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Public Roads - Jan/Feb 2008

Jan/Feb 2008
Issue No:
Vol. 71 No. 4
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

Leap, Not Creep

by Kathleen A. Bergeron

Delivery and deployment of vanguard technologies promise to lead the way to faster, safer, better highway construction.

(Above) An early prefabricated bridge project was the George P. Coleman Bridge, which carries Route 17 over the York River in Yorktown, VA. Here, barges float the last truss span into place. Prefabricated bridge elements are one of many vanguard technologies FHWA is promoting to State and local highway agencies.

In June 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the law that brought about the interstate system, one of the largest manmade structures in history. In 2006, the highway community and Americans everywhere celebrated the golden anniversary of this staggering engineering achievement. But many parts of this system of concrete, asphalt, and steel are now a half century old and beginning to show their age.

In August 2005, President George W. Bush signed into law the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU). Among a number of other actions, the new law established a pilot program, Highways for LIFE (HfL), to promote innovations and new technologies for building highways faster, safer, of better quality, and in a way that minimizes congestion—in short, to breathe new life into the interstate system and other parts of the National Highway System.

Now, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is advancing the HfL program, highlighting and deploying vanguard technologies to cut through the unfamiliarity, inertia, and other factors delaying adoption of leading-edge practices. FHWA established dedicated teams with dedicated funding to market innovations to State and local transportation stakeholders. The way the Nation's highways are built and maintained could evolve significantly.

Need Is There, But Not the Money

From the day President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, many of the pavements on the interstates were built for 20- to 25-year lifespans. The designs of the day anticipated conditions that were much less demanding than today's reality. Trucks are carrying heavier loads, and the sheer volume of traffic using the system is several times greater than anticipated. As a result, the system needs a makeover.

However, two cold facts stare that need in the face. First, funding for a nationwide construction effort is not there. Bringing the transportation system (including highways) up to par would take some $50 billion in additional funding, according to a 2003 estimate by the American Public Works Association. Not only is that amount not available, but projections anticipate less, not more, funding in the future, based on current financing systems. The traditional approach of taxing gasoline on a per-gallon basis at the pump is less effective today than it used to be. In the past, when vehicles averaged 4.3 kilometers per liter (10 miles per gallon), a motorist could drive 161 kilometers (100 miles) on 38 liters (10 gallons) of gasoline. At a tax rate of 5 cents per gallon, that trip would generate 50 cents in taxes. Today, with vehicles getting 12.8 kilometers per liter (30 miles per gallon), that same 161-kilometer (100-mile) trip would generate only 17 cents. Vehicles powered by alternative fuels such as electricity are cutting that amount even more. Further, with gasoline prices near $3 per gallon, legislators are wary of proposing increases in fuel taxes, which have been the core of highway funding. That means just maintaining current spending levels will be a challenge.

Second, such a massive construction effort would have an enormous impact on the National Highway System, including countless work zones delaying commuters, freight haulers, and other travelers. Further, the potential for injuries to both workers and highway users would increase with the proliferation of new work zones. And the public already is showing signs of work zone fatigue. FHWA's most recent national driver survey revealed that the public's feelings about new highways have changed since the early days of the interstate program. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when the interstate system was young, people clamored to have a section of the system built near their communities. The promise of being able to drive coast to coast without a stoplight was a strong draw.

Today, with highways experiencing problems with available capacity, the public equates new construction anywhere on the system with increased congestion, not less. According to Moving Ahead: The American Public Speaks on Roadways and Transportation in Communities, a 2001 report on findings from three national surveys performed by FHWA the year before, "A small but growing segment of the traveling public is dissatisfied with major highways. Both travel delays, which are due to traffic congestion and roadwork, and pavement conditions may contribute to this growing dissatisfaction...Work zones are especially critical as travelers view road repairs as a major reason for traffic delays."

The highway community is aware of motorists' perceptions. The logic follows that a way of building highways and bridges needs to be developed so that the impact on drivers is minimized, such as building them faster, in off hours, or away from the traveling public.

Bridges such as this one can be built in off hours or away from the roadway to reduce drivers' growing frustration with work zones and congestion.

Another approach is to build highways to last longer and thus extend the interlude between one construction fix and the next. Safety is an ongoing concern for the public and the highway community; therefore, each construction project should incorporate the latest safety innovations as a matter of practice. Simply replicating a bridge or section of highway built decades ago might not be the best solution given current conditions. As in the past, cost is still a consideration. So the highway community needs a solution that incorporates all of these: roads built faster, safer, of better quality, and in a way that minimizes congestion—and at lower cost. All require one thing: innovation.

Lesson From the Past

Highway agencies have seen the benefits of innovations from their earliest days. In a 1999 article in The New Yorker magazine, Malcolm Gladwell, author of the book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, described the importance of the King Road Drag, a device that, at the turn of the last century, was used to smooth the ruts out of muddy rural roads. Smooth roadways provided access for the United States Postal Service®, which in turn brought the Sears, Roebuck and Co.TM catalog to people who had been isolated from much that the commercial world had to offer, from washing machines to the latest styles in clothing.

Thus, a small device for road grading created dramatic socioeconomic change in rural America. Wrote Gladwell: "Here was the dawn of the modern consumer economy...The [catalog], as economists have argued, represented a radical transformation in the marketing and distribution of consumer goods. But, of course, that transformation would not have been possible unless you had parcel post, and you couldn't have had parcel post unless you had rural free delivery, and you could not have had rural free delivery without good roads, and you would not have had good roads without D. Ward King [inventor of the drag]."

Barriers to Implementation

Today, highway research on technological advances is big business. The Federal Government itself spends a half billion dollars each year on highway research. These expenditures include work conducted at FHWA's Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center (TFHRC), research by consultants and contractors, and scanning tours to other countries to identify innovations that might be used in the United States.

Hundreds of devices—from D. Ward King's King Road Drag, a device to smooth the ruts out of muddy rural roads, to the latest laser-guided paving machines—have been developed and put into use over the past century. But how long does it take for an innovation to move from the laboratory to state of the art to state of the practice? Experience shows the journey can take not months or years, but decades.

Work zones like this one on a city street are a leading cause of traffic congestion on streets and highways, and are a target of FHWA's new initiative, HfL's vanguard technologies.

A good example is FHWA's experience implementing SuperpaveTM technology, which produces ideal asphalt pavements using "recipes" individualized for the particular climate requirements of an area. The effort to implement Superpave began in 1992; 12 years later, the 50th State adopted the approach, finally completing implementation.

The implementation process can take a long time for a number of reasons. One might be the familiar refrain: "That's the way it's always been done." Processes become locked into standard operating procedures until someone realizes there is a better way and breaks the mold. Reasons vary as to why the highway community historically has not been quick to adopt innovations. One is limited staffing and funding for technology transfer and for delivering information and training on innovations and technologies to potential users.

Several years ago, a contractor responsible for delivering hot-mix asphalt to a highway site wondered how he could reduce the delivery time. Then one night, while watching television, he saw a commercial for a pizza company that promised delivery in 30 minutes. The next morning, he called the company to find out how it made deliveries so fast. If the drivers could deliver pizzas within 30 minutes, he should be able to learn something from the restaurant chain about how to schedule drivers and plan routes. Specifically, the contractor learned where to get better maps and then hired college students to pencil in street numbers on the maps to speed delivery. The lesson here is that sometimes new and better approaches can come from someone with a totally different perspective.

The process of putting innovations into use costs money. Marketers know that persuading consumers to change their buying habits and try an innovative product is an extensive, costly process. So it is with the highway community. Suppose that a new design concept for a specific bridge is needed. At least two people need to be provided with knowledge: the State department of transportation (DOT) construction program manager, who will possibly need a cost-benefit analysis for selecting the new design; and a bridge engineer, who will want to see the concept in operation, on a real bridge built with the technique. Both will need training, the former in contracting for quality specifications for the new design and the latter on implementing the design onsite. There will be conferences, one-on-one discussions, and success stories in trade publications. Communications tools such as brochures, videos, and Web sites illustrating the benefits of the process could be helpful. All of that costs time and money.

Corporate Marketing Practices

One might well ask: Given the billions of dollars spent on highway research, how much money is dedicated specifically to getting innovations into everyday use by the various highway agencies, construction contractors, and consultants as they build and maintain America's highway infrastructure?

Major corporations likewise spend enormous sums on research and development (R&D) to come up with innovative products and services. But they also spend large sums persuading customers to buy those products and services, with a typical marketing budget being between 5 and 12 percent of gross revenues or corporate income. In many cases, those funds are expended through market research, product branding, and other targeted channels, including one-on-one sales, distribution and supply channels, or mass marketing techniques such as advertising or direct mail.

Just how high those costs can run is exemplified in the annual competition for attention via commercials on Super Bowl Sunday. The 2007 game set a new record at $2.6 million in advertising purchase costs for every time an advertisement aired for 30 seconds. The reason Super Bowl advertising costs are so high is that they promise one of the largest and most diverse audiences in the world.

Obviously, a large percentage of the budgets for making automobiles, breakfast cereals, laundry detergents, and other common goods is spent on marketing the product. But does that hold true in more research-intensive areas?

Perhaps the industry most noted for its R&D activities is computer technology and related hardware and software. Microsoft® might be the ultimate example in that industry. In its annual report for 2003, Microsoft noted that it spent $4.66 billion on R&D, but significantly more—$6.52 billion—on sales and marketing.

The four people shown conferring here are members of a road safety audit (RSA) team. RSAs are an innovative approach to improving safety that FHWA is successfully marketing to State DOTs.

Clearly, corporate leaders understand that it makes little sense to spend billions of dollars developing a product if the buying public is not going to be made aware of it, adopt it, and use it. But the question remains: How much is spent on deploying highway innovations? The answer is: We don't know. Historically, deployment has not received the same recognition as R&D. That is where HfL comes into play.

Highways for LIFE

The HfL program came about after extensive market research by FHWA and passage of SAFETEA-LU. But what really got it started was publication of a special issue of Public Roads magazine in 2002.

Then-Deputy Secretary of Transportation Michael P. Jackson saw the July/August 2002 issue of Public Roads, which was dedicated to innovations in the use of concrete. The cover showed construction workers installing prefabricated concrete pavement slabs on the Tappan Zee Bridge toll plaza in Westchester County, NY, much as brick layers or tile workers might place flooring in a building or patio. Inside the issue were other innovations, from prefabricated bridges to self-consolidating concrete.

Jackson called the FHWA administrator and set up a meeting with engineering staff at TFHRC. The meeting was to be a simple 30-minute presentation, but it lasted 2 hours. At the end, Jackson told the group that he was impressed and that he saw the need to move innovations to implementation quickly as key to obtaining the highway system the Nation needed. He instructed the attendees to craft a plan for promoting such innovations. "Be bold and audacious in your thinking," he said.

The group looked at several approaches but wanted to solicit input from others in the highway community. In addition to numerous telephone calls, the group obtained input from representatives of State DOTs, trade associations, construction contractors, manufacturers, consulting engineers, and the driving public. Several sessions were attended by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation and the administrators of FHWA and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Even in those early discussions, support was overwhelming for concepts that later would appear in HfL.

The Key to LIFE: Innovation

According to FHWA, the HfL program got its name from its purpose: "to advance Longer-lasting highway infrastructure using Innovations to accomplish the Fast construction of Efficient and safe highways and bridges." Innovation is a broad term that applies to all of the following: technologies, materials, tools, equipment, procedures and processes, specifications, methodologies, and practices used in the financing, design, or construction of highways.

A recent success story from Florida captures many of those elements. In 2006, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) used prefabricated bridge elements and self-propelled modular transporters (SPMTs) to cut months off construction of the new Graves Avenue bridge in Volusia County. SPMTs are multiaxle, computer-controlled vehicles that can move in any horizontal direction while maintaining payload geometry and equal axle loads. In Florida, the SPMTs lifted the entire span of the old Graves Avenue bridge and moved it to the I-4 roadside—in just 22 minutes.

FDOT workers here use an SPMT to replace the span of the Graves Avenue bridge. FHWA will help promote such vanguard technologies through additional demonstrations.
FDOT workers here use an SPMT to replace the span of the Graves Avenue bridge. FHWA will help promote such vanguard technologies through additional demonstrations.

Two new concrete bridge spans then were built alongside I-4. After they were complete, they were installed over the highway using the SPMTs, reducing the need for road closures and disruptions to traffic. The first 43-meter (143-foot) span was installed over the westbound lanes of I-4 on June 4, with the second span installed over the eastbound lanes on June 10. The project marked the first time the SPMT technique was used in the United States to replace a bridge over an interstate highway.

"This accelerated construction technique allowed us to build the bridge's substructure and superstructure at the same time," says Amy Scales, resident engineer for FDOT's District 5. "We saved about 4 months over the course of this bridge project, greatly reducing the impact to drivers."

Instead of the weeks or months of lane closures and rolling roadblocks involved in traditional bridge building, FDOT detoured I-4 traffic for only 2 weekend nights and used roadblocks overnight on 2 nonconsecutive nights. The new bridge opened to traffic on August 7, 2006.

FDOT and FHWA hosted a delegation of about 100 transportation officials from across the United States and Canada at a June 9-11 conference in nearby DeLand, FL. Participants learned about the use of SPMTs for bridge construction and watched as the final span of the Graves Avenue bridge was installed.

Although initial costs of such projects can be higher, this can be offset by the reduced construction time and subsequent savings on personnel and traffic maintenance costs, as well as reductions in user costs. FDOT estimates that using the SPMTs cost an additional $560,000, but the shorter construction schedule resulted in $3 million in user savings.

"The project went well, and we would use SPMTs again," says Scales. "The technology is not for every project, but depending on the roadway, it can be worth it to speed up construction and get drivers back on the road sooner."

The HfL program, for example, includes provisions for studying how innovations currently are deployed and for finding ways of implementing them faster nationwide. Or, as FHWA Administrator J. Richard Capka calls it, moving to an approach that deploys innovations at the pace of a "leap, not creep." Faster implementation includes such steps as creating teams and plans for deploying specific technologies and then carrying those plans out; providing funding for State DOT projects that employ innovations; and working with private industry to develop nonhighway innovations for highway application.

Vanguard Technologies

When HfL leaders proposed faster deployment of highway innovations, they created three prototype teams to deploy vanguard technologies. The term "vanguard" was used because it represents the leading edge of a new approach. The specific technologies and practices the teams are promoting are prefabricated bridge elements and systems, road safety audits (RSAs), and techniques related to "making work zones work better."

Prefabricated bridge elements are manufactured away from or adjacent to the work zone and transferred to the construction site for installation. The prefabricated elements offer a variety of benefits, including faster implementation or construction cycles, decreased traffic disruption, improved work zone safety, greater durability, and, sometimes, lower construction costs. With RSAs, independent, multidisciplinary teams examine existing or future roadway sections to identify safety issues and opportunities for improvement. The concept of making work zones work better encompasses a suite of approaches that improve traffic flow and safety.

These innovations are dramatic changes in how highways are built, but the key for the HfL program is the process for deploying the technologies. HfL's purpose is not to develop new technologies; instead, it encourages adoption of high-payoff innovations that are available already but used infrequently.

What makes the vanguard approach different is that it is more aggressive than past deployment efforts. Rather than simply making a technology available, the teams develop marketing plans, create communications tools, and conduct activities such as one-on-one meetings, workshops, and product demonstrations for potential users. In addition, a guidebook on how to create a marketing plan for innovations was created and will be available through the "Highways for LIFE" Web site at

Team members make deployment a job priority rather than a back-burner task they work on when time allows. They have funding for key elements such as training courses, manuals, and peer-to-peer programs.

Because of the high visibility of the teams in their respective disciplines, opportunities to partner with other groups have emerged. For example, the Technology Implementation Group within the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials is working with FHWA's RSA team, creating a synergy that promises even greater acceleration of deployment.

How successful has this approach been? The RSA effort, as an example, has generated results in dozens of States from Hawaii to New Hampshire in less than 3 years. The Arizona Department of Transportation, considered early on to be an "opportunity State," now has become the first State DOT to name a full-time RSA coordinator. The audit concept now is championed by local government agencies, law enforcement agencies, and a State attorney general's office. Other stakeholders, including the State Farm Insurance® company and American Automobile Association, are partnering with States and local communities to improve safety.

Likewise, prefabricated bridge elements and systems are being used across the country, with more States becoming involved all the time. Several product demonstrations have brought States' chief bridge engineers to construction sites to see how effective the technology can be, and many declare the approach to be something they definitely want to pursue. The work zone improvement effort is building a network of supporters as well, including a peer-to-peer program.

Now, another vanguard technology is being added. The new entry is prefabricated pavement slabs, the same technology featured on the cover of the issue of Public Roads magazine that started the HfL effort. This effort will be used as a training guide for others within FHWA, at State DOTs, and elsewhere in the highway community to learn the approach, with the first three technologies added as examples.

Ultimately, the goal of the HfL program is to dramatically improve the driving experience for Americans. Through rapid deployment of innovations, those improvements can be achieved sooner rather than later.

Future motorists may leave traffic congestion behind them if the vanguard technologies successfully spur adoption of other transportation innovations.


Kathleen A. Bergeron is a marketing specialist with FHWA in Washington, DC, and works primarily on the HfL program. Prior to joining FHWA, she managed communications and marketing programs for consulting engineering firms and transportation agencies at the State and local levels. She has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin and a master's degree in transportation management from San José State University.

For more information, contact Kathleen Bergeron at 202-366-5508 or