Special Committee on Research and Innovation
Glenn Page, Associate Program Director, Project Delivery
The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan association representing highway and transportation departments in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. It represents all five transportation modes: air, highways, public transportation, rail, and water. Its primary goal is to foster the development, operation, and maintenance of an integrated national transportation system.
As the voice of transportation, AASHTO works to educate the public and key decision makers about the critical role that transportation plays in securing a good quality of life and sound economy for our nation. AASHTO serves as a liaison between state departments of transportation and the Federal government. AASHTO is an international leader in setting technical standards for all phases of highway system development. Standards are issued for design, construction of highways and bridges, materials, and many other technical areas.
AASHTO is guided by a Board of Directors made up of the chief transportation officers from the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The 12-member Executive Committee is led by AASHTO’s elected officers, and is assisted by its executive director.
AASHTO’s policy development, standards setting, and technical activities are the product of volunteer state department of transportation personnel who work through the AASHTO committee structure. The committees collaborate throughout the year and typically meet annually. These committees address virtually every element of planning, designing, constructing, and maintaining transportation services.
AASHTO activities are guided by a five-year strategic plan which outlines a vision, mission, goals, and objectives. Currently, efforts are focused on four major goals:
Goal 1. Re-establish transportation as a national priority.
Goal 2. Advocate and communicate to achieve AASHTO’s goals.
Goal 3. Provide world-class technical services.
Goal 4. Assist state DOTs with leadership and performance.
The Special Committee on Research and Innovation (R&I) is one of AASHTO’s eleven standing committees. R&I acts as AASHTO’s driving force for high-value transportation research and innovation to improve the nation’s mobility of people and goods.
Its mission is to support AASHTO and the transportation community in identifying, conducting, delivering, and facilitating implementation of strategic, high-value research results. R&I will facilitate access to accurate information and the deployment of new products and procedures for developing and operating transportation systems. R&I will ensure that transportation research addresses critical short-term and long-term national needs and complements and supplements federal, state, local, and other programs. R&I’s current strategic plan has five major objectives:
1. Champion, optimize, and enhance the quality and value of research and innovation to AASHTO, the transportation community, and the public.
2. Partner with the U.S. DOT and other stakeholders from academia, the private sector, and other non-governmental organizations to create and sustain strategic multimodal transportation research programs.
3. Lead research planning and programming.
4. Ensure the development and application of successful research of the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP).
5. Continuously review and improve Committee functions and activities.
Some of the specific activities and responsibilities of R&I are as follows:
• Encourage and assist other AASHTO committees and subcommittees to identify research needs, define research emphasis areas, and utilize research findings.
• Solicit research problem statements from the Member Departments, AASHTO committees, and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA); screen the submittals; prioritize them; and recommend annual NCHRP program for consideration by AASHTO’s Board of Directors.
• Monitor the Transportation Research Board’s (TRB) performance as program manager for the NCHRP.
• Monitor the NCHRP and make appropriate recommendations and reports to AASHTO.
• Review, observe, and encourage the effective use of research funding, and recommend appropriate funding levels.
• Serve as a forum, coordinating committee, and advocate for highway and other transportation research on behalf of AASHTO and its Member Departments.
• Review, monitor, and foster coordination of the various national programs of highway and other transportation research.
• Study and foster the role of industry in highway and other transportation research.
Most AASHTO Standing Committees include representatives from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The membership of R&I, however, comprises a Chair, Vice-Chair, and four members from each of the four AASHTO geographic regions. Of these latter 16 members, half are senior executives of AASHTO Member Departments and half are state DOT research engineers or specialists. They are appointed for a four-year term which can be renewed once. One chief administrator and one research engineer or specialist is appointed from Canadian affiliate members. Up to six ex officio (non-voting) representatives from the U.S. Department of Transportation, a limited number of observers, and the four regional chairs of the Research Advisory Committee (RAC) may also participate (non-voting) in R&I meetings.
R&I activities are guided by their own strategic plan, which defines how R&I addresses the research needs of AASHTO member agencies.
R&I usually meets twice each year, once in the spring to formulate the NCHRP program, and once in the fall to receive status updates on NCHRP research and to conduct other business. These meetings are described in more detail below.
R&I members are also invited to attend a meeting of the Research Advisory Committee (RAC) during the TRB annual meeting in January, and the national RAC meeting each summer.
R&I is supported in its activities by the Research Advisory Committee (RAC). RAC is committed to being a proactive committee promoting quality and excellence in research and in the application of research findings to improve state transportation systems. Each of the 52 AASHTO Member Departments is represented on RAC.
RAC responsibilities specifically identified by R&I include the following:
• Work with the AASHTO Member Departments to facilitate the development of research problem statements for consideration by R&I and incorporation into the NCHRP.
• Participate in rating NCHRP problem statements each year and provide the results to R&I for its annual selection procedure.
• Undertake an organized program to identify ongoing and planned state-controlled research being sponsored by Member Departments.
• Provide advice and recommendations on transportation research matters to R&I.
• Serve as a resource to Member Department research managers regarding the conduct of research and technology transfer activities.
• Be an advocate for transportation research by promoting the value of research, the implementation of research results, the transfer of new technologies, and the benefits of peer exchanges.
One of R&I’s most important roles is to serve as the oversight body for the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP). The NCHRP conducts research in problem areas that affect highway planning, design, construction, operation, and maintenance nationwide. The program focuses on practical, ready-to-implement research to address the day-to-day needs of state DOT practitioners. It was founded in 1962 by representatives from the American Association of Highway Officials AASHO (the precursor of today’s AASHTO), the U.S. Bureau of Public Roads (now the Federal Highway Administration), and the National Academy of Sciences.
The NCHRP is sponsored solely by the volunteer contributions of the state DOTs. Funds are drawn from the states’ Federal-Aid Highway apportionment of State Planning and Research (SPR) funds. Furthermore, the funds can be spent only for the administration of problems approved by at least two-thirds of the states. Each state’s allocation amounts to 5 and 1/2 percent of its SPR apportionment.
The NCHRP is structured on an annual cycle. Each year in early July, the AASHTO Standing Committee on Research (SCOR) solicits problems from three authorized sources: (1) AASHTO member transportation departments, (2) the chairs of AASHTO’s committees and subcommittees, and (3) the Federal Highway Administrator.
Problem statements can be grouped into three different types:
1. “Typical” NCHRP projects are on a single distinct subject and have an objective, a beginning, and an end.
2. A “continuation” project is a request from an NCHRP project panel for follow-up research based on a successful outcome of an earlier NCHRP project.
3. A “continuing” project is usually a request to fund a series of related products on an ongoing basis. Continuing projects include quick-response research for certain AASHTO committees, the NCHRP Synthesis of Practice series, the IDEA program, and the Legal Research Digest.
Problem statements are due in mid-September of the same year. After this deadline, staff from NCHRP and FHWA review and comment on each problem statement. These evaluations are sent to submitters in mid-November, and submitters have until early December to comment on the evaluations or to withdraw the problem statement. The NCHRP also uses evaluation panels to assess problem statements in some of the more popular subject areas, such as bridges, materials, and traffic and safety. In these cases, the collective thoughts of the panel are conveyed back to the submitter, instead of FHWA and NCHRP evaluations.
Problem statements are then sent to the relevant AASHTO Standing Committees, subcommittees, and task forces for review and comment.
Late each December, all of the problem candidates and review comments are compiled and sent to R&I and RAC (the “big book”) with a ballot for rating the candidates according to priority.
Typically around 150 new problem statements are received each year. R&I members will usually distribute the problem statements to technical experts and senior managers in their department to assist with the review. Reviewers are asked to rate problem statements according to six major criteria:
1. Does the proposed study represent a current problem that needs researching?
2. Is the proposed study appropriate for the NCHRP, or should it be performed elsewhere?
3. Is the problem of nationwide interest?
4. Are similar efforts already underway elsewhere? If so, will this unnecessarily duplicate the efforts of others?
5. What is the probability of this research being successful?
6. If the research is successful, what is the anticipated return with respect to cost?
Each R&I member will then compile the ratings and comments he or she receives from his/her own staff. The ratings are returned to the R&I Secretary (i.e., the Director of TRB’s Cooperative Research Programs) and are translated into priority rankings based on the average ratings of R&I and RAC. The results are compiled as the Summary of Balloting report and sent to R&I prior to its spring meeting. The report lists all problem statements in rank order from highest to lowest priority as determined during the review process.
The spring meeting will begin with opening remarks from the program sponsors and brief presentations on selected candidates for NCHRP funding. From then on, most of the meeting is focused on NCHRP program development. Before the meeting, NCHRP staff will review the Summary of Balloting report and group the highest ranked problem statements into a consolidated approval list. R&I members will be asked for a single vote of approval for all problem statements in this list as a block. However, before the vote is called any R&I member can remove any problem statement from the consolidated agenda list without discussion. Generally, this is done if the R&I member feels that a particular problem statement needs discussion before he or she can support it. After all voting members have had the opportunity to remove any problem statements they wish, a single vote will be held on all remaining projects in the consolidated approval list.
Next, R&I will take action on all items that were removed from the consolidated approval list. Action will consist of discussion followed by a vote for approval.
After these items have been dealt with, NCHRP staff will have identified a number of other problem statements for discussion in the general session. R&I will take action on these items through discussion and vote.
At this point in the meeting, three breakout groups will meet independently. These groups will be identified in advance and listed in the working papers for the meeting. All remaining problem statements will be reviewed by at least two of the breakout groups. Each breakout group will be chaired by a R&I member, and NCHRP staff will record discussions and decisions. Problem statements will be discussed in rank order, and after discussion of each the voting members will assign one of three recommendations: to approve (+), to not approve (-), or flag for further discussion in general session (0). Each breakout group will work its way through the list of problem statements until the total amount of funding for those recommended reaches an amount determined by NCHRP staff and R&I chair during the earlier general session.
When each breakout session has completed its reviews and recommendations, the results will be compiled by NCHRP staff and distributed to a session of the full committee when it reconvenes. R&I will act on each item in the order listed, taking into account the recommendation and comments from the breakout groups. At some point the Chair may choose to deviate from the ranking order and entertain R&I member recommendations to act on specific problem statements lower down on the list. The session will conclude when the total allocated funding reaches a previously agreed limit.
After the NCHRP program formulation, the remainder of the spring meeting will generally include status reports from NCHRP and its sponsors such as TRB, AASHTO, Federal Highway Administration, and other DOT modal administrations. At the end of the meeting, R&I will discuss “parking lot” issues: items that arose during the meeting that will require follow-up discussion or action.
After the spring meeting, R&I sends a report to the AASHTO Board of Directors requesting approval of the program. For final approval, each project must receive a favorable vote by at least two-thirds of the Member Departments. R&I members are encouraged to work within their departments to ensure that their CEO votes on the program.
After AASHTO approves the program, it is referred to the National Academies for administration.
After acceptance by the National Academies, NCHRP solicits nominations for panel members to guide the work. This solicitation is sent by email to all R&I and RAC members and to the Chief Executives of all state DOTs. These expert panels provide guidance on the technical aspects of the research and translate the AASHTO problems into NCHRP research project statements with well-defined objectives. This is an important opportunity for R&I members to (a) identify personnel with the level of expertise needed to successfully accomplish the project objectives, and (b) ensure that the needs of their agency are represented in the scope of work. Having staff on an NCHRP panel will also greatly facilitate implementation of the results in AASHTO member agencies when the work is completed. R&I members are encouraged to take advantage of this opportunity and respond promptly when the solicitation is distributed by NCHRP staff.
About 4 to 6 months after program formulation, panels for new NCHRP projects meet (usually in Washington, D.C.) to draft a request for proposals (RFP). On the basis of the RFP, TRB solicits research proposals from private and public research organizations that can demonstrate capability and experience in the problem area to be researched. These organizations include universities, nonprofit institutions, consulting and commercial firms, and individual consultants. The RFPs are posted on the TRB website; contractors can self-subscribe to a mailing list to automatically receive all RFPs.
Proposals are due about 6 weeks after the RPFs are posted. After the deadline, all proposals received are sent to the panel members for review. About 6 weeks later, panels will meet to discuss the proposals and select a contractor.
The current status of all projects is posted on the NCHRP website. This will include the availability of any research projects and an estimate of when the final report will be available.
The fall business meeting is an opportunity for R&I to be briefed on NCHRP research results, monitor the activities of the Research Advisory Committee in pursuit of the R&I strategic plan, and to develop new initiatives to fulfill its role of serving the research needs of AASHTO member agencies.
The R&I/RAC website contains a wide array of information resources that can be helpful to you as a R&I member. These include links to current legislation and regulations, research guides and manuals, tools to promote the value of research, links to major databases of published and ongoing research, useful contacts, and much more.