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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

Geotechnical Research Program


"This photo shows a pipe pile lying down with laboratory instrumentation around the perimeter. Wiring is displayed across the floor and pile, with miscellaneous items around the laboratory."
Figure 1. Lab instrumentation of a pipe pile for field load testing in clay.

The roots of the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA’s) geotechnical research program trace back 50 years ago to the 1970s when FHWA field personnel and State Highway Agency (SHA) engineers requested assistance in solving numerous soil behavior and foundation engineering problems. The FHWA Office of Research responded by establishing three broad geotechnical-related research projects:

  1. Foundation Engineering.
  2. Ground Improvement.
  3. Soil and Rock Behavior

Together, these research projects and a few other "standalone studies" were grouped to form the FHWA geotechnology research program. This was especially important considering that bridge foundations, retaining wall systems, cut and fill operations, embankments, and ground improvements account for more than 50 percent of the total cost of most highway construction projects.

Other pertinent past research topics and activities of the geotechnical research team is the development of the deep foundation database, Automated Geotechnical Information and Design System (AGIDS), National Geotechnical Experimentation Sites (NGES)geotechnical risk and reliability, and in situ soil testing.

The following link contains a summary report of past FHWA research activities in bridge foundations, ground improvement, and soil and rock behavior. More information about these studies and other FHWA geotechnical research projects up to 2000 can be found in FHWA Publication No. RD-98-139, titled “A Quarter Century of Geotechnical Research.”

"This photo displays a reaction frame assembly for load testing of model spread footings in a field environment. A separate concrete square footing is shown in the foreground."
Figure 2. Load testing of large model spread footing

"This photo depicts the front of a cruciform panel-faced mechanically stabilized earth (MSE) wall with a small backslope."
Figure 3. Reinforced soil test wall

Today, the geotechnical research program conducts applied research to solve transportation-related problems with the aim of saving time and money and delivering a better product. Many projects are conducted in-house in our state-of-the-art laboratories; the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) also supports external research projects through funding, participation on National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) and Transportation Pooled Fund (TPF) studies, and evaluation of results.

The FHWA Geotechnical Program's focus areas are: (1) Innovations in Design and Construction; (2) Geotechnics of Scour; (3) Advanced Site Characterization; (4) Geotechnical Aspects of Pavements; and (5) Geotechnical Asset and Performance Management. Key projects in support of those focus areas which are:

  1. Variability of engineering properties for structural backfills and road bases.
  2. Characterization of recycled, foamed glass aggregates and other alternative backfills.
  3. Geotechnical aspects of scour.
  4. Geotechnical aspects of pavements.
  5. Corrosion of buried metallic elements.
  6. Bridge/Approach transitions.
  7. Long-term performance and management of geotechnical assets.
  8. Geotechnical data storage and management.
  9. Remote automated data collection systems.
  10. Load and Resistance Factor Design (LRFD) for geotechnology.

Projects are determined based on the research needs of the transportation industry and the potential for national impact. The FHWA geotechnical research program identifies these needs through cooperation with FHWA field offices, Department of Transportation headquarters, Federal Lands Highway Division, and the Resource Center. Feedback is also gained from industry, academia, and contractors.

Recent accomplishments of the current program can be found here.