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Public Roads - January/February 2002

A Report of The National Highway R&T Partnership Initiative

by Jason McConachy and Robert E. Spicher

In the May/June 2000 issue of Public Roads, an article "The Partnership Initiative - A Unified Agenda for Highway Research and Technology" reported on the first steps in an activity that began in late 1999. This article presents an update on the partnership; material in it is taken in part from the draft synthesis report produced by the Partnership Initiative. The final synthesis report is expected to be published in the spring of 2002.


Progress does not just happen - it comes from innovation, and innovation results from research and technology (R&T). The U.S. highway system is the envy of the world, and R&T has played a critical role.

The phrase "we need more research" has been fully embraced by the highway research community, and it can be found on the final page of almost every research report. The phrase has added significance in that it represents the principal finding of this initiative.

It is important for the reader to understand at the outset that this was not still another call only from researchers for more research. This time, the call comes from a broad representation of the highway community - the owners and operators of the highways; numerous highway-related industries; and, yes, researchers. The results of this initiative came through the efforts of hundreds of individuals from more than 160 organizations; input was invited from anyone who wished to participate. This effort was unprecedented in terms of scope and outreach.


The National Highway R&T Partnership was created by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), the Transportation Research Board (TRB), and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to engage the full highway transportation community in assessing the needs of highway R&T. Open to all who were interested, the partnership sought to develop a new framework for coordinating highway R&T activities among research sponsors, practitioners, researchers, and other stakeholders in highway transportation. The framework will supplement existing mechanisms for managing research, providing opportunities for collaboration between researchers and practitioners, and disseminating research findings.

The framework has four goals:

1. To make R&T investments more effective and efficient through broad-based stakeholder involvement and greater interaction among different research programs and program sponsors.

2. To foster a better awareness and appreciation of existing research programs. A sense of ownership that extends beyond the research sponsors.

3. To stimulate the formation of productive R&T partnerships that could include jointly funded projects — closely coordinated projects funded by different sponsors, research consortia, and joint public-private initiatives.

4. To help demonstrate needs and opportunities for research and the potential pay-off from research investments, and thereby to help expand the constituencies for highway R&T.


Hundreds of people representing more than 160 organizations volunteered their time to participate in the National Highway R&T Partnership. Each partnership-related meeting was open to the public, and input was sought via meetings, Web boards, or other avenues for feedback from anyone who desired to contribute.

Working groups were created in the five following areas: safety, operations and mobility, infrastructure renewal, planning and environment, and policy analysis and system monitoring. Working group chairs were drawn from a wide range of backgrounds and disciplines that included state departments of transportation (DOTs), research centers, and universities.

The chairs for the working groups were:

  • Safety — Thomas E. Bryer, Pennsylvania DOT, and Leanna Depue, Central Missouri State University, Missouri Safety Center.
  • Operations and Mobility — Philip J. Tarnoff, University of Maryland, and Dennis L. Christiansen, Texas Transportation Institute.
  • Infrastructure Renewal — Francis B. Francois, transportation consultant.
  • Planning and Environment — Elizabeth A. Deakin, University of California at Berkeley.
  • Policy Analysis, Planning, and System Monitoring — Alan E. Pisarski, consultant, and Mary Lynn Tischer, Arizona DOT.

Staff from key federal agencies such as FHWA, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) — and AASHTO committee representatives and representatives of about 150 other organizations participated in the working groups. The majority of the work of the partnership was accomplished in these working groups. The working groups were asked to:

  • Identify major issues in its areas of interest.
  • Review existing R&T programs, including FHWA, AASHTO/NCHRP (National Cooperative Highway Research Program), state DOTs, and others being conducted in its area of interest.
  • Assess the coverage in relation to the current issues and identify gaps and areas of overlap.
  • Determine priority research areas.
  • Develop marketing information on the benefits to result from research expenditures.
  • Facilitate partnerships and coordination to carry out the needed research.

The full Partnership Forum was convened three times: December 1998, July 1999, and August 2001. From the fall of 1999 to December 2000, each working group solicited participation from interested parties, and each held one to three meeting to obtain input. Each group made periodic presentations to TRB's Research and Technology Coordinating Committee (RTCC) and AASHTO's Standing Committee on Research (SCOR) and the Research Advisory Committee (RAC).

SCOR was a key participant in this process. Periodic briefings were provided to the full committee, and liaisons from the full committee continuously coordinated with the working groups.

Using the established criteria, the working groups were asked to develop major research themes within their specific areas. By identifying major themes, each working group was able to focus on the big-picture needs of highway R&T in their topic area.

Each working group compiled a report detailing their findings. These reports are on the TRB R&T Partnership Forum Web site (

The content of each report was significant enough to warrant the preparation of a synthesis report that would summarize the findings of each working group and would present the needs for increased investment in highway research. The first draft of the synthesis report was released at the third meeting of the National R&T Partnership Forum held Aug. 14, 2001, in Washington, D.C. (This draft did not include the planning and environment working group report because it is being prepared in accordance with the timetable of Surface Transportation-Environment Cooperative Research Program.) The draft is available on the TRB Web site.

All of the working groups with the exception of planning and environment were assembled to work primarily on the partnership R&T agenda. The planning and environment working group had a broader charter. In addition to contributing to the Partnership Initiative, this working group fulfills the requirement of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) that directs the secretary of transportation to "establish and carry out a surface transportation-environment cooperative research program [STECRP]."

While this working group does not serve the partnership exclusively, the spirit of the partnership and the desire for broad-based stakeholder participation was not compromised. STECRP held several open meetings inviting anyone who was interested to participate in defining a planning and environment R&T agenda. STECRP's timetable calls for its report to be completed by the end of 2001.

At the forum meeting in August, feedback on the draft synthesis report was received from the working group chairs, representatives from the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), ITS America, the American Automobile Association (AAA), Pennsylvania DOT (PennDOT), and the American Metropolitan Planning Organization (AMPO), and other forum participants.

Overall reception to the synthesis was positive and enthusiastic. The diverse nature of the working groups' recommendations truly reflected the wide range of technical disciplines represented in the report. The final synthesis report will be published in early 2002 and will include all five topic areas.


Each working group looked at challenges being faced by the highway community and recommended what was needed to meet those challenges. The draft synthesis report offers potential solutions and benefits in the form of R&T themes and emphasis areas. The level of financial investment needed in each area is also suggested.

Inadequate funding for highway R&T is a major challenge. The national R&T needs identified by the partnership's working groups total more than $500 million per year, and this is only part of the picture. This total does not include environmental R&T needs (which will be added from STECRP) and also does not fully account for some R&T areas, such as maintenance, geometric design, implementation, and technology transfer. The figure for current expenditures for national highway R&T (also excluding implementation and technology transfer) is difficult to determine because of the number of sponsors, the combination of R&T with implementation and technology transfer in some programs, and the distinction between national vs. state and local R&T. Nonetheless, it appears that the current funding level for R&T would cover less than one-half of the needs already identified by the partnership.


It is not anticipated that a new program will be created to carry out the partnership agenda. Instead, existing highway R&T programs, such as the R&T programs of FHWA, NHTSA, and NCHRP, are expected to use the synthesis report when developing their research plans and strategies. It is expected that the Partnership Initiative will influence the broad range of transportation research entities, including State DOTs, academia, and the private sector. It will also play a very valuable role in the process, already underway, to develop a highway "reauthorization" funding bill.

Cross-Cutting Themes

Although each working group had been assigned a specific area, it was clear that some potential overlap existed. Rather than limit the ability of the working groups to fully explore appropriate themes, it was decided that the overlapping issues should be considered by each working group. Therefore, many or all of the working groups touched on issues related to highway safety, environment, planning, information and data, performance measures, and work force training.

What's Next

It is clear that conducting a comprehensive R&T program within a decentralized community requires coordination and partnership. The first step is to involve the broad community in the initial determination of needs. To that end, the National Highway R&T Partnership involved an unprecedented number of individuals and organizations. The R&T themes that were identified by the working groups represent the perspectives of many key players within the highway community. As a result, research sponsors have the assurance that although the findings were not developed in a rigorous consensus-building process, they are relevant to the current challenges faced by practitioners.

One product of the work accomplished by the partnership will be a completed synthesis of the working group reports. The completed synthesis report will also help transportation decision-makers make a case for greater investment in highway R&T. The detail and suggestions within the synthesis report will provide guidance to the transportation community on how to proceed in further developing the highway research program.

This report will be an important tool for key stakeholders in federal agencies, state DOTs, AASHTO, industry organizations, and universities as they determine and implement their highway research priorities. Also, the report will help the transportation community evaluate what is needed in the new legislation that will supercede TEA-21 in 2003. Bringing transportation stakeholders together allows the community as a whole to consider what is necessary to ensure a bright future for the nation's highways.

Ultimately, this report should speak directly to Congress and state legislatures as they determine funding for highway research and transportation programs.

However, the success of the partnership will not measured by the effects of the report alone. The benefits of new partnerships formed and of the dialogues on highway R&T needs that have begun will continue to enhance R&T coordination and collaboration in the future.

The National Highway R&T Partnership will be addressed in a session at TRB's 81st Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., Jan. 13 to 17, 2002.

In addition, based on the input received, AASHTO, TRB, and FHWA determined that the partnership should continue. The existing working group reports will be periodically updated, and other modes and issues will be addressed as interests and resources dictate.

Jason McConachy is a program analyst in FHWA's Office of Program Development and Evaluation at the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center in McLean, Va. He is a graduate student of public policy at American University and is expected to complete the requirements for his master's degree in June 2002. He is a participant in the Student Career Experience Program, which is designed to provide career-related experiences to students. He has a bachelor's degree in political science and history from Eastern College in St. Davids, Pa.

Robert E. Spicher formerly served as director of the Technical Activities Division of TRB. As director, he was responsible for overseeing the annual meeting and committee structure as well as conferences and workshops. In this role, he participated in the development of the National R&T Forum. He retired after 25 years of service with TRB, but he served as a consultant to TRB to draft the final report of the forum. He has a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from Drexel University. and certificate in transportation from Yale University. He is a registered professional engineer in Maryland.

For more information about the National Highway R&T Partnership, visit the TRB R&T Partnership Forum Web site ( to review individual working group reports and the draft synthesis report, Highway Research and Technology — A Report to the National Highway R&T Partnership.

R&T Themes

The themes identified by each working group were intended to identify broad areas of R&T, not specific projects. The themes/emphasis areas, by working group, are:


  • Safety Management and Data Systems.
  • Driver Competency.
  • High-Risk Driving.
  • Light-Duty Vehicle Safety.
  • Highway Infrastructure and Operations.
  • Vulnerable Road Users.
  • Heavy Truck and Bus Safety.
  • Post-Crash Management.

Infrastructure Renewal

  • Asset Management.
  • Information Management.
  • Decision Support Tools.
  • Implementation.
  • Education
  • Pavements.
  • Designs and Materials.
  • Construction and Maintenance Techniques and Technologies.
  • Safer, Environmentally Friendly Pavements.
  • Education, Communication, and Job Training.
  • Promotion and Delivery of Innovation.
  • Highway Structures.
  • Enhanced Materials, Structural Systems, and Technologies.
  • Efficient Maintenance, Rehabilitation, and Construction.
  • Safety Assurance of Highway Structures for Extreme Events.
  • Assessment and Management of Bridges and Other Structures.
  • Enhanced Specifications for Improved Structural Performance.
  • Information and Automation for Structures Design, Construction, and Maintenance.

Operations and Mobility

  • Customers, Customer Expectations, and Customer Needs.
  • Maximizing Efficiency and Minimizing Congestion.
  • Information Needs and Requirements.
  • Transportation Safety.
  • Environmental Issues.
  • Intermodal Interfaces and Efficiencies.
  • Research Programs and Processes.

Policy Analysis and Systems Monitoring

  • Improving Understanding of the Interactions Between Transportation and Society.
  • Enhancing Data-Driven Decision-Making Tools.
  • Improving Monitoring of Evolving Trends (Data, Analytical Tools, and Systems Monitoring).
  • Advancing Multimodal Transportation Planning.