UA Part of $15M Federal Grant, National Center Designation

In partnership with Portland State University and other institutions, UA researchers have received a major grant to advance a modern, efficient transportation infrastructure for the nation.
Dec. 5, 2016
Arthur C. Nelson, a nationally renowned expert in urban planning and real-estate development, is the principal investigator for the UA’s projects that are part of a newly funded federal grant expected to be worth up to $15.6 million.
Arthur C. Nelson, a nationally renowned expert in urban planning and real-estate development, is the principal investigator for the UA’s projects that are part of a newly funded federal grant expected to be worth up to $15.6 million.

The University of Arizona is part of a multicampus program awarded a five-year U.S. Department of Transportation grant — expected to be worth up to $15.6 million — to help transform research, education and outreach related to the nation's pressing transportation issues.

Portland State University's Transportation Research and Education Center, known as TREC, will administer the grant, the federal agency has announced. The grant will enable TREC to expand its National Institute for Transportation and Communities program, or NITC, of which the UA is now an affiliate.

The federal grant also recognizes NITC as one of five national University Transportation Centers — making it the first time the UA has been a member of such a U.S. Department of Transportation-designated center.

Faculty with the UA's new Transportation Research Institute will receive nearly $450,000 during the first year and no less than $2 million over the grant period. Funding will be matched by non-federal partners, such as state departments of transportation, local governments, foundations and businesses.

"This award affirms the University of Arizona's role in shaping transportation decision-making in the region and beyond," said Kimberly Andrews Espy, the UA's senior vice president for research.

"The newly established, university-wide Arizona Transportation Research Institute is playing an important role in convening researchers across campus to expand our research impact in this area, and to promote the University of Arizona as a key contributor in advancing a modern, efficient transportation infrastructure for our nation."

In addition to the UA, the University of Oregon, University of Utah, Oregon Institute of Technology, and University of Texas, Arlington, are partners with Portland State.

The NITC-led effort was partially motivated by the U.S. Department of Transportation's "Beyond Traffic 2045: Trends and Choices, a 30-Year Framework,” which was launched in 2015 and details how the nation is experiencing accelerated challenges associated with its transportation infrastructure.  

In the report, the agency affirms that without substantive improvements by 2045 that address population growth, policy challenges and environmental issues, negative consequences would be far-ranging and significant. For example, the nation could see more frequent delays in air travel and the shipping of goods, which could result in American exports becoming less competitive. Unreliable transportation could have an increasingly adverse effect on accessibility to work, child care and medical care for some populations.

"Urban populations are increasing, yet so is income inequality. As the second-largest household expense, transportation contributes to inequality," said Arthur C. Nelson, a UA urban planning and real-estate professor, and principal investigator for the UA's participating projects.

The U.S. Department of Transportation also detailed in its report that data, mobile, energy, automation and connected-vehicle technologies can help improve the safety, efficiency and convenience of public transit activities.

"Demographic shifts, along with efforts to address climate change and other policy challenges, are contributing to demand for multimodal solutions," said Nelson, also the College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture's associate dean for academic affairs, research and facilities. "Rapid advances in technology and shared mobility have the potential to address these challenges, yet pose new ones related to implementation and equity. With constrained resources, we need better data and tools to optimize mobility."

In response, NITC's research program, in partnership with the UA and others, will focus on four areas: increasing access to transportation opportunities, especially for those who have a difficult time with access; improving multimodal planning and shared use of infrastructure; advancing innovation and smart cities; and developing data, models and tools to improve existing transportation systems.

"In addition, we will have a suite of efforts to create the new generation of leaders in transportation research and system management, and to expand educational opportunities in transportation for undergraduates, graduates and professionals," Nelson said. In particular, the NITC will attract and support transportation students, especially those from underrepresented minority groups that will comprise a significant percentage of the nation's population growth to 2045, he said.

With the initial round of funding, UA researchers will lead several projects:

  • Larry Head, professor in the College of Engineering's Department of Systems and Industrial Engineering, will lead a team designing a smart platform to serve as the foundation for a connected vehicle infrastructure and traffic signal system. The project will first focus on public transportation and ultimately incorporate smartphone technology to integrate pedestrians and cyclists. The project is being implemented in Portland and could inform the development of such systems elsewhere. "This is an exciting opportunity for the Transportation Research Institute," said Head, director of the institute. "We join a strong team with an established record of significant research in the improvement of mobility in our cities. The TRI is excited to bring our interdisciplinary approach to the center to contribute to a better understanding of smart cities, shared mobility, and connected and automated driving vehicles."
  • Arlie Adkins, assistant professor in the College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture, will lead a multidisciplinary team of planners and public health researchers in an investigation of walkability — a measure of how easy it is to safely move through a neighborhood by walking. Research has shown that neighborhood and community walkability carries important implications for personal health, access to employment opportunities and community connectedness. The team will study a sample of U.S. cities, creating recommendations about ways to improve the walkability of underserved communities.
  • Yi-Chang Chiu, associate professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, will lead a team investigating the effectiveness of options meant to help transit operators improve mobility for their users. The team will evaluate subsidies, carpooling, ride-sharing business models and sponsored bike-share programs. The team intends to provide operators with advanced strategies to help improve service performance, usage and outcomes.

"This team was selected for the strengths each campus adds to the whole effort," Nelson said of the collective group involved with NITC.

"The UA team holds particular strengths in research and applications related to advanced transportation technologies, how transportation affects social equity and public health, and also the transportation/land use/economic development linkages," he said. "Through our collective efforts, the National Institute for Transportation and Communities will do nothing less than help transform how we move people and goods in the future."