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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - January/February 2011

January/February 2011
Issue No:
Vol. 74 No. 4
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

Pooling Talent and Technologies

by Steve Albert and O. A. Elrahman

How University Transportation Centers are improving transportation through innovative partnerships, creating a win-win for government, universities, industry -- and motorists.

A city transportation maintenance engineer is giving a hands-on demonstration of new signal coordination equipment to undergraduates who are enrolled in a course at Montana State University's University Transportation Center. UTCs-partnerships of universities, government, and industry-are helping educate the next generation of engineering professionals.

The 21st century brings old and new challenges to transportation users, practitioners, and researchers. In addition to persisting problems of congestion, mobility, safety, security, air quality, and environmental preservation, the transportation community is grappling with a renewed set of problems -- "old wine in new bottles." The global recession, intensified global competition, and the need to maintain the Nation's competitive edge -- in short, the old wine of economic issues -- are compelling transportation practitioners to focus more closely on revitalizing the U.S. transportation infrastructure. The transportation system has been, and continues to be, a vital and tried-and-tested engine of economic vitality.

Added to these challenges, moreover, are persistent concerns over the availability of a sufficient pool of technical expertise in the transportation field. Two ITE Journal articles (M.E. Lipinski and E.M. Wilson's "Undergraduate Transportation Education -- Who Is Responsible?" and J.M. Mason Jr.'s "Transportation Education and Workforce Development") point out a decrease in undergraduate hours devoted to transportation-related courses. One result is insufficient transfer of transportation planning and engineering knowledge and skills. For more on this issue, see Chen-Fu Liao, Henry X. Liu, and David M. Levinson's 2009 article on engaging undergraduates in transportation studies, published in the journal of the Transportation Research Board.

The fast pace of change in information technologies used in the transportation field mandates a new paradigm in teaching and learning. But transportation has been slow to keep up with changes in communications technologies. Persistence in traditional pedagogies exacerbates the danger of losing student interest and motivation, and thus the risk of eroding the transportation community's ability to recruit and retain the best and brightest.

On another level, the changing pace of technological innovations and the intensification of transportation challenges demand a more integrated, cross-sector approach. To meet all these needs, partnerships of government, universities, and the private industry need to play a significant role in creating new, market-ready transportation technologies, while passing the knowledge to the next generation of professionals. The University Transportation Center (UTC) is a model of government-university-industry collaboration that strives to bring stakeholders together, leverage resources, and ensure prompt application of evidence-based best practices.

"Because UTC partnerships bring together a broad range of transportation stakeholders, they are in a natural position to lay the foundation for long-term advances," says Joseph S. Toole, associate administrator of the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) Office of Safety. "One example is providing guidance in developing roadmaps for the future by identifying critical emerging issues, serving as leaders for stakeholder outreach, and facilitating issue prioritization for sound transportation planning and infrastructure investment."

History of the UTC Model

Individual transportation centers at major universities have been actively conducting research for as long as 50 years, having been established after World War II with public funding to nurture the highway con-struction boom. But in 1974, with research funding on the decline, a group of university leaders initiated a grassroots effort aimed at produc-ing highly qualified professionals, enhancing technology transfer, and strengthening research at the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT). In 1977, five university centers established an unofficial organization called the Council of University Transportation Research Centers, which eventually was incorporated in 1982. Membership in the council increased from the 5 founding university centers to 43 members by 1992.

This map shows the national and regional UTCs. Their role is to advance transportation research on critical national transportation issues and to expand the workforce of transportation professionals. Tier 1 UTCs include 10 competitively selected centers that receive $1 million per year in Federal funds, while Tier 2 designates 22 centers that receive $500,000. Title 3 UTCs are authorized under a separate Federal law that designates 8 additional centers with individualized authorization amounts.

The founders' vision of a formal university-government partnership was fully realized in 1987 with passage of the Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act, which funded 10 federally designated UTCs -- one in each of the FHWA regions that existed at that time. Today, the UTC system has grown to include 59 centers involving 125 universities in 41 States. USDOT provides the primary funding, with the centers adding a 1:1 match through partnerships with State departments of transportation (DOTs), universities, private industries, foundations, and other research entities.


Strengths of the UTCs

The fundamental strength of the UTC model is that the centers can pool -- and leverage -- the specialized resources of diverse partners to their mutual benefit. All of the partners have an incentive to promote transportation advances and education: Private industry wants to develop new products and business, universities want to conduct cutting-edge research and offer relevant programs for their students, and the State DOTs and USDOT want solutions to current and projected operational and infrastructure challenges. All partners have an interest in up-to-date knowledge transfer for the transportation workforce's next generation.

Each partner brings valuable resources to research and educational efforts. Private industry offers technical knowledge and specialized facilities, universities provide research expertise and a pool of potential future employees, DOTs offer real-world test beds for model deployments, and USDOT provides funding and national exposure.

UTCs serve as a point of convergence where partners can combine and integrate their strengths by working together to generate and test new research findings, to spread the knowledge so it can be implemented quickly and broadly, and to incorporate it into programs for educational and professional development. In addition, UTCs offer a formalized structure and administrative and leadership practices that promote success. Among those management practices are the following:

  • Identification and inclusion of all key stakeholders
  • Clearly articulated goals and formalized groundrules for interaction, articulated in formal agreements
  • Strong coordination and communication networks among the partners
  • Champions in each partner agency to advocate for specific research
  • An inclusive, participatory decisionmaking process
  • Agreement on initial and long-term funding issues
  • Distribution of benefits among partners

These strengths are common to all centers, but the UTC system is enhanced by individual centers focusing on themes that enable them to develop specialized expertise on particular issues. A theme might reflect transportation challenges specific to the region where the UTC is located or special needs identified by area stakeholders. Examples include sustainable transportation, multimodal freight movement, rural transportation, advanced technologies and information systems, transportation in cold regions, and advanced materials and infrastructure design.

This aerial photograph shows the Texas Transportation Institute's Proving Grounds Research Facility at Texas A"M University. The facility enables UTC researchers to conduct field studies related to safety and structural systems, traffic engineering, human factors, and the environment.

Solutions to Current Challenges

The breadth and depth of UTC assets enable the partnerships to develop projects that leverage limited or scattered resources and put new ideas into practice in the real world. The following are three examples of how UTCs are facilitating and expediting progress through creative collaboration.

Comparison of animal detection systems. By partnering with the private sector to test new ideas and technologies, UTCs can match a highly trained researcher at a university with a new product under development at a private company for testing that furthers the interests of both parties. For example, in partnership with FHWA and the Montana Department of Transportation, the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University conducted concurrent tests in 2007 to evaluate the reliability of nine animal detection systems from five partners: Xtralis, STS, Calonder Energy, Camrix, and Goodson. Researchers installed the animal detection systems at the same site under similar circumstances. This project produced data that helped DOTs compare the effectiveness of similar systems prior to deployment and helped the manufacturers set minimum standards for system reliability.

Emerging technologies survey. State and regional DOTs identify operational challenges at specific roadway locations that offer ideal opportunities for product development of emerging technologies that would benefit from field testing. For example, in 2008, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute conducted a comprehensive assessment of 46 promising technologies that are likely to affect transportation performance in the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council region. The product development included testing of such technologies as those that target congestion reduction and management, global positioning systems, personal travel assistance, and adaptive ramp metering.

These researchers at the Western Transportation Institute at Montana State University are installing strain and temperature instrumentation on a bridge deck before concrete is poured. These sensors will enable researchers to monitor, measure, and compare the long-term performance of three types of concrete bridge decks to help DOTs choose costeffective design options.

Intersection decision support. USDOT sets national policy goals, such as highway safety or environmental stewardship, but needs to collaborate with organizations that have the technical expertise to pilot-test specific concepts or implement particular programs. In 2007, USDOT selected the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Institute to participate in USDOT's Cooperative Intersection Collision Avoidance Systems research. Participation in the initiative led to Minnesota's Stop Sign Assist research, which explored wireless communication mechanisms that would send warnings to individual drivers and vehicles at rural unsignalized intersections.

Educating for the Future

With an entire generation of engineers, managers, and other professional practitioners set to retire, workforce development is the sleeping giant of transportation challenges. UTCs can provide a vital bridge linking the prospective workforce (university students) to public and private transportation careers. The centers also offer opportunities for practicing professionals to take advantage of ongoing education on new technologies.

For example, the University of Massachusetts Transportation Center is one of the partners in the Regional Traveler Information Center, which provides faculty with a teaching laboratory for graduate courses on traffic flow modeling, ITS, and simulation modeling to demonstrate field applications of new technologies. Dozens of students have benefited from this hands-on experience and subsequently have accepted challenging positions in transportation.

Shown here is the vantage point from the driver's seat inside a UTC driving simulator, one of the innovative technologies used in studies to analyze driver behavior and test safety measures before they are implemented.

Also, UTCs can combine extensive research resources with advanced teaching methods and case studies to create comprehensive and relevant informational and guidance tools that meet the needs of transportation practitioners. For example, a team of UTCs recently launched the Paul S. Sarbanes Transit in Parks Technical Assistance Center (TAC), which reaches out to Federal land managers implementing alternative transportation projects in national parks, Federal recreation areas, and other public lands. In conjunction with the Federal Transit Administration and other partners, the UTCs are amassing informational resources for the TAC and developing training tools, such as online courses, webinars, and peer-to-peer mentoring.

What's Ahead

UTCs have a recognized history of leadership on transportation issues. Individuals representing UTCs regularly provide testimony before Congress and other national bodies to assist with the development of national policies and priorities.

Because the UTC collaborative model continues to produce results from the innovative transportation research taking place at the centers, many UTC initiatives are securing increasing levels of financial support, successfully attracting large contributions from State DOTs and private entities. The National Center for Transportation and Industrial Productivity, a UTC at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, for example, obtained non-Federal matching funds at a two-to-one ratio, or better. In another example, between 1999 and 2002, Alabama's UTC matched $2.6 million in Federal funds with $3.9 million from the Alabama Department of Transportation.

Says FHWA's Toole, "UTCs have been one of the vehicles that help us fill the pipelines of transportation professionals and ensure that we are adopting an integrated approach that channels the talents of all stakeholders to solving the challenges that we face."

This portable research trailer is outfitted with traffic cameras mounted on an extendable mast and powered by solar panel-charged batteries. UTC researchers developed this custom equipment to collect traffic data for safety studies, even from remote locations.


Steve Albert is director of the West-ern Transportation Institute at Montana State University and president of the Council of University Transportation Centers. He holds a master's degree in urban and regional planning from Texas A&M University.

O. A. Elrahman is head of Research Coordination & Technology Transfer in the Transportation R&D Bureau at the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT). From 1995 to 2003, he served as liaison for NYSDOT-sponsored research conducted by the UTC. He also served as program manager for NYSDOT's Transportation Infrastructure Research Consortium led by Cornell University. He holds a Ph.D. in urban and environmental studies from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

For more information, contact Steve Albert at 406-994-6114 or, or O. A. Elrahman at 518-457-4689 or The authors would like to acknowledge the contributions of Michael Griffith, director of the Office of Safety Integration at FHWA's Office of Safety, and Carla Little, research writer at Western Transportation Institute (WTI), Montana State University, to this article.