Policy Background

Transport research in the United States is supported by a number of federal, state, local and private-sector sponsors. The various funding programmes are also structured for different types of research to contribute to transport research, development, and technology transfer goals.

The agenda for transport research is set out in the five-year Strategic Plan produced by the US Department of Transportation (DOT). The document for Fiscal Year 2012–2016 listed the following five research areas as DOT priorities in funding considerations: Safety, State of Good Repairs, Economic Competitiveness, Liveable Communities, and Sustainable environment.

Most transport research funds are distributed through competitive processes that involve a formal national call for proposals, peer reviews by expert panels, and sometimes the participation of decision-makers and politicians.

Institutional framework of transport research

Research topics and priorities tend to vary from region to region. Individual States have their own funds for transport research and determine their own research agenda. Federal government support is provided for state- and local-level research through cooperative research programmes that require state and local matching funds.

While transport research is often viewed as applied scientific and engineering research, there are also specific programmes for basic research, often funded by Federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation and Exploratory Advanced Research programmes by DOT. Major applied research programmes include:

  • National Cooperative Research Programmes for each transport mode;
  • University Transportation Centre programmes for individual or consortia of universities;
  • Centre of Excellence programmes funded by Federal Departments of Transportation, Energy, Education, Housing and Economic Development, and Homeland Security.

Several directorates under the National Science Foundation (NSF) often fund transport research: Civil, Mechanical, Materials, and Information Systems, Decision and Behaviour Sciences, Education and Outreach Programmes, CAREER programme that funds early career researchers, and special interdisciplinary programmes that cross-cut multiple research areas including transport (e.g., Cyber-Physical Systems, Big-Data Research).

There are currently National Cooperative Research Programmes (CRP) organised by transport mode. These programmes are governed by the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO), and managed by the Transportation Research Board (TRB). AASHTO members who are typically high and mid-level managers from State DOTs, select research topics to fund, and often participate in review panels along with academic experts for project selection and funding decision-making. This funding mechanism allows individual states to provide inputs and preferences in project generation and funding. AASHTP has a Research Committee, and a number of Standing Committees, which together make decisions on funding allocation to individual topic areas.

Authorised by Congress to address some of the most pressing needs related to the national highway system, the Strategic Highway Research Programme (SHRP) is now currently in the second phase. SHRP2 is administered by the Transportation Research Board under a Memorandum of Understanding with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Amer