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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 - Spring 1996

The Future FHWA

This article was adapted from several FHWA sources, including the FHWA Futures Paper.

In a year that will witness several milestones within the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), the 103-year-old agency isn't about to sit back and wax philosophic on the "good old days." While much of the federal government finds itself under attack by those who deem it and its employees "non-essential," FHWA finds itself largely above the fray. Indeed, even as many agencies of the government are rocked by furloughs and the possibility of becoming victims of the budget-cutter's axe, FHWA, bolstered by broad bipartisan congressional support, is confidently mapping out a strategic road map for the next 25 years.

In a number of addresses delivered across the country last year, FHWA Administrator Rodney Slater discussed the FHWA's many achievements during its long and storied existence, and he outlined the agency's goals leading to the year 2020. He said that far from resting on the laurels of past accomplishments, the agency will take a proactive stance in anticipating and meeting the nation's burgeoning transportation needs. Borrowing a phrase from the late Adlai Stevenson, Slater noted, "Change is inevitable. Change for the better is a full-time job". FHWA is ready for that job, Slater said.

Much Has Been Done; Much Is Still to be Done

A number of programs within the agency will reach important milestones in 1996. On July 11, for example, FHWA will commemorate the 80-year anniversary of President Wilson's Federal-Aid Road Act, the program that established the federal highway program. Forty years ago, President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, the single most comprehensive transportation package the nation had ever known. From that legislation arose the Interstate Highway System and, by Eisenhower's own admission, one of the most important, far-reaching legacies of his administration.

The Federal-Aid Road Act and the Federal-Aid Highway Act have been enormously important in the development of the sophisticated network of highways that tied the states together and created the world's most mobile population. And these highways serve as the economic conduit through which much of the nation's commerce is conducted.

Administrator Slater ascribes the enduring success of FHWA as a vigilant and visionary agency to the commitment to our core values: mobility, partnerships, and continuous improvement in the quality of personnel and technology.

But as important and accomplished as FHWA's past is, the agency's collective gaze is clearly fixed on the future and in carrying out "change for the better." Saluting the efforts of past FHWA employees in making the Wilson and Eisenhower transportation blueprints a reality, Slater ascribed their success to the commitment to our core values: mobility, partnerships, and continuous improvement in the quality of personnel and technology. He said FHWA remains committed to those principles and that they will be instrumental in helping the FHWA continue its impressive track record between now and 2020.

New Century Will Bring Many New Demands

In mapping out a plan for the future, FHWA must take into consideration a number of variables that will affect America's transportation needs in the coming years: a growing population; continued growth in large metropolitan areas, including the surrounding suburbs; energy and environmental concerns; economic considerations; and innovative new technologies. All will impact the nature of 21st century transportation.

The population of the United States is expected to more than double during the next century. The largest growing group will be the elderly, who will have the money, time, and inclination to fill the nation's highways.

Most people will continue to live in or immediately around major metropolitan centers, placing additional strains on already overly burdened roadways. This massive increase in travelers also equates to significant increases in both energy consumption and the production of environmental pollution. And while the notion of telecommuters opting for the information highway rather than the interstate to commute to work is attractive, in reality the majority of America's work force will continue to drive themselves to and from the office for the foreseeable future.

Economic considerations will also play a major role in FHWA's transportation blueprint for the future as the U.S. economy increasingly finds itself a partner in the global marketplace. Already, we have witnessed significant transportation initiatives between the U.S., Mexican, and Canadian governments resulting from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). As the influence of the big multinational corporations continues to spread, traditional demarcations between countries will blur, creating a demand for seamless, intermodal transportation systems able to ship goods anywhere in the world quickly, efficiently, and safely.

Building On the Past With an Eye to the Future

Far from viewing 1996 as the starting gate toward 2020, FHWA sees the five-year-old Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) as a landmark bill that already has established the tone for much of what the agency wants to accomplish in the next 25 years. ISTEA represents the first comprehensive blueprint for a post-interstate highway transportation network. FHWA was instrumental in developing the proposals that form the heart of ISTEA.

The National Highway System will provide the links that hold the intermodal network together.

FHWA also recently completed the Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP), the most ambitious highway research program in 30 years. Carried out in conjunction with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), SHRP resulted in "many practical, real-world products that advance our technological mastery of the variables that challenge road and bridge builders and operators," said Slater.

But a tremendous amount of work remains to be done. Although FHWA and its predecessor agencies have created the world's largest, most effective transportation system, it is quickly reaching the limits of its current operating paradigm. Many urban roadways are already handling traffic loads much higher than originally intended, and there is little room for additional growth. FHWA, along with its public and private sector partners, is counting on the National Highway System and the Intelligent Transportation Systems to maximize existing resources and create a seamless intermodal backbone that will see the nation well into the next century.

While the National Highway System will continue expanding the existing highway system, it is the proposed National Transportation System that will finally move the much-touted intermodal transportation network from the drawing room to the streets. This system will "connect our major population centers and destinations ... [and] provide access to markets beyond the Interstate System," said Slater.

The National Transportation System, like the Wilson, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower plans before it, represents another quantum leap forward in U.S. transportation architecture. For the first time, all modes of transportation will be integrated into a seamless intermodal transportation network capable of offering travelers and industry alike the most efficient, accessible, safe, and expeditious means of traveling from one point to another.

Under the auspices of ISTEA, FHWA has been tasked with making the intermodal transportation network a reality by assuming responsibility for the National Highway System. This system, as Administrator Slater pointed out, "will provide the links that hold the intermodal network together."

So it is perhaps fitting that as FHWA prepares to pay tribute to Eisenhower's landmark Federal-Aid Highway Act, which brought the nation together through the Interstate System, FHWA should now be taking steps toward the next great milestone in U.S. transportation history: connecting the United States to the rest of the world.