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FHWA Home / Safety / Local and Rural Road / Implementing the High Risk Rural Roads Program

Implementing the High Risk Rural Roads Program

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3. Challenges to HRRRP Implementation

In implementing the HRRRP States have experienced a number of challenges, most of which fit within four main categories:

  1. Crash data collection, analysis and use
  2. Project selection
  3. Local agency issues
  4. HRRRP administration and policies

3.1 Crash Data Collection, Analysis, and Use

HRRRP Requirements

The Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP) is based on data-driven decision making for safety investments. The HRRRP statutory requirements are similarly grounded, requiring that locations being considered for HRRRP funding qualify by having a severe crash rate (fatal and incapacitating injury crashes) above the statewide average for routes of the same functional class. One requirement of the HRRRP language is the use of data normalized for exposure. This requirement has presented a hurdle to many States in identifying suitable locations for HRRRP investment.

A provision in the HRRRP language allows safety investments on rural roadways where it is expected that the severe crash rate will be above the statewide average in the future. However, decision makers often focus first on locations with a history of severe crashes. Although the reasons for addressing these locations first vary, the one most often given is limited available funding to address identified "hot spots."

3.1.1 Determining Crash Rate

Three major elements are needed to meet the HRRRP requirement for determining severe crash rates on eligible routes: crash location, crash severity, and some element of exposure (e.g., traffic volume). All three elements have presented barriers to HRRRP implementation.

Crash Location

Locating traffic crashes at the site where they occurred, especially on the rural locally owned roadway system, can be challenging for States. Severe crash data elements (e.g., location, contributing circumstances) are usually available in most State databases; however, the exact location of crashes occurring on locally owned roads presents a problem for most States. Municipal and county roadways often do not have mile markings. Crashes are usually recorded between intersections or at street addresses. In rural areas intersections are far apart and property sizes are large, so the precision of this data is lacking. This lack of information makes safety improvement investment decisions more difficult.

Crash Severity

Crash severity, especially for fatal and incapacitating injury crashes, is often readily available for both State and locally owned roadways. However, the definition of incapacitating injury can vary by jurisdiction within a State. Often times the level of injury is not precisely defined, allowing for variance among law enforcement personnel in the field.

Additionally, there may not be follow-up with EMS and hospital personnel after leaving the scene of a crash to confirm injury severity.

Exposure Data

It is important for the transportation agency to normalize its crash data for exposure when selecting eligible locations for the HRRRP. Traffic volume, usually in terms of Average Daily Traffic (ADT) or vehicle miles traveled (VMT), are the most commonly used exposure data. According to the May 2006 FHWA HRRRP guidance, other types of exposure data include lane miles, population, and the number of registered drivers in a region.

Collecting traffic counts can require a significant investment of resources. This data is generally collected routinely at the State level, but local agencies may not have the funds for equipment purchase or personnel to gather volume data on their roadway system. Without this information, crash rates for locally owned roadways cannot be calculated by volume, making rate comparisons more difficult.

Identifying eligible locations can be difficult for the practitioner. Even when the three data elements described are available, linking these elements to each other often poses additional challenges. Sometimes datasets are on different databases or use different referencing systems, and establishing connections among them can be difficult.

Another difficulty arises if the crash data to be used for decision making is not published in a timely fashion. A 2007 HSIP research effort found that of those States studied, approximately one-third must wait more than 9 months after the crash event before data becomes available. Lack of access to a comprehensive, timely dataset can present a challenge to the practitioner in performing data analysis in the location selection process.

3.2 Project Selection

Selecting HRRRP projects can be a difficult task, particularly for States attempting to effectively distribute projects among jurisdictions with eligible roadways. Part of the challenge relates directly to crash data issues previously discussed. If a State lacks local crash data, the DOT may not have the information needed to make appropriate decisions on all eligible locations.

Limited or absent safety engineering expertise can present an obstacle to some jurisdictions. In order to identify eligible locations, analyze the problems, and choose appropriate countermeasures, some level of safety engineering expertise is required. Without specific training and experience, it may be difficult for agencies to effectively address rural road safety needs. This may be particularly difficult for local jurisdictions where often a transportation engineer is not on staff.

Only construction and operational projects are eligible for HRRRP funding. Data system improvement, enforcement, and education efforts are not eligible. The sample list of eligible projects is available in Appendix A.

There are many issues associated with funding that directly affect the HRRRP project selection process. In particular:

  1. HRRRP funds are relatively low. However, many States attempt to distribute funds equitably and efficiently among jurisdictions, resulting in a need to set limits on the level of funding for eligible individual projects. The level of funding dictates the types of strategies that can be implemented to address the identified safety issues; however, these strategies may not be the most effective solutions.
  2. The Federal requirement for matching funds from State and local agencies for some types of safety improvements directly impacts the types of projects selected. For example, a local public agency may have no funds available for a match; in that case the agency is limited to only those safety countermeasures that are 100 percent federally funded. Examples of 100 percent federally funded items include pavement marking, signing, and roundabouts, among others. A complete list can be found in Title 23 U.S. Code Section 120.

3.3 Local Agency Issues

From discussions with the States, the complication of funding local projects was noted as one of the most significant obstacles to implementing the HRRRP. These obstacles can be categorized in two main ways:

Local agencies (e.g., counties, municipalities, tribal entities) are often structured differently than the State DOT, usually with limited staff or staff time to focus on safety project implementation. Additionally, these agencies are often not familiar with working within the requirements of the State's Federal Aid funding application process. Completing Federal Aid applications is usually not routine for local agencies; therefore a learning curve is usually involved, which can render the process a nuisance. Additionally, due to the large number of local jurisdictions within each State, there are numerous local agencies competing for the same pot of money. As at the State level, local politics can have some influence on transportation funding priorities within local agencies, councils of government, and regional planning organizations as well.

3.3.1 Local Agency HRRRP Outreach

State DOTs have a mandated responsibility for oversight of local transportation entities when using Federal funds on specific projects, but in some cases the State struggles with this role. If communication and coordination between the municipal, county, or tribal agency and the DOT is not well established through outreach efforts, local agencies may have difficulty understanding the process by which HRRRP funds are acquired and used. Lack of understanding can lead to lack of interest, which may ultimately lead to reduced safety investment on locally owned and tribal roadways with significant needs.

3.4 Administration and Policies

Overall, HRRRP funding through the life of SAFETEA-LU is approximately 6 percent of the total HSIP. Some States struggle to invest resources in a new program with relatively limited available funds.

Improving locally owned road safety must be supported by the DOT for significant safety investment to occur at the local level. An HRRRP with emphasis on locally owned system projects presents logistical and administrative challenges to some State DOTs.

Additionally, there are a few States with a relatively small number of eligible rural miles on which the HRRRP funds can be used. These States may not feel that the program warrants the investment of staff time.

3.4.1 Processes for DOT Investment on Local Routes

Some State DOTs do not have the financial and administrative procedures in place to properly allocate HRRRP funds to municipal, regional, and county agencies. State contracting regulations and State-to-local obligation authority can be hindrances. In some States, complications stem from State legislation that is difficult to modify. Unfamiliarity with the development of interagency agreements may slow the process, becoming a deterrent or leading to delays in HRRRP project implementation.

HRRRP fund matching requirements can also become a challenge to program implementation at the local level. In general, Federal safety funding requires a 10 percent match from State or local agencies. For projects selected on locally owned roads, the agency may be faced with a match requirement that exceeds its ability to participate financially.

States may struggle with management of projects administered by a local agency. Federal funds have stricter administrative requirements than State or local funds. These may include restrictions on sources of project materials, required worker wages, and project materials inspections and documentation. States may have to either provide the staffing to oversee the local project or train local staff on project administration.

3.4.2 Staffing State and Local Safety


Staffing levels at the State and local levels have been declining in recent years. Fewer employees are available to address traffic safety needs and administer State and Federal program requirements. The HRRRP was introduced at a time when States may not have been able to adequately manage another program. States may choose not to participate due to staffing issues, and in some cases the State HRRRP may be staffed with personnel who are not experienced in Federal-aid or local agency coordination.

As the number of staff at the State level is reduced, services like crash data analysis and training at the local level, often provided by the State DOT, may be cut back or eliminated. Staffing shortages for project management at the local level may also prevent an agency from applying for funds. State agencies willing to train locals on HRRRP implementation may also find reluctance from the local agencies to invest the time to be educated due to staff shortages.

Photo of a rural, tree-lined roadway.

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Page last modified on June 17, 2011
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