Office of Planning, Environment, & Realty (HEP)
Planning · Environment · Real Estate

HEP Events Guidance Publications Glossary Awards Contacts

About this Site

The purpose of the GIS in Transportation site is to:

  • Highlight noteworthy practices and innovative uses of transportation GIS;
  • Announce opportunities for sharing information and experiences with GIS such as conferences, meetings, and peer exchanges;
  • Highlight Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) GIS applications;
  • Provide access to resources such as reports, spatial data, and GIS training opportunities; and
  • Offer contact information for GIS experts at FHWA and in the field.

Why is GIS important to FHWA?

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is important because it is a market-ready technology that supports agency priorities and strategic goals, not only within FHWA, but also at the state and local levels. FHWA recognizes that several states have already implemented or are in the process of implementing GIS into some aspect of their day-to-day operations. FHWA also recognizes that other states are just beginning to determine how GIS can help them. By making GIS a priority, FHWA hopes to help those states come to a beneficial decision.

GIS is also important to FHWA because it can improve the environmental review process and can further integrate planning and project development activities. Incorporating GIS into transportation activities allows for project alternatives to be effectively and efficiently evaluated in response to public or agency comments. Project alternatives can then be continuously compared and appraised. This ultimately leads to a streamlined review process and helps to achieve one of FHWA's Vital Few Environmental Goals.

Several factors account for the reasons why FHWA, Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPO), and State Departments of Transportation (DOTs) are progressively utilizing GIS technology in project management and decision support. For instance, transportation and environmental resource agencies are realizing the benefits — such as time and cost savings — from sharing data among agencies. (See Successes in Streamlining Newsletter, November 2003.) An integrated database serves as the foundation for streamlined decisionmaking because it ensures that all stakeholders are reviewing the same information. GIS practices can thus foster an enhanced understanding of projects, minimizing miscommunication among partners and allowing projects to advance more quickly. Another factor in the adoption of GIS technology is that spatial data are becoming widely available. Many sources of data are now available on the World Wide Web for little or no cost. Finally, while GIS still requires some special training, the technology is becoming considerably more user-friendly. As a result, more institutions are developing their own spatial data and GIS applications tailored for particular uses. As the scope of GIS applications continues to expand and diversify, the benefits of utilizing GIS for analysis and decision support is becoming increasingly clear.

FHWA and transportation agencies must continue to explore ways in which GIS can be applied in project areas in order to achieve time and cost savings and enhance stakeholder involvement in transportation projects. Promoting an enterprising and collaborative organizational structure that encourages GIS endeavors is vital to achieving these objectives.

Background of GIS in Highway Transportation Planning

For several decades, FHWA has recognized GIS as a tool that can integrate information from different sources and enable better and more efficient decisionmaking. In the early 1990s, GIS was used in the development of the National Highway Planning Network (NHPN), a network database of the nation's major highway system, which is currently being used to maintain the National Highway System (NHS) and the Strategic Highway Network (STRAHNET). Around the same time, existing FHWA databases, such as the Highway Performance Monitoring System (HPMS) and the National Bridge Inventory (NBI) , were modified so that they could be "joined" (or linked) to the spatial data in the NHPN. This functionality enables visual display of these data. In simple terms, this means that instead of viewing the data in tabular form (e.g., in a spreadsheet), users can instead make maps to display the data spatially and observe geographic patterns. In addition, users can view particular data items within databases to customize visual display for particular uses. Examples of uses for the NHPN system include viewing traffic volumes or pavement condition on a particular highway or mapping bridges with low clearances in a given state or county.

FHWA strives to support MPO and State DOTs in their efforts to adopt GIS technology. For example, in 1997, FHWA sought to increase awareness and support of the use of aerial photography and satellite imagery by transportation agencies. FHWA developed a program though its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program to help MPOs and DOTs shift from the use of historical photographic imagery in highway planning towards the utilization of aerial imagery. This program enabled many transportation agencies to develop the technical capability to utilize remote sensing and aerial photography technology for planning applications.

In the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21, Section 5113), the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) calls for agencies to use spatial information and technologies in applications related to national transportation. Since that time, GIS support and implementation by FHWA has expanded. An annual American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) GIS-T Symposium survey indicated that in 2002, almost half of reporting State DOTs had annual GIS budgets of $500,000 or more. One year later, 86 percent of reporting State DOTs (44, including the District of Columbia) commented that they maintain a "fully operational" GIS unit, of which 21 State DOTs reported having GIS budgets in excess of $1 million.

HEP Home Planning Environment Real Estate