INNOVATION IN TRANSPORTATION THROUGH RESEARCH
Statement of Robert E. Skinner, Jr.
Executive Director, Transportation Research Board
National Academy of Sciences
before the Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure
Committee on Environment and Public Works
United States Senate
MARCH 6, 1997

Good morning, Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee. My name is Robert Skinner. I am the Executive Director of the Transportation Research Board. The Transportation Research Board has been involved in transportation research for the past 76 years since its creation in 1920 as the Advisory Board on Highway Research. TRB is an independent, nonprofit organization that is part of the National Research Council, which is the operating arm of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering. TRB's mission, in brief, is to promote innovation and progress in transportation through research. TRB fulfills this mission by maintaining over 180 standing technical committees covering all modes of transportation, hosting an Annual Meeting that attracts about 7,500 transportation professionals, publishing reports and collections of peer-reviewed technical articles, administering two contract research programs, and undertaking special studies at the request of Congress and Executive Branch agencies.

Innovation clearly requires more than just good research; but good research is often a prerequisite for innovation in transportation, as it is in other fields. My comments today will focus on highway research initiatives, and I will also make some brief comments about barriers to innovation and innovative finance. In addition, I have included comments on transit and rail research in which TRB is also engaged.

I will begin with highway research, and in doing so I will draw upon the work of a special TRB expert committee, the Research and Technology Coordinating Committee (RTCC), which was convened in 1992 to provide an independent, ongoing assessment of the research and technology program of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) as well as other highway research activities. Its members include high-level administrators and researchers from the highway field as well as some technology experts from other fields. The current committee roster is attached.

In 1994 the committee published an overall appraisal of highway industry research in TRB Special Report 244, Highway Research: Current Programs and Future Directions. By `industry' the committee meant the government agencies that construct, maintain, and administer America's public highways, as well as the private companies that provide services, materials, and equipment used by these agencies.

Let me highlight several committee findings and recommendations about highway research, and begin with how highway research is organized.

As you know, the highway industry is highly decentralized in our country--nearly 40,000 public agencies administer portions of the highway system, and tens of thousands of private companies provide products and services to state and local agencies. Our highway research and technology programs are also fairly decentralized. The Federal Highway Administration sponsors in-house and contract research; most states have research programs; many universities carry out highway research programs; and private-sector trade groups and large companies sponsor and conduct research.

Of these, the Federal Highway Administration's research program is the largest, the most comprehensive, and the best positioned to pursue long-term research initiatives. State DOT research programs constitute the other major public-sector component and are largely financed through the State Planning and Research (SP&R) program, authorized by the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA). The state programs place considerable emphasis on diagnostic, consultative, and testing activities--work that strictly speaking is not research but is a necessary component of the innovation process. But the SP&R program, like its predecessor, the Highway Planning and Research (HP&R) program, is also the mechanism that states have used for "pooled fund" research ranging from ad hoc projects supported by a few states to the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP), which the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have collectively overseen for 35 years.

Decentralized research programs allow the potential users of research results to participate at many different levels. Because the industry is so highly fragmented, a more centralized program would probably make it even more difficult to establish productive links between researchers and the users of research products. So, while the overall highway research program in the United States is complicated and difficult to understand at first, it provides a solid foundation for highway innovation.

Now let me turn to research topic areas--do we have the right priorities? Our committee spent a great deal of time trying to understand and classify research and technology activities, and it closely examined highway research-related spending in fiscal year 1993. In a nutshell, based on its analysis, the committee urged that the research program be less conservative and more comprehensive. It recommended more support for high-risk, but potentially high-payoff, research that seeks breakthroughs in highway technology. It recommended more research that takes a long-term view of the highway transportation system and its interaction with other modes, land use, the environment, and the national economy, as well as more research on improvements in intermodal transportation that involve highways.

Altogether, the committee estimated that less than 6 percent of the research and technology expenditures for 1993 in the major public-sector programs (FHWA, SP&R, and NCHRP) were directed toward these areas. This figure has probably increased since then as ITS-related research has increased; certainly a portion of ITS research is aiming for breakthrough technologies to improve safety and increase highway capacity. Nevertheless, the 1993 figures are indicative of a problem, or perhaps missed opportunity, that goes beyond any one topic area of highway research. At the same time, the committee recognized the importance of incremental, short-term research that seeks improvements in highway performance, safety, and cost through evolutionary changes to current materials, designs, and construction and operational practices.

The committee also looked at the overall level of investment in highway research and technology. Budgets for the major public-sector research programs, when adjusted for inflation, increased by a factor of about 2.5 between 1982 and 1993. Nonetheless, when expressed as a fraction of all industry expenditures, total research and technology spending was probably on the order of 0.3 percent in 1993, well below the investment levels of "low-tech" private-sector industries. Given the magnitude of the challenges ahead and the opportunities available, the committee concluded that increased highway research funding would be a wise investment.

More recently, the Research and Technology Coordinating Committee turned its attention to highway research related to air quality--specifically, research aimed at helping state and local agencies evaluate the impact of transportation actions on urban air quality goals set forth by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 (CAAA) and ISTEA. In a report released in January, the committee concluded that the prediction models and data bases mandated for determining compliance with air quality goals are inadequate and lack credibility among state and local transportation officials. It identified targeted research studies, which would address these inadequacies, and called for a research program in this area that would be cooperatively managed and supported by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency.

In addition to the work of this committee, other special TRB committees provide continuing advice to the Federal Highway Administration concerning specific areas of research and innovation. One such committee provides advice about the implementation of research products developed by the now complete Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP), and another periodically reviews the SHRP-initiated long-term pavement performance (LTPP) studies.

The transportation field faces special challenges in moving good ideas from the lab to practice--challenges that stem from the decentralized nature of the industry and the lack of market incentives, which help drive innovation in other sectors. Recently, another TRB committee looked specifically at problems, such as procurement practices, that slow the pace of innovation in the highway industry.

The traditional low-bid approach to procuring highway goods and services, with highly prescriptive specifications, gives the private sector few incentives to innovate. But a new era of highway renovation has begun that offers significant opportunities to apply new technologies and practices--an era when innovation will be critical to providing more highway infrastructure with fewer public dollars. Last fall, this committee released a report calling for a concerted public-private effort to bring more innovation into maintaining and rebuilding the nation's highways. This will require application of a wide range of innovative approaches, such as design-build, warranties, life-cycle costing, and constructability reviews, to name a few. Some efforts are already under way, but more experimentation with these approaches is needed. Equally important, we must begin to educate industry leaders, from both the public and private sectors, more aggressively about the opportunities offered by these approaches. As a small step in this direction, the committee recommended formation of a "strategic forum for innovation in highway infrastructure," to bring together visionary leaders from both industry sectors.

In the area of innovative finance, TRB has organized a wide array of activities addressing different aspects of this topic, including a Conference on Innovative Finance for Transportation, to take place on April 23-25 in Dallas. The conference will showcase innovative financing techniques currently being used for highway and transit projects and will identify research and information transfer needs in this area.

In 1994, a special TRB committee completed a detailed study of one form of innovative finance, peak-period or congestion pricing on highways (TRB Special Report 242, Curbing Gridlock: Peak-Period Fees To Relieve Traffic Congestion). In brief, the committee concluded that congestion pricing is technically feasible and would produce a net benefit to society. It acknowledged, however, that the lack of public and political support is a significant barrier to implementation and recommended an incremental approach with small-scale experiments that might build public support over time. To support this, the committee specifically recommended that Congress extend the congestion pricing pilot program of ISTEA when the legislation is reauthorized.

Now let me make some comments about public transit research. In 1987, a special TRB committee completed a strategic review of public transit research (TRB Special Report 213, Research for Public Transit: New Directions), which called for a new operator-oriented, problem-solving research program. Transit agencies were to play the dominant role in managing and implementing the research program, and the committee proposed that the program be funded through mandatory set-asides from federal grants. In 1991, ISTEA authorized a new Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP), which closely followed this model. It provided for an independent governing board and specified that the program be administered by the National Academy of Sciences, which has fulfilled this assignment through the Transportation Research Board.

The Transit Cooperative Research Program will complete its fifth year in August 1997, and during that time 194 research studies have been authorized and 84 have been completed. Research products are now finding their way into practice. For example, Santa Clara County officials cite a TCRP report as the basis for their decision to adopt low-floor light rail vehicles and provide accessibility for riders with disabilities without costly ramps and platforms. More than 800 transportation professionals have served on the panels that guide TCRP research projects, helping to ensure that the applied research remains faithful to industry needs, and providing critical linkages for implementation. From my personal vantage point, I believe that TCRP is having a positive impact and fulfilling the mission originally envisioned by the special TRB committee in 1987.

My statement has focused on highway and public transit research, but TRB has also been involved in rail research and provided guidance to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in this regard. For example, at the request of Congress, a special TRB committee is conducting periodic reviews of the high-speed ground transportation technology demonstration program, which was authorized by ISTEA. It is assessing individual program elements and how well they are integrated, program management, and the prospects for deployment of the technologies being investigated.

My comments today have highlighted research initiatives that are specific to individual modes of transportation. This type of research is and always will be important, but there is also a need for more research that cuts across modes. I mentioned earlier that TRB's Research and Technology Coordinating Committee, in its overall appraisal of highway industry research, recommended more research that takes a long-term view of the nation's highway transportation system and its interaction with other modes, land use, the environment, and the economy, as well as more research on improvements in intermodal transportation involving highways. In recent years, TRB's activity in these areas has steadily increased, with projects ranging from a national conference on setting a framework for intermodal transportation research to a study on the U.S. transportation system viewed in the context of the quest for "sustainability." Given the rapid pace of change in all aspects of our world, I expect that the need to address these types of issues will continue to grow.

Thank you for the opportunity to provide these comments this morning. I know that the Subcommittee has previously heard testimony about the important role our transportation system plays in the economic vitality of our country. To be sure, a willingness by both the public and private sectors to invest in that system has been critical to this success. But innovation, often based on research, has also been critical, and will be ever more so as our financial resources are constrained.