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United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - Winter 1997

Closing The Technology Gap

by David C. Smith

isteaOne of the most critical aspects of the reauthorization of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) encompasses the area known as research and technology (R&T). Since ISTEA became law in 1991, many new transportation technologies have emerged or matured. However, with these advancements, the state of the art in technology has now reached a point that, in many cases, is well beyond the state of the practice in the U.S. transportation community. How best to address this "technology gap" is foremost in the minds of Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) planners as reauthorization approaches.

FHWA very much recognizes the leadership role it can play in the movement to close the technology gap within the transportation community. Throughout 1996, FHWA planners and managers held a series of focused discussions with interested parties from throughout the country, brainstorming ideas and better assessing needs. They also evaluated the opinions of highway users who were surveyed to discover how they rate the importance of everything from driving on wet pavements to safety in work zones.

Just What Is the Technology Gap?

Identifying the gap between technological innovation and the current state of the practice in the United States has been a primary task of those working to develop ideas for NEXTEA, the nickname for the reauthorization proposal. The gap is multifaceted, and it exists in virtually every area of technology, including pavements, structures, safety, and the Intelligent Transportation System (ITS). Also, closing the technology gap requires closing other gaps in areas such as infrastructure investment, innovative financing, "livable communities," planning, policy analysis, and others. For example, "closing the gap" is a phrase often used in discussing the difference between the demand for surface transport service and the supply -- the collective public and private sector capability to meet those needs. "Closing the gap" is also frequently used in the context of the difference in the amount of annual total capital investment required by all units of government to achieve a specified level of overall system condition and performance for all highways, bridges, and transit systems and the amount of money actually allocated for transportation system expansion and maintenance.

These factors and the technology gap are interrelated. For example, the technology gap has been exacerbated by the downsizing of transportation organizations, and it could very well expand as interstate-era professionals retire and their expertise is lost.

Bob Betsold, FHWA associate administrator for research and development, points out the importance of reversing the "expertise drain" to close the gap. "We have a critical need for new skills and expertise, particularly in technology areas such as advanced materials, telecommunications, and human-machine interfaces."

FHWA's associate administrator for safety and systems applications, Dennis Judycki, stresses that, "Closing the gap will demand that we extend the established federal-state partnership, as well as the new partnerships formed under ISTEA, to create effective new public-private partnerships." Specifically, when critical decisions are made about how to build more durable, safer, and smarter highways, private sector suppliers of relevant transportation goods, services, and technologies should have a place at the table.

The challenge of closing the technology gap in a timely manner is compounded by certain institutional barriers and by a culture that is adverse to risk. Naturally, implementing new technologies involves more risk -- and often, initially at least, more expense -- than the application of traditional methods and materials. Federal funds may be used to help defer some initial costs, and incentives will be essential to encourage transportation entities to accept the risk of embracing new technology and innovation. Also, a greater recognition of the life-cycle benefits can help balance this equation.

"The public and private sectors will need to share the risk," Judycki points out, "and FHWA should also continue to work toward removing regulatory, programmatic, and operational barriers to innovation."


The Numac backpack instrument, a nondestructive evaluation device, is used for fatigue-crack detection.

Deploying Innovation Is the Key

For any program advancing technology to be effective, innovations must be put to work in real-world situations where their effectiveness can be demonstrated and their benefits realized. To address this need, the U.S. Department of Transportation is exploring the possibility of establishing the National Technology Deployment Initiatives, which would build upon the success of the Applied Research and Technology Program provided for by Section 6005 of ISTEA.

Such a program would focus on accelerating the implementation of technologies that address a set of specific technology goals that are customer-driven. The aim would be to close the gap significantly between state of the art and state of the practice in technology areas where real benefits could be provided to transportation users. Based on the input received through FHWA's outreach activities, the following are some of the areas that have been suggested as possible goals under a National Technology Department Initiatives program:

  • To improve safety of driving at nighttime, in wet weather, and during other periods of limited visibility. It is significant that in the 1996 National Quality Initiative (NQI) National Highway Users Survey, respondents identified "safety" as the highway characteristic in which they most wanted to see improvement, and they indicated that "pavement in wet weather" was the safety aspect with which they were least satisfied. FHWA is conducting an all-weather pavement marking program to evaluate the visibility, durability, and safety of pavement markings under various weather, environmental, and traffic conditions. Since the program started in 1992, 19 states have participated by applying innovative markings at 86 sites. The innovative pavement markings include traffic paints, polyesters, epoxies, thermoplastics, acrylic compounds, profiled/elevated/granulated material, raised/recessed marker, and large glass beads. The program is scheduled to be completed by October 1997.
  • To improve quality and durability of construction materials. NQI survey respondents identified "pavement conditions" as the second most important highway characteristic, and they were least satisfied with "durability" of pavements. Technology innovations such as Superpave, high-performance concrete, and similar construction material improvements will be emphasized in constructing new pavements, bridges, and other transportation facilities that can be used in all surface modes. The goal will be to leverage these technological advances for quality and durability of infrastructure -- to build it right the first time.
  • To extend the life of the current infrastructure. A huge investment exists in the legacy system of transportation infrastructure. Recent technology advances can be employed to strengthen, increase the safety, and prolong the useful life of pavements, bridges, and other structures. Specifically, nondestructive evaluation techniques can detect problems in existing facilities, and then new materials, such as carbon wrap and advanced coatings, can be applied to extend the effective life of existing facilities.
  • To reduce the delays and accidents resulting from construction and maintenance work. "Traffic flow" is the third most important characteristic to NQI survey respondents, and they are least satisfied with the flow during "construction delays." Construction delays slow transit users, car poolers, commuter train passengers, and automobile drivers. Traffic control and work zone safety measures must be the primary focus for improvement, with emphasis also being placed on technology-related construction innovations that can help reduce delays, accidents, and closures.
  • To incorporate technologies in all phases of construction and operations that support and enhance the environment. There are several strategies available to help reduce the adverse environmental consequences of managing the nation's transportation system. For example, new techniques for the removal of lead-based paints from bridges are more environmentally friendly, as are new and improved structure coatings. Implementation of the "grow, don't mow" road maintenance strategy can also make a contribution. Chemicals and wetted salts can be applied to road surfaces before each winter storm to prevent ice and snow from bonding to the pavement; these chemicals are more effective than standard road salt, and compared to salt, they are less corrosive and less toxic to the environment. Also, the use of recycled materials can reduce costs and impacts.

New techniques for the removal of lead-based paint from a brdige are more environmentally friendly.

  • To implement improved tools for assessing the performance of the nation's infrastructure. More efficient and effective ways are needed to collect reliable information on use, performance, and user satisfaction with the nation's intermodal transportation system. Emphasis must be placed on developing and using improved tools for data collection and decision-making regarding transportation investment and use. A wide range of factors must be evaluated before decisions are reached, including life-cycle costs, rate of return, the economic value of the transportation system in relation to the gross national product, productivity increases, and the optimum level of investment.
  • To make "more livable" communities by increasing mobility within and access to those communities. Our country is a nation of communities, large and small, and all of them are touched by our transportation system. Greater emphasis should be placed on improving the compatibility of the transportation system with communities, people, and development. We need to achieve a better balance in the scale of improvements and changes in existing systems and services in relation to communities -- for example, using "traffic calming" strategies such as neck-downs, roundabouts, speed bumps, and turn and parking restrictions in neighborhoods.

Achievement of these goals will be supported both by authorized funding and through program incentives to help overcome barriers to the implementation of new technologies. This latter point is particularly important because the fundamental objective of the National Technology Deployment Initiatives program is to get the technology "on the ground" in actual projects rather than simply evaluating the feasibility of technologies. Although in the very preliminary phases of evaluation, such program incentives might include the latitude to increase or waive the federal match requirement, the authority to create a mechanism or enter into an agreement to help underwrite risks, and an increased opportunity to use private sector innovation. Process incentives could also increase the use of flexibility funding and reduce legislative and regulatory barriers to innovation, such as proprietary restrictions, contracting procedures, and prescriptive standards.

Substantial flexibility should also be provided for developing strategies to address the overall goals and to work cooperatively with key public and private sector technology partners to refine and revise goals to achieve a program that continues to be customer-driven. Flexibility should also exist to use available funds in each goal area through competitive solicitations, allocations, and specific contract efforts.

Building the Professional Capacity for Innovation

Because basic knowledge and professional skills determine how effectively the transportation community can assimilate new technologies, FHWA has always placed emphasis on education, training, and technical assistance. In an era of downsizing in state and local agencies, this part of the FHWA mission has become even more critical. Technology transfer and professional capacity building are priorities in ITS and in practically every other technology deployment effort under way or envisioned.

As part of reauthorization, FHWA supports the continuation and expansion of programs that have demonstrated success in delivering innovative technology and in developing the professional knowledge and skills required to apply that technology. Technology implementation efforts can only succeed with a strategic approach that includes a stable base of funding for such promising programs as the Local Technical Assistance Program, the National Highway Institute, the Eisenhower Fellows Program, and the Focused Technology Delivery and Support System, which is evolving from the Strategic Highway Research Program implementation. Also important are the academic-based entities, university transportation centers and research institutes, which are a fertile source of new transportation professionals.

Leading the Development of New Technology

There is strong support at all levels for continued federal involvement in research aimed at "breakthrough" technologies. Currently, FHWA is required to spend 15 percent of its research and development budget for advanced research. Continuing this requirement in NEXTEA would allow a stable commitment to fund long-term research efforts in such critical areas as material sciences and information/communications technologies. Programs such as Long-Term Pavement Performance and the Automated Highway System benefit from this strategic focus.

Technology Implementation at the State Level

The State Planning and Research (SP&R) Program provides the resources states have traditionally used to test and adapt technologies to local conditions and to increase the skill level of local practitioners. FHWA's assistance to these applied research activities, through its annual appropriated budget, should continue to support short-term and quick-response research, as well as technical assistance and certain fixed costs associated with research and technology deployment at the state level.

State deployment of new technologies is a key factor in closing the technology gap, as is raising the knowledge and skill level of state transportation experts. Supporting an adequate funding level for SP&R means that these funds can be applied to adapt the results of the national R&T program to meet local needs and opportunities.

Going Beyond Closing the Gap

"Advancing the science of transportation is the ultimate goal," according to Dennis Judycki. "This goes beyond reaching a state-of-the-art plateau; it means constantly pushing that plateau higher." Risk is involved, and many benefits will only be realized over the long term. That is why FHWA is advocating strategic vision during the reauthorization process, setting the stage for future gains even beyond the term of the reauthorization.

Bob Betsold agrees. "Coupled with FHWA's core R&T activities, our emphasis on advanced research in ISTEA reauthorization will help ensure that we do not simply close the technology gap, but we continue to push the envelope in advancing state of the art to meet new challenges and leverage new opportunities as we advance the science of transportation."

Dr. David Smith is president of Amanuensis Creative Group of Vienna, Va. He writes on a variety of technology subjects, particularly in the fields of transportation, communications, and defense, with public information or marketing communications as a goal.