An Overview of Transportation R&D: Priorities for Reauthorization

Posted by Brad Johnson Thu, 12 Feb 2009 15:00:00 GMT

On Thursday, February 12, 2009, the Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation will convene a hearing to review the research, development, and deployment activities of the Department of Transportation. The hearing will focus on issues related to the funding, planning, and execution of current research initiatives and how these efforts fulfill the strategic goals of both Federal and State Departments of Transportation, metropolitan transportation organizations, and industry. With the expiration of SAFETEA-LU in FY2009, this hearing will also examine possible ways to improve the current Federal transportation effort.

  • Paul Brubaker, former Administrator of the Research and Innovative Technology Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation.
  • Dr. Elizabeth Deakin, Director of the University of California Transportation Center, University of California, Berkeley
  • Robert E. Skinner, Jr., Executive Director of the Transportation Research Board.
  • David Wise, Acting Director of Physical Infrastructure Issues, Government Accountability Office
  • Amadeo Saenz, Jr., Executive Director, Texas Department of Transportation


Signed in 2005, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient, Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) (P.L. 109-59) authorized a total of $2.227 billion through FY2009 for research and related programs under Title V of the bill. This Title authorizes surface transportation research by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), training and education programs, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the University Transportation Centers (UTCs), and Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Research. The Science and Technology Committee’s jurisdiction over surface transportation research and development is based on House rules which grant the Committee jurisdiction over, “Scientific research, development, and demonstration, and projects therefore” and legislative precedent. Jurisdiction over these programs is shared with the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The Science and Technology Committee has a long referral history regarding surface transportation research and development (R&D) bills, including H.R. 860 in the 105th Congress and H.R. 242, and H.R. 243 in the 109th Congress. Elements of each of these bills were incorporated in the highway reauthorization bills for the respective Congresses.

Issues and Concerns

Planning, Coordination, and Evaluation of Research, Development, and Technology (RD&T)

Despite the creation of a specific RD&T coordinating agency within Department of Transportation (DOT) by the Mineta Act of 2004 (P.L. 108-426), and requirements in the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) (P.L. 105-178) and SAFETEA-LU that DOT evaluate and coordinate its research programs, efforts in this regard continue to fall short. In 2003, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) evaluated the coordination and review efforts by the Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA)1. RSPA had been created by the Secretary of Transportation to coordinate and review RD&T activity across the modal agencies. It was dissolved when the Mineta Act created the Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA) to fulfill largely the same functions. In the 2003 report, GAO found that efforts to locate duplicative programs and opportunities for cross-collaboration between the modal agencies were hampered by a lack of information on the RD&T activities being pursued across the modal agencies. GAO also found that DOT did not have a systematic method for measuring the results of federal transportation research activities, or a method to show how their research impacted the performance of surface transportation in the U.S. RSPA cited a lack of resources to perform these types of evaluations, and they also stated that each modal agency undertook its own evaluation of its research programs. GAO recommended that RSPA define metrics to evaluate the outcomes of its DOT-wide RD&T coordination efforts. In 2006, GAO did a follow-up evaluation of RD&T coordination and evaluation. They again offered similar recommendations, noting the continuing lack of common performance measures for DOT RD&T activities. However, at the time of that evaluation, RITA had just recently been established. GAO commended the initiative in RITA’s FY2007 budget request to devote $2.5 million to RD&T coordinating activities (an increase of nearly $2 million over the $536,000 spent by RSPA in FY06 on coordination).

In November of 2006, RITA submitted the Transportation Research, Development and Technology Strategic Plan for 2006-2010 to Congress. The Transportation Research Board (TRB), of the National Research Council, evaluated this plan and noted, “The strategic RD&T plan for 2006-2010 is a reasonable first effort. It offers useful descriptions of the many RD&T programs within the Department. At the same time, it is more a compendium of individual RD&T activities than a strategic plan that articulates department wide priorities and justifications for RD&T programs and budgets.” According to TRB, the plan lacked stakeholder input and also failed to identify how stakeholder input would be sought for strategic planning in research topic areas. It further failed to articulate the role and value of DOT’s RD&T activities; describe the process used for selecting research topics to ensure their relevance, quality, or performance; describe the expected outcomes from RD&T; and describe the process for monitoring performance. In TRB’s view, the plan, at a minimum should have explained the extent to which quantifiable goals, timetables, and performance measures would be part of RD&T programs.

The major surface transportation RD&T program of the FHWA has received similar criticisms regarding coordination and evaluation as DOT’s overall RD&T program. The program is highly decentralized, with research activities taking place in five out of the thirteen offices within the agency. In 2002, GAO reviewed FHWA’s R&D approach and urged that the agency “develop a systematic process for evaluating significant ongoing and completed research that incorporates peer-review or other best practices in use at Federal agencies that conduct research.” FHWA subsequently developed its Corporate Master Plan for Research and Deployment of Technology and Innovation, released in 2003. This document contains many overarching principles, such as measuring the performance of RD&T activities, but does not provide specific mechanisms through which FHWA will implement all of them. It is also unclear from FHWA’s RD&T Performance Plan for 2006/2007 if the many research projects listed have been evaluated for their use by the transportation community. Without such analysis, the information portrayed in these documents establishes outputs, but does not offer any outcomes.


There is general agreement that the transfer of technology and new ideas from the R&D stage to deployment and adoption is slow. In testimony before this Committee in September of 2007, FHWA identified some of the contributing factors that slow the state and local adoption of new transportation technology, including insufficient information on the benefits versus the costs of new technologies; lack of confidence in new technologies or a lack of performance data; and a lack of incentive mechanisms to encourage the deployment of new technology. TRB Special Report 295, The Federal Investment in Highway Research, 2006-2009: Strengths and Weaknesses, notes the important role FHWA plays in educating state DOTs about new technologies and encouraging their adoption, noting such efforts as FHWA’s activities to identify, market, and track the deployment of market-ready technologies and incorporate a strategic plan for the deployment of pavement research activities. However, the funding for technology transfer activities at FHWA has suffered in recent years, falling from $100 million to $40 million after the passage of TEA-21. The report further notes, “The missing element among all of FHWA’s deployment activities appears to be the resources within the agency with explicit expertise in technology transfer and deployment that could provide guidance to the various efforts agency wide [sic].”

The Intelligent Transportation Systems program is a well studied example of transfer and deployment of R&D efforts. In 2005, GAO identified broad issues with DOT’s deployment goals for traffic management ITS, finding that the goals did not take into account the level of ITS needed to accomplish local objectives and priorities; did not reflect whether localities were operating the ITS as intended; and did not adequately capture the cost-effectiveness of ITS 7. Additional studies of ITS deployment have found that local officials are aware of ITS technologies but feel that the benefits are not adequately described.

Recommendations from TRB

With support from FHWA, TRB’s Research and Technology Coordinating Committee (RTCC) has periodically assessed the state of highway research and made recommendations to policy makers. In its recent report, TRB Special Report 295, The Federal Investment in Highway Research, 2006-2009: Strengths and Weaknesses, the RTCC evaluated the investments in highway R&D made under SAFETEA-LU. According to the report, transportation R&D is significantly under funded when compared with the R&D investments made in other industrial sectors. Also, the report recommended that the matching requirement for UTCs be adjusted from 50-percent to 20-percent. According to the RTCC, if UTCs relied less on state DOTs and others for matching funds, they would be free to pursue longer-term advanced research topics and move away from applied research that could be handled elsewhere. The RTCC recommended that FHWA’s Exploratory Advanced Research Program continue as well, and that a larger percentage of the agency’s research budget go toward advanced research. Additionally, the report states that all research grants, including those to UTCs, should be made on a competitive, merit-reviewed basis. The RTCC recommended that FHWA be given more resources to engage stakeholders and carry out technology transfer activities. FHWA should be given the resources to take the lead in establishing an ongoing process whereby the highway community can set these priorities. Finally, the RTCC noted that the Strategic Highway Research Program 2 (SHRP 2) was funded significantly less than stakeholders had requested, and recommended that it continue to receive funding for another two years. TRB states many recommendations but does not provide specific mechanisms to accomplish them.