Working to improve highways’ efficiency |

Working to improve highways’ efficiency

Our nation’s economy runs on the highway system: a network of 3.9 million miles of highways, arterials and local streets. These roads account for 84 percent of freight transport and 90 percent of all passenger travel. A healthy highway system is critical to meeting the mobility and economic needs of Nevadans and the nation. To achieve this goal, the Federal Highway Administration initiated the Strategic Highway Research Program 2 (SHRP2) in 2006, a nine-year program designed to increase the safety, reliability, renewal and capacity of the nation’s roadways.

What do these study areas encompass and what do they mean to the traveling public?


This area’s central goal addresses the role of driver performance and behavior in traffic safety, including how drivers interact with and adapt to vehicles, traffic, roadway characteristics, traffic control devices and other environmental features. Findings will support the development of new and improved safety countermeasures to prevent traffic collisions and injuries. The stakes are high, since each 1 percent improvement in safety saves 325 lives, 30,000 injuries and $2.3 billion annually.

The first important variable in this study will examine past, present and future driver factors on the highways. Age, gender, speed, driver errors, inattention, distraction, fatigue, impairment and aggressive/nonaggressive driving styles all contribute to the analysis of collision risk. How these relate to roadway factors such as edge markings, rumble strips, lane width, shoulder type and width, curvature, grade, median and signing; and intersection factors such as control type, number of approaches and lighting; and vehicular factors such as vehicle type (SUV, car, van) braking, handling, available crash prevention technologies etc., make this a complex problem which has not been studied in this detail before.


Reliability’s central goal is to reduce non-recurring congestion and improve travel-time reliability through incident reduction, management, response and mitigation. Transportation agencies know that improving traffic systems operations during nonrecurring events such as inclement weather or crashes can improve safety, increase efficiency and congestion for drivers.

SHRP2 provides an opportunity to improve travel-time reliability and traffic operations on a national scale. By implementing standard procedures and reducing secondary crashes through faster response times, lives can be saved. It also improves work-zone management, resulting in less congestion, safer roads and fewer road closures. The early identification of potential problems and better planning for special events also decreases costs and congestion.

Reliability studies will ultimately save time because of reduced traffic congestion. Preventive measures will mitigate problems before serious delays and congestion occur.


Three strategic objectives address renewal:

perform rapidly,

cause minimum disruption and

produce long-lived facilities.

These objectives led to the slogan, “Get in, Get out, Stay out!” Inherent within the strategic objectives identified above is that renewal will be achieved consistently throughout the highway system, not just on isolated, high-profile projects.

Rapid renewal has only been achieved under special, high-profile circumstances, because very real barriers exist to consistently apply these tactics. For instance, to build facilities quickly, it is necessary to perform on-site work faster, do as much as possible away from the site, rapidly monitor and inspect construction progress, and provide a contracting environment that allows this to happen. Similarly, improvements in sensing technology result in more rapid inspection and construction acceptance.

Research is evaluating the challenges to rapid renewal. Transferring risk to contractors makes innovative contracting strategies unworkable without financial or other contractual adjustments. Financing is a barrier to planning renewal projects with minimal disruptions. Coordination with railroads and utilities can also present a major barrier and lead to more disruptions. Research is being conducted to address these areas.

Shorter facility life spans cannot be accepted as the price of rapid renewal. Long-life optimization can be achieved through design and materials, but current designs do not consider constructability, material performance and in-service performance to the extent necessary to achieve this strategic objective.


Approaches and tools for integrating environmental, economic and community requirements into the analysis, planning and design of new highway capacity will be developed. This focus’ scope extends from the early stages of the transportation planning process through project development.

One of the major products of SHRP2 Capacity will be a new collaborative decision- making framework for additions to highway capacity. This will be built around key points in the core processes of:

systems planning,

pre-program studies (e.g., corridor planning),


environmental review,

design and


This framework will also encompass sub-processes—such as air quality conformity—and influencing processes—like conservation planning and emerging greenhouse gas emissions analysis. The overall goal is to integrate mobility, economic, environmental and community needs into the planning and design of new highway capacity.

SHRP2 will ensure the continued health of our transportation system by analyzing the needs of our ever-changing society. It is difficult to imagine our world without our transportation network.

Jim Nichols is the director of the Nevada Local Technical Assistance Program, a program housed at TMCC’s Workforce Development and Continuing Education. The program, funded through grants from the Federal Highway Administration and Nevada Department of Transportation, provides infrastructure training to governmental agencies, contractors and engineers. Contact him at or 775-829-9022.