Volpe Center Year in Review 2010« Previous | Table of Contents | Next »
The Volpe Center
1970 – 2010
Since 1970, the Volpe Center has remained flexible, adaptable, and responsive to the needs of its stakeholders. Today, it has more than 75 sponsors, from the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT), other Federal agencies, regional, state, and local government; other countries; nonprofit organizations; universities; and the private sector.
This chapter provides a retrospective look at the Volpe Center's remarkable history as a unique, world-class Federal transportation resource and offers a glimpse of the Volpe Center's landmark 40th anniversary year.
Space Race Launched Transportation Systems Center
Today, the Volpe Center is a Federal Center of Excellence and home to world-renowned multidisciplinary expertise in all modes of transportation. Since 1970, its work on behalf of U.S. DOT, other Federal, state, and local organizations, international entities, and the private sector has always reflected pressing national needs and priorities. The Volpe Center has responded to major transportation challenges, including the need to modernize air-traffic-flow management systems, address critical multimodal safety issues, develop sophisticated logistics and communications systems for national initiatives overseas, meet energy crises, and strengthen global maritime domain awareness.
The Volpe Center
pioneered the use of alcohol
breath analysis as a transportation
One of the earliest Volpe Center
environmental projects was
measuring noise levels from
aircraft and motor vehicles.
The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Federal organization has always been about transportation, but at the beginning it was all about space transportation. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Electronics Research Center (ERC) was a major part of the plan to bolster America's space exploration program and support the Cold War struggle. In an effort to solidify NASA's in-house electronics expertise, ERC opened its doors in September 1964, five years before Apollo 11 lifted off and American astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. Located in the midst of a leading United States technology hub, ERC was as important of a NASA field center as the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, or the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. By 1968, ERC had over 2,000 Federal employees.
ERC was thrust into the middle of political controversy in December 1969, when President Richard Nixon announced its closure as part of a major shift in the nation's space policy and also due to deep cuts in the Federal budget. By this time, however, appreciation had developed for the unique technical expertise and perspective that had been assembled in Cambridge. In an effort to preserve the intellectual foundation that had been established, then-Secretary of Transportation and former Governor of Massachusetts John A. Volpe and members of the New England Congressional delegation teamed with others in a bipartisan effort to preserve this national resource. The thinking at the time was that the nation was facing unprecedented transportation challenges and ERC's technical expertise could be applied to complex multimodal issues ranging from mass transit to air traffic flow and safety.
In a March 1970 memorandum, the science advisor to the president and the director of the Bureau of the Budget advised that the transfer of ERC to U.S. DOT would both strengthen transportation research and development and support the responsibilities of the Office of the Secretary of Transportation to ensure coordination and management for intermodal and crossmodal activities.
On July 1, 1970, the ERC facility was transferred to U.S. DOT for one dollar and became the nation's multimodal Transportation Systems Center, or TSC. Because the transfer occurred during a period of austere budgets, U.S. DOT's newest asset was established as a unique fee-for-service organization, reporting to the assistant secretary for Systems Development and Technology.
The Volpe Center developed
several anti-hijacking airport
security screening systems.
Volpe Center research led to the development of the first Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. The Center continues to be an active participant in the CAFE program.
The 1970s: TSC Emerges as a Transportation Leader
On July 1, 1970, U.S. DOT established the TSC in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The goal was to establish a top-notch, central research and development facility for the recently established cabinet agency and to support the Office of the Secretary of Transportation (OST) in ensuring coordination and management for intermodal and crossmodal activities. The Center reported to OST through the assistant secretary for Systems and Technology until 1977, when it was transferred to the newly formed Research and Special Programs Administration, a predecessor to today's Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA).
In the 1970s, a number of new transportation issues and challenges emerged, many of which remain important to the present day. These included the need to enhance rail, transit, and aviation safety; to increase mobility through high-speed rail, next-generation bus and rail, and personal rapid transit system concepts; to reduce highway motor vehicle crashes associated with alcohol and drug abuse; to strengthen airport security; to address public criticism of transportation-related noise and air pollution; and to respond to mounting concern over the consequences of motor vehicle fuel consumption in light of oil embargoes and fuel shortages.
During its startup decade, TSC supported U.S. DOT's efforts to respond to these complex issues. It hosted significant leadership events involving participants from government, industry, and academia. Topics for these conferences and symposia included motor vehicle fuel economy standards, the environmental impacts of supersonic aircraft, the Chrysler Loan Guarantee, high-speed rail and highway-rail grade crossing safety, the design and development of the next generation of transit vehicles, satellite-based air traffic management, and wake vortex measurement to establish aircraft separation standards.
As the decade progressed, it became clear that successfully implementing advances in transportation technologies would require impacts on society and on the users and operators of a given system to be understood and integrated into transportation innovations. To meet this challenge, the Center's workforce, initially dominated by the engineering disciplines, shifted to a new, more equal mix of engineering and the social and behavioral sciences, including economics, human factors, and operations research.
TSC closed out the 1970s having fulfilled the initial vision for the Federal center. It emerged as a major contributor to the enhancement and stimulation of innovation across modes and sectors.
Volpe Center developed and deployed navigation aids (NavAids) along the St. Lawrence Seaway.
The Volpe Center developed the Enhanced Traffic Management System (ETMS) for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and has continued to refine and manage this key air traffic control tool.
The 1980s: Shifting National Priorities Lead to Expanded Sponsor Base
The 1980s were a time of transition for the TSC, known today as the Volpe Center, as both its personnel skills and its project expertise shifted in response to changing government policies and priorities. During the 1970s, much of the Center's early work for U.S. DOT had focused on research, development, and demonstrations of advanced technologies in bus and rail transportation, and on new concepts in surface vehicles, such as people movers. In the 1980s, the Center's work in these areas transitioned to a more comprehensive approach that incorporated requirements analysis and systems assessment of transportation options. This, in turn, led to an expansion of the Center's sponsor base: to non-U.S. DOT agencies with substantial transportation missions.
Faced with more complex logistics needs, the U.S. military turned to the Center for in-depth transportation expertise. Around mid-decade, the Department of Defense (DoD) called on the Center to help enhance its strategic mobility and logistics capability. A 1985 Memorandum of Understanding, signed by U.S. DOT and DoD, led to a significant expansion of the Center's work in this area. Also, during this period, devastating terrorist bombings against the U.S. Marine Corps barracks and the American Embassy in Beirut caused major loss of life and shifting national priorities. Building on its aviation security expertise, TSC responded rapidly, expanding its physical security support activities, including the application of anti-blast concepts to Federal facilities, such as the State Department's overseas embassies and other critical infrastructure.
DoD again sought TSC's technical expertise in December 1985, when a chartered plane carrying more than 240 American soldiers crashed in Gander, Newfoundland, killing everyone on board. A review of the crash concluded that the plane was overloaded and there was a lack of safety protocol. The Volpe Center created a valuable aviation assessment tool to evaluate the safety record of carriers used by the military. The tool was further developed by the Center on behalf of FAA.
Aviation remained a significant part of the Center's activities throughout the decade, especially in relation to the development and deployment of future air traffic management and control concepts for FAA. Major initiatives, such as Advanced Automation Systems, Advanced Traffic Management Systems, and Enhanced Traffic Management Systems, all shared a common characteristic: the need for expertise in applying advanced information, communications, navigation, and surveillance technologies to complex air traffic management and control needs. In the wake of a mid-air Aloha Airlines incident in 1988, the Center lent critical support to FAA's National Aging Aircraft Research program, launched to investigate and prevent further accidents due to aircraft structural fatigue.
The Volpe Center became a major support for both enhanced port security activities and the Defense Department's logistics modernization effort.
The Volpe Center was among the originators of the IVHS/ITS program.
The 1980s ended with heightened TSC involvement in the formative years of what would become a key U.S. DOT surface transportation activity, Intelligent Vehicles/Highway Systems (IVHS), which evolved into today's Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) program. This new concept, which focused on the application of advanced technologies to surface transportation, was an excellent fit with the Center's existing skills and capabilities and closely paralleled the advanced aviation work that TSC had performed successfully for many years.
The 1990s: Seeking Common Ground on Major Transportation Issues
The 1990s were marked by the end of the Cold War, the beginning of long-term U.S. military engagement in the Middle East, the dawn of the Internet age, unprecedented global economic growth, and rejuvenation of the environmental movement. The Volpe Center adeptly shifted to meet new national priorities and to develop innovative solutions to the nation’s transportation problems. Reinforcing its critical role as a thought leader in transportation, the Volpe Center convened international experts to generate fresh approaches to emerging issues. To support Federal decision-making and prepare for the new century, the Volpe Center hosted a series of high-profile outreach events and explored major transportation challenges (see Landmark Thought Leadership Events below).
In 1990, TSC was renamed the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, in honor of the second U.S. Transportation Secretary, who, together with Tip O'Neill, Ted Kennedy, and other members of the New England Congressional delegation, had been instrumental in launching TSC.
The Volpe Center's primary activities during this decade reflected the major themes of national transportation policy: safety and security, energy and the environment, and mobility and the economy. Major new safety initiatives included rail-car crashworthiness, motor carrier safety-data collection and analysis, risk analysis for transporting hazardous materials, vehicle crash-avoidance research, runway incursion reduction, and ITS activities for the surface modes.
Environmental remediation became a major project cluster with cleanups of U.S. DOT sites and assistance to other agencies.
The Volpe Center has investigated alternative transportation fuels – including hydrogen, electric, ethanol, biofuel and hybrids – for every major mode.
The Volpe Center's extensive physical security expertise was instrumental for such diverse sponsors as the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, the U.S. Capitol Police, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Border security systems for passengers and cargo were developed and applied in the Center's work for the INS.
Environmental sustainability, remediation, and cleanup efforts took on new importance as landmark clean-air and transportation legislation and conferences in Rio de Janeiro (1992) and Kyoto (1997) increased global awareness of these issues. Volpe Center staff worked on enhancing the capacity of developing countries to mitigate transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions and to address climate change. The Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Postal Service, and National Park Service sought help from the Volpe Center on environmental issues. In support of the Federal Transit Administration, the Volpe Center began studying alternative fuel buses. A growing number of Federal agencies, challenged by issues related to transportation and the environment, looked to the Volpe Center for assistance.
The Volpe Center's Boston-New York Rail Improvement Study laid the foundation for Amtrak's all-electric Acela high-speed service in the North East Corridor.
The Volpe Center developed the System for Assessing Aviation's Global Emissions (SAGE) and Aviation Environment Design Tool (AEDT) to calculate aviation's contribution to climate change.
As part of an effort to reduce trip times and expand passenger capacity on the Northeast Corridor, a major study of Boston–New York City rail improvements in the mid-1990s led to infrastructure upgrades, electrification, and the start of Amtrak's Acela service. Around this time, the Center also developed internationally renowned expertise in the application of GPS satellites to support transport and logistics needs of military and civilian users. The Center also created the Federal government's radio navigation plans and was instrumental in the development and deployment of a new generation of air traffic control systems, such as Automatic Dependence Surveillance-Broadcast and Enhanced Traffic Management.
The 2000s: Emphasis on Safety, Security, and the Environment
During the 2000s, the Volpe Center has continued to provide leadership on emerging issues and to support national transportation priorities. In the wake of September 11th, 2001, the technical strengths that the Center had previously developed both in physical and cyber security found increasing application to the needs of our sponsors. In support of the Department's safety objectives, the Volpe Center helped to promote the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's major nationwide commercial vehicle safety effort and broadened its multimodal understanding of the unintended consequences of human-automation interaction. Research emphasis shifted from responding to and analyzing accidents to anticipating and avoiding them. This year, the Volpe Center participated in the formation of the U.S. DOT Safety Council, a multimodal, action-oriented, data-driven forum for fresh ideas and new perspectives on common issues.
The Volpe Center's 40 years of technical experience in the assessment, development, and deployment of multimodal positioning, navigation, and timing systems and their vulnerabilities was, and continues to be, applied in a number of programs, including Next Generation Air Traffic Control, Positive Train Control, ITS, and the Maritime Safety and Security Information System (MSSIS). On September 10, 2001, the Volpe Center released a landmark report on the vulnerabilities of GPS to intentional or unintentional interference. The very next day, concern about the vulnerability of our nation's critical transportation infrastructure became the driving force for national transportation policy.
In the area of environmental sustainability, extensive noise and emissions modeling progressed in support of FAA's goals for carbon-neutral growth and greenhouse gas emissions reductions. For FAA and the National Park Service (NPS), Air Tour Management Plans were initiated to reduce the intrusion of aviation activities, mainly noise, into national parks. Vital work continued on light-duty motor vehicle fuel economy standards for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, potential applications of fuel cells and electric batteries for the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), assessment of alternative transportation modes for NPS, and the benefits and costs of transportation biofuels for RITA.
The Volpe Center provides critical support to the implementation of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), a real-time data flow system that significantly increases airspace capacity.
Volpe Center supports motor
carrier safety programs such as Compass and CSA 2010.
Toward the end of the decade, the Volpe Center, in collaboration with the Federal Highway Administration and FTA, began supporting the President Obama's new Livable Communities Initiative in coordination with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency. The Volpe Center played a key role in the development of transportation conferences, webinars, and training sessions on program implementation and professional capacity building for the local, state, and national transportation community.
By the decade's end, the Volpe Center was wellpositioned to continue and expand its collaborative efforts with its sponsors and the broader transportation community.
MSSIS won the prestigious
“Excellence in Government”
award from Harvard's Kennedy
School of Government in 2009.
Volpe Center staff are key respondents to natural disasters through the U.S. DOT and FEMA emergency action programs.