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Shaping the Road Research Agenda with FHWA Evaluations

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) works closely with many partners to shape and execute innovative research that makes the nation’s roads safer, improves travel time, and reduces negative environmental impacts.

The Volpe Center-managed FHWA Research and Technology (R&T) Evaluation Program provides insight into how research goes from paper to roadway—from early research stages, to implementation, to measuring outcomes. The Evaluation Program also helps guide FHWA’s research agenda, which focuses on six high-priority national challenges:

  1. Advancing safety toward zero deaths.
  2. Improving the mobility of people and goods.
  3. Maintaining infrastructure integrity.
  4. Enhancing system performance.
  5. Promoting environmental sustainability.
  6. Preparing for the future.

The Challenge

Highway research happens at all levels of government. But planning, conducting, sharing, and evaluating highway research is often done with little overarching coordination. This decentralized system can lead to duplicative work and competing research agendas that may not fully meet public needs and national priorities.[1]

The Solution

FHWA and Volpe identified 16 projects for evaluation, touching on safety, operations, policy, exploratory advanced research, land use, and more. To support a coordinated research agenda, U.S. DOT Volpe Center economists, social scientists, and planners detailed each part of the FHWA R&T evaluation process and identified key performance metrics that can help determine if research is solving highway transportation challenges.

Vector concept image of research
Volpe developed cross-cutting recommendations that can encourage research coordination and improve road safety and efficiency. (bloomua/123RF image)

FHWA uses the evaluation process and metrics it developed with Volpe to answer these fundamental questions:

  • Are FHWA and its state and local government partners doing the right kinds of research?
  • What portfolio mix best supports FHWA’s strategic objectives?
  • What kinds and extent of risk should researchers take on?
  • Have research results been deployed?
  • Is the research having the desired impact?
  • What is the public getting for the funds FHWA and its partners spend?

The Impact

By the end of fiscal year (FY) 2017, Volpe completed 12 evaluations. Of those, 6 final reports have been published, with the remaining 6 in production. Four evaluation teams are now collecting more data. FHWA is applying the following recommendations based on themes from the finished evaluations.

Five Recommendations for Improving Research Projects

Five cross-cutting recommendations have emerged that can encourage research coordination and improve roadway safety and efficiency:

  1. Perform market research early in a project to understand end-user and supplier needs and constraints.
    • An up-front understanding of technology requirements and barriers to adoption can inform appropriate, targeted strategies and activities, and will encourage more efficient use of program resources.
  2. Explore collaborative research management arrangements, such as expert advisory panels.  
  3. Maintain stable funding and resources so that researchers can replicate successful programs.
  4. Incorporate evaluation into the research process by establishing baselines and developing evaluation strategies.
  5. Improve methods to disseminate and communicate research.
Updated: Friday, June 8, 2018