July 11, 2019

Federal Investments Are Imperative for Continued Success in Highway Innovation, Says New Report

The nation’s highways and roads connect almost 330 million Americans and are important to both commerce and national security. Two-thirds of total passenger travel in the country moves along this vast network of roads, as does 60 percent of the weight and almost three-quarters of the value of total U.S. freight transported. The immense value of this system does not come without costs, however, such as congestion, outdated infrastructure, safety, sustainability, and other challenges. The federal government, state and local governments, universities, and the private sector all play a role in developing innovative solutions to these issues.

The research, development, and technology (RD&T) programs of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and USDOT’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office (ITS JPO) work with state and local governments to find such solutions. Tasked with evaluating the effectiveness of these programs, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine determined in a new report that the RD&T programs of the FHWA and ITS JPO continue to meet the following key criteria set forth by Congress: allocating RD&T resources appropriately across the full innovation cycle, addressing gaps not covered by other programs, and conducting research on nationally significant topics. Despite the beneficial work of these programs, their ability to respond to emerging and rapidly changing critical issues in transportation is constrained by available resources.

The FHWA and ITS JPO research is spread across various highway topics, the report says, allowing it to contribute positively to the many important aspects of highway transportation. Although the scope of the RD&T program is broad, the emphasis on being comprehensive can lead to resources being spread too thinly. A 2015 authorization bill that expanded RD&T activities without increasing funding has exacerbated this problem.

Transformative changes in technology, mobility services, climate and weather conditions, and the country’s demographic landscape necessitate innovations that move highway traffic more quickly, safely, and with fewer environmental impacts. The committee that wrote the report found that breakthroughs are needed in such areas as materials, construction, long-term asset condition and performance, and means to raise revenues to fund the maintenance and renewal of roadways. With sustained and adequate funding and modest improvements in RD&T programs, the report says, they will continue to serve and advance the national interest and international competitiveness well into the future.

Timothy Henkel, Assistant Commissioner for Modal Planning and Program Management in the Minnesota Department of Transportation and chair of the study committee, will testify about this report at a hearing of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology on July 11 beginning at 2 p.m. EDT.

DETAILS: The Vital Federal Role in Meeting the Highway Innovation Imperative is available for immediate release. Media inquiries should be directed to the National Academies’ Office of News and Public Information; tel. 202-334-2138 or e-mail news@nas.edu.