The Virginia Department of Highways (VDH) provided $20,000 to its Division of Tests to create a new research section. Tilton E. Shelburne of Purdue University’s Joint Highway Research Project became the department’s first head of research. Early field studies primarily involved materials.
Partnering With Higher Education
In late 1948, VDH and the University of Virginia (UVA) agreed to establish a cooperative research unit. The new Virginia Council of Highway Investigation and Research (the Council) opened in UVA’s School of Engineering in Charlottesville in 1949. The primary focus continued on materials, helping establish national standards for skid resistance and major advancements in construction. Training future transportation professionals also became a part of the mission with relocation to Charlottesville and partnership with the UVA.
Significant changes came in the late 1960s. The Council received a new name, the Virginia Highway Research Council, and its governing board was enlarged.
The establishment of advisory committees to assist with plans and policies was also approved. Research topics broadened into economics, traffic management, transportation safety, maintenance, structures, and environmental and historical concerns.
A new $1.3 million, 42,000-square-foot building, completed and opened in 1973 and named the Shelburne Building, after the first head of research, provided space for more than 100 employees and included laboratories and a library.
By 1970, the Council's projects ranged from traditional materials research to developing environmental impact statements and establishing standards for noise barriers.
In 1974 the VDH was renamed to the Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation (VDH&T) reflecting a new, broader mission encompassing all modes of transportation in the Commonwealth and accordingly, the Council was re-named once again to the Virginia Highway and Transportation Research Council (VHTRC).In response to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and increased sensitivity to the environment, the Council saw an explosion of interest in environmentally-related projects.
New Era, New Name
Studies during the 1980s had an increasing emphasis on technology and the environment. In 1987, the VDH&T and the VHTRC received new names: the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and the Virginia Transportation Research Council (VTRC).
Innovation As Watchword
VTRC continued innovating during the 1990s, achieving national recognition. VTRC and UVA launched the Smart Travel Lab in the Center for Transportation Studies in UVA’s School of Engineering. The lab was jointly staffed by VTRC and UVA researchers.
In the late 1990s, VTRC began developing and administering programs at the Virginia Smart Road, a 2.2-mile closed testbed research facility near Blacksburg owned by VDOT and managed by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI.)
In 1998 the Council marked its 50th anniversary of service to VDOT with a retrospective celebration attended by former VTRC employees, including some from the original Research Section, and senior-level leaders in VDOT. The Virginia General assembly issued a proclamation expressing gratitude for VTRC's service to the Commowealth and its citizens.
A new century brought more advancements, among them research in high-performance concrete materials; significant structures research; studies of innovative structural systems for bridges; and cost-effective paving technologies.
The VDOT Research Library, housed in the Shelburne Building, became the nation’s largest state DOT library and the first to digitize its more than 2,000 research holdings, dating from 1970. The library currently has more than 33,000 titles and 45,000 items.
In 2008, VTRC became a primary partner in the Federal Highway Administration’s Long-Term Bridge Performance Program, a five-year, $25 million national-scale research endeavor focusing on the nation’s bridge inventory. VTRC became in charge of the project in the eastern United States, managing and maintaining pilot bridges in the region.
Meeting New Challenges
VTRC, in partnership with the VTTI, invested in the Connected Corridor, a testbed for both connected and automated vehicle applications.
VTRC focused resources on mitigating animal-vehicle collisions, including the composting of carcasses.
VTRC led an effort to use in-place recycling on a major rehabilitation of Interstate 81.
VTRC led a collaborative effort between pavement and safety engineers to focus on high friction pavement surface treatments to address wet crash challenges.
VTRC scientists make siginificant contributions in the construction of Virginia’s first corrosion-resistant ASTM A1010 steel plate girder bridge.
VTRC research showed that Virginia asphalt mixtures may contribute to a perpetual pavement design, as seen on a Virginia section of the
As VTRC approaches its 75-year anniversary in 2023, significant research is underway on the use of advanced materials such as carbon fiber reinforced polymer and additional applications utilizing stainless steel.
New research has been initiated to create longer lasting pavements using Balance Mix Design and to reduce maintenance issues on bridges by eliminating joints in these structures. Efforts are also underway to increase the overall resiliency of the Commonwealth’s transportation network, especially that portion of the system that is vulnerable to flooding.
Safety research remains a top priority as does continued emphasis on facilitating implementation of the findings and recommendations resulting from all research undertaken at VTRC.
Last updated: October 26, 2023
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