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Transportation is fundamentally a people business. While our focus is on roads and rails; cars, trucks, and airplanes; seaports, airports, and train stations, we are ever mindful that people plan, design, build, and operate these systems everyday for the men, women, and children who use them to get to work, school, visit grandparents, or go to medical appointments. Indeed, the ease of movement of people, and the goods they need and want, is the primary purpose of our transportation systems.

The University Transportation Centers (UTC) Program is a strategic investment in the Nation’s transportation knowledge base. This investment produces a superior national capacity in the men and women who are educated and conduct research in transportation. These professionals are employed by public agencies and private businesses, thereby ensuring the professional capacity needed to maintain and improve our transportation systems.

The United States Department of Transportation (US DOT) has enjoyed a fruitful and long-standing relationship with universities, as authorized through various statutes since 1987. This report describes the operation of the UTC program authorized in the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act – A Legacy for Users of 2005 (P.L. 109-59, SAFETEA-LU) and highlights a small selection of the contributions UTCs have made to the Nation in transportation research, education, and technology transfer.

The UTC program has evolved from 10 regional centers in 1987 to 60 centers spanning 5 categories in 2005 (chart 1). SAFETEA-LU increased the total number of UTC and established five categories – National, Regional, Tier I, Tier II and Title III—with funding levels ranging from $500,000 to $3,500,000 annually (chart 2).


The UTC program provides grants to Centers. It does not provide funding for specific research projects, education, or technology transfer programs. It relies on each Center to fund projects and activities based on a strategic planning framework. Similarly, the US DOT does not judge the merit or success of specific activities. Instead, it reviews the progress of the Centers in achieving the goals established in a strategic plan that was reviewed by professionals across the Department and approved by the Director of the UTC Program.

SAFETEA-LU requires that each UTC provide assurances that the research and education activities will support the national strategy for surface transportation research, as identified by the report of the National Highway Research and Technology Partnership entitled Highway Research and Technology: the Need for Great Investment, dated April 2002, and the programs of the national Research and Technology Program of the Federal Transit Administration.

Each Center is required to involve stakeholders, which typically include State departments of transportation, transit agencies, private industry, and Federal representatives. In addition, specific research projects must be chosen through a competitive process with input and approval of a research selection committee that provides advice and consent.

Direct input into the activities of each Center—including specific projects that are funded—is maintained by the participation of US DOT professionals and officials on Centers’ advisory committees and project selection committees.1 The participation of US DOT staff in this role has existed in the past. Under SAFETEA-LU, the Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA) has made a concerted effort to involve a wider range of US DOT operating administrations in these processes. In the past, US DOT representation was almost exclusively limited to staff from the Federal Highway Administration and, to a lesser extent, the Federal Transit Administration. From 2005 through 2007, the Federal Rail Administration, National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration participated in UTC advisory and research selection committees.

In 1987, the Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act (STURAA) authorized the UTC program through the establishment and operation of transportation centers in each of the 10 standard federal regions. The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) reauthorized the regional UTCs for an additional 6 years and added four national centers and six University Research institutes (URI). The mission of the 10 regional and 4 national UTCs was to advance U.S. expertise and technology transfer. The six URIs each had a specific transportation research and development mandate. In 1998, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) reauthorized the UTC Program for an additional 6 years and increased the total number of Centers to 33. Beginning with TEA- 21, an education goal was added to the primary objectives of the program and strategic planning was institutionalized in UTC grants management.

1 Strictly speaking, the role of DOT staff is circumscribed by federal conflict of interest guidelines. DOT staff cannot participate in the "business decisions" of the Center. Their role is to provide technical advice to the Centers and to inform the Centers of DOT policies relevant to the Center.