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February 12, 2009 - ASCE Statement - Technology and Innovation

Statement of
The American Society of Civil Engineers
An Overview of Transportation Research and Development:
Priorities for Reauthorization
United States House of Representatives
Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation
Committee on Science and Technology

February 12, 2008

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) 1is pleased to submit this Statement for the Record of the February 12 hearing held by the United States House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation, Committee on Science and Technology: An Overview of Transportation Research and Development: Priorities for Reauthorization.

America’s surface transportation system is broken. ASCE’s 2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, released in January, graded the nation’s Roads a D-; Bridges a C; Transit a D; and Rail a grade of C-.

Among the key findings are the following. In 2007, 41,059 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes and 2,491,000 were injured. Motor vehicle crashes cost the U.S. $230 billion per year--$819 for each resident in medical costs, lost productivity and travel delays. Americans spend 4.2 billion hours a year stuck in traffic at a cost of $78.2 billion a year--$710 per motorist. Roadway conditions are a significant factor in about one-third of traffic fatalities and poor road conditions cost U.S. motorists $67 billion a year in repairs and operating costs--$333 per motorist. One-third of America's major roads are in poor or mediocre condition and 36% of the nation's major urban highways are congested.

More than 26% of the nation’s bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete and the number of deficient bridges in urban areas is on the rise. While demand for public transit is increasing, only about half of American households have access to bus or rail transit and only 25% consider it to be a good option. Because freight and passenger rail generally share the same network, any significant increase in passenger rail demand will exacerbate freight railroad capacity challenges.

To compete in the global economy, improve our quality of life, and raise our standard of living, we must rebuild and update America’s surface transportation infrastructure. America’s 21st century surface transportation system must be founded on a new paradigm based on a comprehensive, holistic, multi-modal approach utilizing integrated, effective, inter-modal, sustainable, cost effective solutions. Only then will America have a surface transportation system that is unparalleled in its safety, security, efficiency and effectiveness. 

As Congress works to develop the 2009 Authorization of the Surface Transportation Program, it must remain cognizant that it can no longer focus only on the movement of cars and trucks from one place to another. Rather, the new paradigm must be based on moving people, goods and services across the country. This new vision must be inter-modal and deal with the possible effects of climate change; land use, sustainability, and the anticipated changes in the population’s demographics, particularly age and urbanization.

ASCE supports the vision of a national inter-modal transportation system which is economically efficient, environmentally sound, provides the foundation for U.S. businesses to compete globally and moves people and freight in an efficient manner. Developing and deploying new technologies and cutting-edge solutions will require input from stakeholders in the public, private, and academic sectors, and accomplishing a truly inter-modal system will require partnerships among federal, state, local and regional government authorities as well as citizen groups and the private sector.

Research and technology (R&T) are critical to achieving transportation goals in: infrastructure performance and preservation; safety; quality of life; economic prosperity; environmental impacts; and sustainability and security…and technology transfer activities are critical to the successful implementation of research results. While we understand that in the current economic environment it may be difficult to increase surface transportation research and development funding, at a minimum, current R&T funding levels must be maintained and public-private partnerships, where appropriate, should be fostered.

The Highway Trust Fund (HTF) has been an essential source of funding for surface transportation research and technology for decades, and research results have led to many benefits including: materials that improved the performance of pavements and structures; design methods that reduce scour (and the consequent threat of collapse) of bridges; intelligent transportation systems technologies that improve safety and reduce travel delay; methods and materials that radically improve our ability to keep roads safely open in severe winter weather; innovative management approaches that reduce environmental impacts and improve the cultural aspects of transportation facilities; and many more.

One way to reduce the investment gap, that is, the difference between HTF revenues and the funding needed to improve the surface transportation system, is through research, as research outcomes can improve the performance and durability of our transportation infrastructure, resulting in reduced operations and maintenance costs and less frequent replacement of infrastructure elements. The Exploratory Research Program, funded in SAFETEA-LU, has the potential to be the lead program in providing improved materials, designs, and processes that can transform the performance of our surface transportation infrastructure.

The ability of the HTF to continue to serve as a major funding source for transportation R&T is dependent upon the continued capability of the Highway Trust Fund revenue sources to generate adequate levels of funding. The latest projections indicate that Highway Trust Fund revenues will be insufficient to continue the 2009 SAFETEA-LU authorized levels of funding in 2010. The result will be not only reduced investment in highway and transit infrastructure, but also reduced investment in research. To avoid reduced investment, Congress will need to address this problem by September 30, 2009. While in the short term an increase in user fees is clearly necessary, our national surface transportation policy must - in the longer term - move toward a system that more directly aligns fees that a user is charged with the benefits that the user derives. Appropriate policy research can help identify solutions to the funding issue and what methods and technologies are best to provide revenue to the HTF. This type of research needs to be funded in the new authorization.

Other research programs that can continue to contribute to the improvement of the highway system include the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) program, the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) and state department of transportation programs funded largely through State
Planning and Research (SPR) funds. In the transit area, the main programs are those of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and the Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP). ASCE believes that the University Transportation Centers (UTC) program provides valuable research across most transportation modes.

Designated programs and earmarks in SAFETEA-LU resulted in an over designation of funding in the research title. As a result, the FHWA has no discretionary research funding, causing some research products and services previously provided by FHWA to either be absorbed by state programs or to be discontinued altogether. Some of the earmarks also placed additional burdens on state research programs when these programs were identified as sources of matching funds for the earmarks. Therefore, as we go forward, we recommend that there be minimal earmarking and that free and open competition among nonfederal entities performing research utilizing federal funds be promoted.

Within the context of the general principles set out above, ASCE supports the following actions regarding specific R&T programs:

• The research and technology portion of the State Planning and Research (SPR) program should be maintained to help support state-specific activities while continuing to encourage the states to pool these resources to address matters of more general concern.
• University research should continue to be supported through the University Transportation Centers (UTC) program using a competitiveselection process that guarantees quality participants and fairness in the allocation of funds.
• The Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) program should be strengthened by giving it sufficient funding and flexibility to implement the recommendations of TRB Special Report 261,The Federal Role in Highway Research and Technology, to focus on fundamental, long-term research; to perform research on emerging national issues and on areas not addressed by others; to engage stakeholders more consistently in their program; and to employ open competition, merit review, and systematic evaluation of outcomes.
• A continuation of the Strategic Highway Research Program SHRP II beyond the life of SAFETEA-LU, ensuring that critical research will be continued in key areas of surface transportation.
• The Federal Transit Administration's (FTA) research program should be given sufficient funding and flexibility to work with its stakeholders to develop and pursue national transit research priorities.
• The new Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA) should have a well-defined scope and responsibility and appropriate funding, in addition to currently authorized research funding, so that it may supplement and support the R&T programs of the modal administrations.

We also encourage the Subcommittee to review the findings and recommendations of TRB Special Report 295, "The Federal Investment in Highway Research 2006-2009, Strengths and Weaknesses".

While the federal government plays a relatively minor role in the ownership and operations of the nation’s highways, it plays a critical and indispensable role in the research and innovation process, providing about two-thirds of the total amount spent on highway research and technology projects. It also plays a major role in training and technology transfer, and has traditionally been the sole source for higher-risk, potentially higher pay-off research.

To bolster the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) capabilities to improve research, development, technology coordination and evaluation, in 2004, Congress created DOT’s Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA), to coordinate and review the department’s programs for purposes of reducing research duplication, enhancing opportunities for joint efforts and ensuring that research, development and technology activities are meeting their objectives. In 2006, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that while RITA had made progress toward these ends, more needed to be done.
Specifically, GAO noted that RITA has not yet developed an overall strategy, evaluation plan, or performance measures which delineate how its activities ensure the effectiveness of the department’s research, development, technology investment. As a cost-effective coordinated research, development and technology program is vital to creating a world class, 21st century surface transportation program, we urge Congress to continue to monitor RITA’s progress towards achieving these goals to ensure that the public receives a maximum return on every dollar invested.

Rebuilding America’s transportation infrastructure is a critical part of rebuilding our economy. And there can be little doubt that a highly focused and well coordinated R&T surface transportation investment program is necessary if we are to build a surface transportation system that is unparalleled in its safety, security, efficiency and effectiveness, one which provides long term benefits and reinforces the economic foundation of our nation.

ASCE looks forward to working with the Committee to create a strong transportation research program in the next surface transportation authorization bill.