The National Academies

NCHRP 08-36/Task 146 [Completed]

Economic Resilience and Long-Term Highway/Transportation Infrastructure Investment
[ NCHRP 08-36 (Research for the AASHTO Standing Committee on Planning) ]

  Project Data
Funds: $150,000
Research Agency: The RAND Corporation
Principal Investigator: Aaron Strong


The concept of strategic planning for transportation infrastructure investment has been expanding to include a response to issues of sustainability and resilience.  Although the question of resilience from impacts resulting from large-scale disruptions such as natural disasters or economic changes has seen a growing library of research and documentation, major questions remain about how to incorporate these concepts into a transportation plan with sufficient analytical backup presented and in a format easily understood by decision-makers.  The increasing competition for funds in a context of decreasing resources renders investment decisions even more critical.  From the perspective of transportation systems in general and highway components in particular, this is a concern that is escalating in importance as questions of effective infrastructure investment strategies proliferate with consequent effects to a state’s or region’s economy.

The process of analyzing conflicting demands on long-term strategic investment planning must address three fundamental areas: the economic, social, and environmental values or objectives of a state or region or locality.  Identifying related issues, concerns, impact measures, and policy demands all have an impact on the analytical methods, implementation strategy, distribution and prioritization of resources (funding, staffing, or other resources), and an agency’s ability to address issues affecting sustainability and resiliency. This analysis must also reflect an understanding of the need for multi-agency interaction as addressed in the earlier NCHRP 08-36 Task 142 study: Advancing Sustainability through Multi-Agency Collaborations. 

From an economic perspective, the ability of a state or region to recover from significant impacts of a natural or man-made disaster, of chronic influences or deterioration (e.g., sea-level rise, recurring flooding, severe weather/temperature changes), or from major economic upheavals is a function of a complex set of pressures and tensions, few of which are presently amenable to analysis, measurement and assessment of sufficient depth and credibility. These analytical limitations make it difficult to mobilize action in advance of particular events or to address non-traditional factors when prioritizing investments for aging transportation assets or chronic deterioration, which in turn compromise of the resilience and sustainability of transportation system. A further challenge is synthesizing the engineering, economic, and risk-based analyses into a clearly expressed set of measurable trade-offs for consideration by decision-makers.


The objective of this study is to further develop the FHWA Framework for Vulnerability Assessment in order to better link planning to policy to programs and address a broad range of issues affecting transportation infrastructure investment and policy decisions.  Consistent with Module 1 of the FHWA Framework, the process must include collaboration among the various jurisdictions and institutions involved with responsibility for implementing a long-term investment strategy that responds to the overall requirements while balancing diverse economic, environmental, and social perspectives. 

Research Plan

This study represents an initial effort at identifying the current state of the practice as well as potential directions for broader, more detailed research and analysis, including potential sources of relevant data and effective strategies for communicating value to decision-makers.  This research builds on the case studies and analytical tools developed through the FHWA Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation Pilot Program and related work, several of which have attempted to quantify economic impacts.

Several components of an extensive investment program were considered: 

(1)  Through continued investment in developing highway and transportation infrastructure designed to withstand disruption, how best to demonstrate and describe the net present value of that long-term investment for elected and appointed decision-makers? Value can be defined both through a higher level of regional economic stability as well as from an improved social welfare response; and

(2) What are the types of programmatic investments that demonstrate the highest net present value?  When and where is it cost-effective to be proactive rather than reactive?  For example, how beneficial is it to build a program that creates a substantive reserve for re-investment following disasters that improves institutional response time as well as constructability.  Are emergency response programs sufficient to respond to disasters?  How do we develop the reserves to respond more effectively and efficiently? What are longer-term policy decisions that foster resiliency and sustainability of the transportation system (e.g., land use decisions that do not place development back into flood zones)? What opportunity may exist between public and private sectors to incentivize resilient and sustainable decisions?

From the perspective of long-term investment and its impact on resilience to economic volatility, the possible problems relate to whether long-term and continuing investment in highway systems in particular and transportation system improvements in general enhances the ability of regional and national economies to respond to changing conditions that are otherwise not easily predicted.  The research is applicable to various scales of economic resilience: localized/project, regional, and statewide.

The Final Report with an accompanying PowerPoint presentation is now available for download.


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