Leading on The International Stage
Through participating in the World Road Association, the U.S. transportation community has benefited from learning about research, practices, and technologies in other countries.
If you’ve ever been caught in a winter storm, you know what a difference it makes when crews clear roadways quickly and safely. But did you know that many of the practices and technologies used during winter storms in the United States to minimize storm impacts were developed in other countries?
There is no need to reinvent the wheel, and sharing research among State departments of transportation and between the Federal Highway Administration and State DOTs has become the norm. The benefits of receiving or imparting information about research and new practices are well recognized.
The same reasoning applies to U.S. participation and leadership in the World Road Association (WRA) (sometimes referred to as “PIARC,” which stands for the organization’s former name: Permanent International Association of Road Congresses).
Founded in 1909, the WRA is a network of road administrations from more than 120 countries that convene to share roadway-oriented research, practices, and technologies. As one of the world’s leading organizations in the exchange of knowledge and technology transfer related to roadway transportation, the WRA addresses a vast range of topics and serves as a resource for developed countries with advanced road networks, as well as for developing countries.
For the United States, participation satisfies two purposes. First, the WRA provides an opportunity to learn from nations that employ advanced technologies and practices, including those in areas of strategic interest to the United States. Second, participation in the WRA enables U.S. representatives to share experiences and technical knowledge with other countries that can benefit, thereby supporting two-way exchanges of information.
The United States was a founding member of the WRA and has increased its participation significantly within the past decade, making a deliberate effort to become active in the association’s technical and corporate bodies and leading and contributing to a number of products and strategic initiatives. During this time, U.S. delegates to the WRA--who are generally transportation practitioners at the State and national levels--have used their participation to gather information and implement new technologies to benefit the U.S. transportation system and the traveling public that uses it.
Since 2008, U.S. involvement has included spearheading the development of internationally recognized flagship publications. Among these products are the Road Safety Manual, which was recently acknowledged by the United Nations as a highly significant effort aligned with the UN Decade of Action for Road Safety.
According to FHWA Executive Director Walter C. “Butch” Waidelich, Jr., the agency “intends to continue the deliberate, consistent, and active posture that has defined our participation [in the WRA] over the last two cycles.”
How Is the WRA Organized?
The leadership bodies of the WRA include a council, an executive committee, and three commissions. The council is composed of delegates from member countries and has ultimate governance responsibility for the organization. The council elects the officers, members of the executive committee, and the general secretariat, which provides staff functions. The three commissions are responsible for strategic planning, finance, and communications.
In addition, approximately 40 member countries have national committees, which contribute to the dissemination of the organization’s products, organize local activities, and undertake some membership and administrative services in their respective countries. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) has served as the U.S. National Committee to the WRA since 2011. In addition, the Transportation Research Board has a memorandum of understanding with the WRA that calls on the two organizations to work together to further their shared objective of advancing the state of the practice in roadway transportation.
For the past decade, FHWA has led and coordinated the participation of U.S. delegates in the WRA. The agency appoints the U.S.’s First Delegate, as the head of each national delegation is known, as well as U.S. delegates to the WRA’s technical committees and task forces. Designation and assignment of FHWA representatives is made according to FHWA program priorities. The U.S. First Delegate is a position linked to the FHWA executive director. As First Delegate, the executive director has the final authority to determine U.S. policy positions within the WRA and final authority on how to cast votes on specific issues. FHWA also designates representatives to the World Road Congress, the WRA’s major conference held every 4 years since 1908, and the International Winter Road Congress, a complementary WRA conference that has been held every 4 years since 1969.
WRA Areas of Study
The WRA operates on 4-year cycles, with each cycle guided by a new strategic plan with several strategic themes, each overseen by its own coordinator. In recent cycles over the past two decades, the strategic themes and other initiatives have related to management, finance, and performance; access and mobility; safety; infrastructure; and sustainability and resilience.
Nested within each strategic theme are technical committees, task forces, regional task forces, and special projects. A special project is a recently established method of project delivery promoted by the United States. Instead of relying entirely on delegates, who are generally volunteers, to develop products, the special products involve a method of project delivery similar to that used by the National Cooperative Highway Research Program in the United States. Under this method, expert consultants, working under the direction of the leaders of the WRA’s technical committees and corporate structures, develop the special projects. To date, the WRA has issued publications for two special projects. The first is The Importance of Road Maintenance, which draws on robust evidence of maintenance benefits from around the world. The second, the International Climate Change Adaptation Framework for Road Infrastructure, provides guidance to member countries that are seeking to adopt a consistent approach to analyzing the effects of climate change on their road networks to help identify and prioritize the most appropriate measures to mitigate the risks associated with extreme weather events.
Participation by U.S. delegates with domestic leadership positions, including former FHWA Executive Director Jeff Paniati, has enabled the United States to encourage the WRA’s activities and research agenda to focus on topics of high strategic importance and interest to the U.S. transportation community--a role that current FHWA Executive Director Waidelich will continue in the 2016–2019 cycle. For example, the new strategic theme, Climate Change, Environment, and Disasters, is one of particular interest and high investment in the United States, and was added to the strategic plan for the 2016–2019 cycle. Freight is another issue of current strategic importance to the United States and is also represented in the 2016–2019 strategic plan.
As noted by Paniati, “The more invested FHWA is in long-term and continuous participation in the WRA, the higher the return on that investment will be. There is a significant amount of untapped potential for the U.S. to continue shaping the WRA agenda to advance the interests that the U.S. shares with partner countries.”
Outcomes of U.S. Participation in Two Recent Cycles
Participation in the WRA has resulted in positive outcomes for U.S. delegates and their professional organizations. For example, participation in the 2008–2011 and 2012–2015 cycles enabled U.S. practitioners to offer their expertise in some areas and learn from foreign experts in others, thereby facilitating the benchmarking of domestic practice. In addition, it enabled U.S. representatives to build relationships and glean knowledge of practices related to policy and analysis, as well as tools and practices related to implementation for incorporation into domestic practices.
Benefits related to policy and analysis practices and methods were obtained in three key areas during the 2008–2011 and 2012–2015 cycles: asset management, economic analysis, and sustainability.
Asset management. Historically, U.S. understanding and implementation of the principles of asset management have lagged behind countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. Participation in the WRA, however, provided U.S. transportation practitioners with the opportunity to connect with international experts in order to understand how the principles of asset management could benefit the U.S. roadway system.
Steve Gaj, team leader of the FHWA Office of Asset Management, played an important role in demonstrating those benefits to Congress, based on experience and knowledge he gathered through participation in the WRA. In Gaj’s communications with the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, he was able to cite information from foreign experts he met through the WRA regarding the development of asset management plans, life cycle planning, and asset valuation. His understanding of the cost and performance benefits of effective asset management were valuable as Congress included a requirement in the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) for States to develop asset management plans for the first time.
Gaj says, “Learning from the experiences of other countries has enabled the United States to avoid reinventing the wheel and to understand the nuances associated with asset management.”
According to FHWA, the investment in transportation assets owned and operated by public agencies at the Federal, State, and local levels totals more than $1.75 trillion. Therefore, the monetary savings that could be realized through implementation of effective asset management business processes and practices is immense. Many asset management practices are already used by utilities and private companies in other sectors to save money.
Economic analysis. Similarly, participation in the WRA has advanced U.S. practices in the economic analysis of transportation projects. In the United States, national-level economic analyses focus primarily on evaluating costs and benefits using the Highway Economic Requirements System and the National Bridge Investment Analysis System.
Other countries, such as Japan and South Korea, more commonly use ex post evaluation processes. These analyses evaluate the effectiveness and sustainability of a project, with a focus on identifying lessons learned and making recommendations for planning more effective and efficient projects or programs in the future.
As a member of the WRA’s Road Transport System Economics and Social Development Technical Committee, Karen White, currently director of the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ Office of Statistical and Economic Analysis, assisted in the development of a report on ex post cost-benefit evaluations. It discusses the economic analysis practices of road agencies around the world and directly informed White’s work in her previous position, in the FHWA Office of Policy and Governmental Affairs, on the Conditions and Performance Report, which is developed for Congress every 2 years. At FHWA, White examined ways in which the agency could restructure the report to Congress by using new tools to better measure the conditions and needs of the surface transportation system.
“The work that I conducted through the WRA provided me with an understanding of foreign practices, as well as sharing U.S. practices,” says White.
The reimagined Conditions and Performance Report, still under development, may include economic analysis employing elements of the British system of program evaluation, which uses a policymaker-designed weighting system for measuring investment impacts.
The Conditions and Performance Report is one of USDOT’s most significant opportunities to communicate to Congress and the Nation regarding the state and investment needs of the U.S. transportation system, and is widely cited as a leading source of information on this subject. As such, the ability to use more sophisticated analysis methods to better measure economic impacts enables USDOT to create a more sound and compelling case for the need, for example, to invest in the transportation system to support the Nation’s economy.
As FHWA Administrator Gregory Nadeau has stated, “Every dollar produces results for the American people.”
Sustainability. Through WRA participation, U.S. delegates also gathered information on sustainability-related policies and practices that have the potential to be--or, in some cases, have been--implemented in the United States. Through work he conducted on WRA’s Freight Technical Committee, Bill Gardner, director of the Office of Freight & Commercial Vehicle Operations at the Minnesota DOT, learned how the United States differs from other countries in the emphasis placed on sustainability. Many European countries focus more heavily on sustainability in transportation activities in general. In addition, sustainability abroad tends to be the first screen in decisionmaking, whereas in the United States, it is sometimes considered as an afterthought. Some of the foreign practices that Gardner learned about through his work on the freight committee were relevant to his leadership role in developing the Minnesota Statewide Freight System Plan. For example, Gardner’s research indicated that some countries integrate freight and land use systems to improve freight mobility and enhance economic development, focusing on preserving freight uses and industrial land. Similarly, a strategy included in Minnesota’s freight plan focuses on land use planning and preservation.
Implementation-Related Practices and Tools
In addition to policies and analysis practices, U.S. delegates to the WRA have brought back to their agencies and professional organizations a variety of practices and tools related to implementation that were developed and tested abroad. In particular, there are examples of technology transfer related to winter maintenance, freight, and security.
Winter maintenance. The United States has gained significant technical knowledge in the field of winter maintenance through WRA participation. As Rick Nelson, coordinator of AASHTO’s Snow and Ice Pooled Fund Cooperative Program (SICOP) and former Nevada DOT official, notes, “In the 1990s, in the winter maintenance field, the U.S. was so far behind Europe that we thought we were ahead. We have closed the gap because of our participation on [WRA] technical committees.”
Nelson and Gabriel Guevara, a transportation specialist with FHWA’s Office of Transportation Operations Road Weather Management Team and also U.S. representative on the Winter Service Technical Committee, both contributed to the development of the WRA’s 2014 Snow and Ice Databook. Rereleased every 4 years at the WRA’s winter congress, the Snow and Ice Databook is the most comprehensive and widely consulted source of information about international practices in winter maintenance. It contains information about materials used, technologies employed, governance structures, and performance tracking. Practitioners and researchers in the United States have used several editions of the databook as a key resource in developing reports and plans.
Because of the publication’s success, Nelson, who played a lead role in developing the U.S. section of the current edition, has considered creating a domestic version of the publication that could serve as a standalone product for use by States and local practitioners. The Snow and Ice Databook has had a significant impact on the U.S. winter maintenance community.
One example of a practice learned by U.S. representatives who serve on the Winter Service Technical Committee is anti-icing. Guevara notes that the United States learned about anti-icing through WRA technical committee interactions. For several decades, the U.S. focused on deicing--treating roads with salt after a weather incident. But much earlier, European countries had begun practicing anti-icing methods, in which they treated roads with a salt brine prior to snow and ice events.
Anti-icing is considerably more environmentally sustainable and uses approximately one-third of the resources in terms of materials, equipment, and labor, resulting in millions of dollars in cost savings as opposed to the deicing approach. According to FHWA’s road weather management program, States spend $2.3 billion annually on winter maintenance, a large portion of which includes materials and labor, as well as millions to repair infrastructure damaged by snow and ice. Incremental improvements therefore have the potential to save millions when implemented.
Through Nelson’s participation on the technical committee, he gathered information from French and Swedish WRA delegates about sustainable salting practices. He shared those practices with the SICOP steering committee and incorporated sustainability into its work program. Through that work, information on sustainable salting practices was included in the sustainability checklist of the American Public Works Association. The checklist is heavily used by the Salt Institute, a trade association dedicated to advocating the benefits of salt, particularly to ensure winter roadway safety, water quality, and healthy nutrition. The Salt Institute now distributes a Safe and Sustainable Snowfighting Award that recognizes agencies that deal with snow removal in an environmentally and economically conscious manner.
Through WRA participation, U.S. practitioners have also learned about and employed techniques to upgrade equipment used to sand roads for winter maintenance. While attending a technical committee meeting, Nelson learned about a relatively common practice in Europe of attaching removable legs to trucks to apply sand to roads, a technology he brought back to the Nevada DOT and implemented.
The sanding equipment traditionally used in the United States requires winches to remove the sanders from the trucks, which is a somewhat laborious and dangerous process, costing significant time and money. The removed sanders then sit in an equipment yard for several months of the year, taking up valuable storage space. The removable legs are much safer, easier to take on and off, and are considerably smaller than traditional sanders, reducing costs for the Nevada DOT.
Freight. In addition to practices relating to winter maintenance, U.S. representatives have gleaned implementation practices related to freight. As a member of the WRA Freight Technical Committee, Minnesota’s Gardner learned from another committee member about a Dutch system for providing information on the availability of truck parking. Gardner used this information to supplement existing knowledge of similar systems. Subsequently, Minnesota collaborated with State DOTs from Indiana, Iowa, Kansas (the lead State on the grant), Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, several of which also had previous experience with these systems, to apply for and win a $25 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) discretionary grant to implement a Regional Truck Parking Information and Management System (TPIMS).
According to FHWA Administrator Nadeau, “TPIMS will help improve trucker safety [by] using existing technology to distribute information to commercial drivers on truck parking capacity and current occupancy through smartphone apps, dynamic road signage, Web sites, and parking facilities.”
Nadeau called the grant “one of our most innovative TIGER grants ever.”
Security. The security of transportation infrastructure is another area in which the United States gathered information about international practices through WRA participation. In the U.S., the security of highway infrastructure is approached differently than in other countries, and the sensitive nature of infrastructure security-related discussions and strategies makes face-to-face interactions between WRA members quite useful for all. As a member of the WRA Task Force on Infrastructure Security, Steve Ernst, a structural engineer in FHWA’s Office of Bridges and Structures, was able to build relationships with counterparts in France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and other countries. From counterparts in the U.K., Ernst learned about the use of street barriers that protect facilities from explosive devices and provide exclusion capability. Road barriers are designed to protect drivers and vehicles from customary geometric conditions on highways, and there are U.S. Department of Defense criteria (Unified Facilities Criteria) for barriers that address anti-terrorism protection requirements. The U.K. developed and tested systems against a wide range of threats across both regimes, including threats that require protection against impact loads to exclude vehicles from an area and protection from blast loads and fragments. Ernst is now working with the Volpe Center to explore implementing similar barrier technologies in the United States.
In addition to gathering information, participation in the WRA enables U.S. representatives on technical committees to develop relationships with counterparts in other countries. They are then able to contact those professionals when they want information on specific topics, approaches, lessons learned, and technologies--particularly information that goes beyond what one can learn from reading publications.
These connections enable additional collaboration outside of the WRA, not only with technical committee members, but also with other individuals within the members’ organizations. As multiple U.S. members of technical committees have noted, when they have something they want to learn about in another country, they immediately have someone they can call--and that someone often can refer them to someone else who is just the right contact.
Gardner, for example, explains that his WRA participation provides, in addition to other benefits, an opportunity to exchange best practices with freight leaders from around the world, including both developed and developing countries. “This helped me benchmark our own program for freight planning and implementation activities,” Gardner says.
Similarly, Robert Ritter, safety programs team leader at FHWA and a member of the WRA National Road Safety Policies and Programs Technical Committee, noted that his committee is chaired by one of Sweden’s experts on its Vision Zero initiative for traffic safety. “Participation on the committee provided me with direct access to a leading expert on a topic important to the United States,” says Ritter, “and enabled me to be a better resource for the U.S. on Vision Zero strategies.”
Scot Becker, director of the Bureau of Structures at the Wisconsin DOT, used connections he formed through participation on the WRA Road Bridges Technical Committee to get advice from a range of experts when a bridge in his State started to sink. Becker says, “Gathering advice and information from foreign experts helped me figure out how it could be repaired.”
Similarly, Becker was also able to obtain specifications from other countries that provided him with valuable information about strategies used to prevent the degradation of bridge decks. Some of this information was incorporated into strategies employed in Wisconsin to extend the life of bridge decks, resulting in cost savings for his agency and taxpayers.
Participation in the WRA enables U.S. delegates to interact not only with counterparts from governments abroad but also with representatives from the private sector and academia, whose participation is a practice more common outside the United States. As a result, U.S. technical committee members gain exposure to foreign experts whom they might not have otherwise met through agreements that USDOT makes to collaborate with public agencies abroad.
As a member of the Road Network Operations/Intelligent Transportation System Technical Committee, FHWA’s James Pol, technical director of the Office of Safety Research and Development, noted that WRA participation enabled him to connect with a broad array of international experts. Formerly a team leader in FHWA’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office, Pol regularly interacted with international partners. For example, the Joint Program Office has a trilateral agreement with equivalent agencies in the European Union and Japan to share research. Members of Pol’s WRA technical committee, however, were largely from the private sector and academia, meaning that he was able to forge relationships with individuals outside the government sphere and gain access to additional information and perspectives.
Additional positive outcomes of U.S. participation in the WRA include streamlined international engagement with multiple countries and increased employee satisfaction and engagement, as well as a mechanism to help give back to the worldwide transportation community. Participation in the WRA facilitates consistent and meaningful interactions between U.S. practitioners and their international counterparts in both the public and private sectors, and works to complement formal international country-to-country engagements that FHWA already has or is pursuing.
Many WRA delegates from the United States note the personal and professional benefits of participation. Paniati, who also served as the U.S. First Delegate to the WRA, notes that the opportunity to be involved in the WRA can be a strong retention tool for employees.
FHWA Associate Administrator for Safety Beth Alicandri; Director of FHWA’s Office of Safety Technologies Michael Griffith; and many other delegates have commented on the rewarding and reenergizing nature of participation on WRA technical committees.
Clearly, WRA participation brings a host of benefits to the U.S. transportation community. One focus of the FHWA Office of International Programs, and its partners AASHTO and TRB, is to continue to actively look for and implement ways to increase the positive outcomes of participation by disseminating information to transportation practitioners throughout the country. These three partners also look to collaborate with other domestic transportation organizations to promote the awareness and use of WRA products.
The following opportunities exist for better dissemination of WRA products and the outcomes of U.S. participation:
- Creating earned media and social media plans to support the dissemination of publications
- Spotlighting member achievements
- Taking advantage of U.S. conferences and other events to disseminate information
- Expanding communication channels
- Making information available and easy to find online
- Implementing and building on the practices that have been successful for other WRA national committees
- Growing existing partnerships
Using these strategies will enable the results of U.S. participation in the WRA to reach a broader audience and ultimately bring even greater benefits to the U.S. transportation community.
Agnes Velez is a transportation specialist with FHWA’s Office of International Programs. She oversees activities with Israel, Japan, and the World Road Association. She holds a B.A. in communications and an M.B.A. in marketing from Loyola University in New Orleans.
Alanna McKeeman, AICP, is a transportation planner and project manager at ICF. She holds a B.A. in economics from Barnard College and a master’s degree in urban and regional planning from Virginia Tech.
Jessica Klion is an analyst at ICF. She holds a B.A. in geography and urban studies from Macalester College.
For more information, see http://international.fhwa.dot.gov/road/piarc.cfm or contact Agnes Velez, 202–366–5771 or firstname.lastname@example.org.