-related topics. Both programs were well funded, addressed a few pressing problems, and led to significant changes in highway design and materials.

New directions

[<dd>]Indispensable as they have been, the federal research programs and related activities face new challenges, and accordingly, adjustments in direction and organization are required. TRB/NRC committees have been reviewing various aspects of the research program for the past ten years, with particular emphasis on the research funds directly managed by FHWA. These committees recently completed three reports that address the federal program and where they believe it should be headed--The Federal Role in Highway Research and Technology (2001), Strategic Highway Research: Saving Lives, Reducing Congestion, Improving Quality of Life (2001), and Surface Transportation Environmental Research: A Long-Term Strategy (2002). (The appendix lists the members of the authorizing committees.) In brief, their recommendations call for the following actions:

1. Refocusing the FHWA’s in-house and contract research programs on topics that reflect a long- term, national perspective. Such a focus would complement the state- and private-sector-funded programs that emphasize shorter-term, highly applied research. It would include fundamental, long-term research. Only research of this type will enable us to understand how the composition of asphalt and concrete at the molecular level affects their performance as highway materials; or to understand better how individuals and households make choices related to travel, and how these decisions interact with other lifestyle choices.

[<dd>]It would include research that fills gaps that other research programs are unable fill--for example, long-term pavement performance studies and large-scale data collection efforts that require a sustained commitment of resources.

[<dd>]And finally, it would include research on emerging issues with national implications. A variety of topics related to federal policy and regulatory responsibilities fit this category, as well as wholly new concerns such as heightened security and counter-terrorism needs.

2. Providing for more substantive stakeholder involvement in setting priorities and allocating resources. There are many stakeholders in the highway system. They include the state and local agencies that own/operate highways, private-sector companies that provide materials and services to these agencies, highway users of all sorts, communities and others affected, directly and indirectly, by the highway system. Stakeholder involvement approaching a sense of ownership is needed to promote the use of new technologies and other innovations, and it is vital in maintaining stakeholder support for the program. Equally important, it is crucial to keeping the program relevant and attuned to changing needs.

[<dd>]Involving stakeholders in FHWA’s in-house and contract research programs can be accomplished in a variety of ways. Formal advisory groups composed of stakeholders can provide strategic guidance, workshops can involve stakeholders in setting topic area priorities, and merit review panels can include stakeholders in the selection of research organizations. FHWA already has many such mechanisms in place, so it is not a question of starting from nothing but rather one of more fully exploiting and augmenting the existing mechanisms.

3. Reemphasizing competition and merit-based evaluation in awarding research contracts. Technical competition and merit review are the best ways to ensure the maximum return on investment in research funding and to guarantee that the door is open for talent and creativity. The share of FHWA’s contract research program awarded on a competitive basis has declined during the current authorization period.

4. Supplementing established programs with a new continuing program that would address the growing list of important topics at the nexus of highways and the environment. Different perspectives and mistrust between highway organizations and environmental organizations often prevent practical solutions to problems as diverse as storm-water runoff and environmental justice. For example, there are competing “facts” and views about the impact of highways on the human and natural environment, the public response to alternative transportation services, the role of highways in creating or enabling low-density development, and the economic impact of highway expansion. Many issues of this sort routinely arise in required environmental impact statements. Available resources for research have not been commensurate with the significance of these problems, and responsibility for finding the resources (e.g., highway agencies, environmental regulatory agencies, other) has not been clear.

[<dd>]This proposed program would involve both highway and environmental groups in the oversight of a new, independently managed research program seeking solutions to problems that ultimately require acceptance by both groups for widespread implementation. The program would incorporate features from existing cooperative research programs such as the Health Effects Institute, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Science to Achieve Results Program, the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, and the Transit Cooperative Research Program.

5. Supplementing established programs with a new Strategic Highway Research Program. Modeled after the Strategic Highway Research Program, this program would sunset after six years. It would sponsor research at an unprecedented scale on four of the most critical problem areas facing motorists and highway agencies.

Accelerating the Renewal of U.S. Highways—Much of our highway system, particularly Interstates and primary arterial highways, must be reconstructed in the coming years; and because we are so dependent on them, they must be reconstructed while remaining open to traffic. Systematic approaches to reconstruction offer opportunities to reduce significantly the time of construction and mitigate the disruption to motorists and adjacent communities. These approaches would include new construction methods and materials, new processes that integrate design and construction planning, new strategies for traffic control and safety, and new procurement methods and specifications. At the same time, opportunities exist through better materials, designs, and maintenance planning to rebuild highways that will last longer and require less frequent maintenance. This research would include not only the development of new methods and approaches but also activities aimed at promoting implementation.

Making a Significant Improvement in Highway Safety—Seat belt laws, occupant restraint devices, tougher limits on alcohol consumption, and a host of other vehicle and roadway safety improvements have significantly reduced fatal crash rates on a per-mile-driven basis. But with more than 40,000 lives lost each year and 3 million injured, highway crashes remain nothing less than a public health crisis. With the “easier” safety measures already largely implemented, further improvements in crash rates will be tougher to achieve; indeed, the growth in travel is already starting to outstrip accident rate reductions and produce net increases in total fatalities annually.

[<dd>]There are many promising new safety measures, such as in-vehicle warning systems or systems that combine detection with automated response (e.g., braking, steering). But these technology-based measures raise many questions that are currently unanswerable. What sorts of information will be of greatest value to drivers and how should it be presented to them so that it can be readily understood and acted upon appropriately? Under what circumstances should vehicle control be relinquished to automated systems? If the vehicles become safer, will drivers adapt and drive faster or in worse conditions, thereby reducing or even eliminating the expected impact on overall safety?

[<dd>]For the longer term, safety experts agree that new, more effective counter-measures cannot be developed without much better information about driver behavior and the specific causes of crashes (e.g., driver actions just before a crash, and vehicle response to driver inputs). Technologies such in-vehicle event data recorders offer new opportunities to collect this information. The task is great and likelihood of success uncertain, but the door is now open as never before to pursue this research.

Providing a Highway System with Reliable Travel Times—Nonrecurring incidents--such as crashes, disabled vehicles, hazmat spills, major athletic events and other special events--account for much of the unpredictability in highway performance. Systematic approaches are needed to identify such incidents quickly, alert drivers who still have an opportunity to avoid the incidents, and then swiftly clear them and/or mitigate their consequences. A combination of new strategies, new technologies, and new relationships between the emergency responders and other public agencies involved is needed. Research in this area would pursue all three and would also include implementation strategies.

Providing Highway Capacity in Support of the Nation’s Economic, Environmental, and Social Goals—The United States will never again build new highways at the pace of the Interstate era. Nonetheless, new roads are being constructed and existing roads are being reconstructed with added lanes. This research would examine new approaches to highway development that better balance environmental, aesthetic, and social considerations with engineering and economic considerations. More specifically, it will develop new tools for designing facilities, assessing impacts, and working with affected users and communities.

[<dd>]Research in all of these problem areas is under way today, but the scale of effort is too low to promise near-term research results that could substantially change practice.

[<dd>]In summary, the federal government has played a critical and indispensable role in sponsoring, sustaining, and guiding highway research in the United States. Today, the needs for innovation are as great as ever, and the need for active and creative federal participation are as great as ever.

[<dd>]In the coming year, as the Congress considers legislation to reauthorize federal surface transportation programs, research—as always—will not be at the top of the agenda. Funding levels, formulas that allocate funds among states, and various program specifics will attract most of the attention and energy of the Congress, its staffs, and the various interest groups. But, it may be that what is done, or not done, to support research will have greater long-term consequences.

[<dd>]Thank you for this opportunity to appear before the Subcommittee on Highways, Transit and Pipelines of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and to discuss reauthorization of transportation research, development, and education programs.

[<dd>]I look forward to answering any questions you may have.[<br>]

******[<br>]

Appendix

TRB Reports and Authorizing Committees Affiliations were current as of the date of report publication

Strategic Highway Research: Saving Lives, Reducing Congestion, and Improving Quality of Life, TRB Special Report 260, 2001

C. Michael Walton, Chair, The University of Texas at Austin

Bradley L. Mallory, Vice Chair, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Harrisburg

Joel D. Anderson, California Trucking Association, West Sacramento

E. Dean Carlson, Kansas Department of Transportation, Topeka

Frank L. Danchetz, Georgia Department of Transportation, Atlanta

Henry E. Dittmar, Great American Station Foundation, Las Vegas, New Mexico

Francis B. Francois, former Executive Director, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, Bowie, Maryland

David R. Gehr, Parsons Brinckerhoff, Inc., Herndon, Virginia

Susan Martinovich, Nevada Department of Transportation, Carson City

Herbert H. Richardson, Texas Transportation Institute Texas A&M University System;

College Station, Texas, (Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Henry G. Schwartz, Jr., Sverdrup Civil, Inc., Maryland Heights, Missouri

Thomas R. Warne, Tom Warne and Associates, South Jordan, Utah

David K. Willis, AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, Washington, DC

The Federal Role in Highway Research and Technology, TRB Special Report 261, 2001

C. Michael Walton, Chair, University of Texas at Austin

Joel D. Anderson, California Trucking Association, West Sacramento

Dwight M. Bower, Idaho Transportation Department, Boise

John E. Breen, University of Texas at Austin

Forrest M. Council, University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, Chapel Hill

Frank L. Danchetz, Georgia Department of Transportation, Atlanta

Reid Ewing, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, and

Surface Transportation Policy Project, Washington, D.C.

Irwin Feller, Pennsylvania State University, University Park

Jack Kay, Transportation Consultant, Orinda, California

Leon S. Kenison, Transportation Consultant, Bow, New Hampshire

Joe P. Mahoney, University of Washington, Seattle

Karen M. Miller, District I Commission for Boone County, Missouri, Columbia

James E. Roberts, California Department of Transportation, Sacramento

Sandra Rosenbloom, University of Arizona, Tucson

Michael M. Ryan, Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, Harrisburg

David Spivey, Asphalt Paving Association of Washington, Inc., Seattle

Dale F. Stein, Michigan Technological University, (emeritus)

David K. Willis, AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, Washington, D.C.

Surface Transportation Environmental Research: A Long-Term Strategy,

TRB Special Report 268, 2002

Elizabeth Deakin, Chair, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, California

F. Kaid Benfield, Natural Resources Defense Council, Washington, D.C.

Kenneth J. Button, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia

Judith M. Espinosa, The Alliance for Transportation Research, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Richard T. T. Forman, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Fred Hansen, Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon, Portland, Oregon

Edwin E. Herricks, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, Illinois

Wayne W. Kober, Wayne W. Kober, Inc., Dillsburg, Pennsylvania

Alan J. Krupnick, Resources for the Future, Washington, D.C.

Martin Lee-Gosselin, Laval University, Quebec, Canada

Ysela Llort, Florida Department of Transportation, Tallahassee, Florida

C. Ian MacGillivray, Iowa Department of Transportation, Ames, Iowa

Jane T. Nishida, Maryland Department of the Environment, Baltimore, Maryland

John P. Poorman, Capital District Transportation Committee, Albany, New York

Catherine L. Ross, Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, Atlanta, Georgia

Daniel Sperling, University of California at Davis

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