The agenda for transport research is set out in the Research, Development and Technology (RD&T) Strategic Plan 2017-2021 produced by the Department of Transportation (DOT). The RD&T Strategic Plan meets the statutory requirements of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, which requires the Secretary of Transportation to develop a five-year strategic plan to guide future Federal transportation research and development activities.
The Strategic Plan details the DOT’s transportation research priorities for a five-year time period and describes the activities undertaken by the Department to address these priorities. The DOT has defined four critical transportation topic areas that will be supported by the research, development and technology (RD&T):
- Promoting safety
- Improving mobility
- Improving infrastructure
- Preserving the environment
A key document that influences the transport research strategy is Beyond Traffic: Trends and Choices 2045, a 30-year outlook on the future of the transportation system in the United States. It is a comprehensive assessment of current and future conditions and aims to guide transport policy discussions and actions.
The Department of Transport (DOT) is the principal entity within the Federal Government tasked with supporting the Nation’s transportation system. Most of the DOT’s research activities are conducted by the Operating Administrations. Each agency has its own mission, statutory requirements, and funding sources through a range of Congressional committees. Individual Operating Administration research goals are therefore closely linked to the specific mission of the agency. The Operating Administrations are:
- Federal Aviation Administration
- Federal Highway Administration
- Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
- Federal Transit Administration
- Federal Railroad Administration
- Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration
- Maritime Administration
- Intelligent Transportation Systems – Joint Program Office
Within the Department, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology (OST-R) plays a lead role in research coordination with a wide range of national and international stakeholders. The OST-R focuses on coordinating research activities within the Department’s Operating Administrations, aligning departmental research with other secretarial office functions and engaging external stakeholders.
Transport research in the United States is supported by several federal, state, local and private-sector sponsors. Individual States have their own funds for transport research and determine their own research priorities. Federal government support is provided for state- and local-level research through Cooperative Research Programmes that require state and local matching funds. The various funding programmes are also structured for different types of research to contribute to transport research, development, and technology transfer goals. 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.
The National Cooperative Research Programmes (CRP) are 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.
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.
The current ongoing National Cooperative Research Programmes are:
- National Cooperative Highway Research Programme
- Transit Cooperative Research Programme
- Airport Cooperative Research Programme
- Behavioural Traffic Safety Cooperative Research Programme
- National Cooperative Freight Research Programme
- Hazardous Materials Cooperative Research Programme
- National Cooperative Rail Research Programme