Balancing Act: Mack-Blackwell Meets the Challenges of Rural Transportation

Balancing Act: Mack-Blackwell Meets the Challenges of Rural Transportation

Authorized by Congress in 1991, Mack-Blackwell was established by a grant from the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) in 1992 as a national center of excellence for rural transportation. It is named for Arkansas state senators Y.M. Mack and Lawrence Blackwell, who co-sponsored legislation to create the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Commission in 1952.

Originally there were only three national transportation centers, according to Walt LeFevre, University Professor of civil engineering and the first director of MBTC.

“We were the only one that focused on rural transportation,” he explained.

The USDOT initially provided the centers with broad guidelines and left it up to each center to develop its procedures. LeFevre enlisted graduate student Melissa Tooley, who helped to set up the center and worked on ensuring compliance with federal and state laws.

Melissa Tooley

“Essentially they told us ¬ we’ve decided what we want you to do, but we can’t tell you how to do it,'” LeFevre laughed. “They gave everyone the same blueprint, but we each did something different with it. We had the ability to create it in the form that we liked.”

As the number of University Transportation Centers (UTC) has grown, new centers have turned to MBTC as a model for setting up their administrative functions. MBTC leaders also have been asked to present their methods at the national meetings of UTC directors.

From the beginning Mack-Blackwell linked its education and research mandates. “We decided at the beginning that we would not fund any research that did not involve students at some level,” said LeFevre. “I am proud to say that we still have that requirement.”

After setting up a process for evaluating research proposals, MBTC began to actively solicit proposals from outside of the College of Engineering and outside of Arkansas.

“It took a long time to get people to apply,” LeFevre explained. “They didn’t think they would actually be considered. But we funded a project at the University of Oklahoma and then one at Kansas. From then on, people started to accept that we really were a national center.”

LeFevre retired as MBTC director in 1997 and was succeeded by Rear Admiral Jack Buffington, professor of civil engineering. After earning her doctorate, Tooley accepted a teaching position at the University of Florida. She returned to Arkansas in 1999 as an assistant professor of civil engineering and became director of MBTC a year later.

To date, MBTC has funded more than 100 research projects at nine universities in seven states. All MBTC grants require a 100 percent match from non-federal dollars. MBTC now reviews around 40 preliminary proposals annually and, depending on the funding allocation, supports 8 to 15 projects each year. Since 1992, Mack-Blackwell has supported more than $20 million in transportation research projects.

CTTP director Frances Griffith demonstrates a new, more accurate method of density analysis with an asphalt core sealed with the Corelock® vacuum system. Density correlates with asphalt strength: toos dense and it ruts easily, not dense enoughand it breaks down too fast.

“When we select projects, we look for overall balance in the program and try for a mix of infrastructure design and maintenance, trucking and social sciences,” said Tooley. “We want to be sure we are addressing all aspects of rural transportation  business, infrastructure and socioeconomic issues.”

Tooley believes that Mack-Blackwell’s diverse approach was key in making the center a strong competitor for funding in 2002. Seventeen centers competed for 10 available slots. MBTC succeeded and was awarded $1 million per year for the next two years.

“When the grants were announced, Mack-Blackwell was right at the top,” said Congressman John Boozman (R-Ark.), who serves on the House Transportation Committee. “Mack-Blackwell is truly recognized as a national center for excellence. You can say that name, and anyone who knows about transportation knows them.”

Mack-Blackwell is also unique in that it has strong relationships with both the highway and trucking industries. While other transportation centers focus on one aspect, MBTC works on relationship building between various interests in the transportation sector.

“We work with the highway department, trucking companies, politicians and educators. We work with everyone to try to make the system better,” Tooley said. “We were originally charged by USDOT to have a diverse, interdisciplinary and intermodal program, and we have accomplished that. MBTC focuses on education, research and technology transfer to improve the quality of rural life through transportation.”


An essential component of Mack-Blackwell, education has a role in every project. In addition to supporting workshops and internships and offering MBTC Fellowships, MBTC worked with the University Arkansas to develop courses and three new degree programs:

The Master’s of Science in Transportation Engineering (MSTE) is the first program of its kind to be accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. It draws from courses in civil and industrial engineering and business and provides a path to engineering licensure for graduates with non-engineering undergraduate degrees.

The Master’s of Transportation and Logistics Management was developed with funding from MBTC. Housed in the Sam M. Walton College of Business, this degree is available as a traditional course of study or as a night program for working professionals.

Asphalt cores show composition and density vary greatly, depending on the application.

The Ph.D. in Public Policy, Transportation Option was created in 2001 and is housed in the political science department. This interdisciplinary policy program has a strong emphasis on public affairs, training policy leaders to address transportation policy issues.

MBTC sponsors four distinguished lecture series each year. Recent speakers have ranged from Dan Turner, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, to David Renfroe, the forensic engineer who investigated the crash that killed Princess Diana, to Charlie Thornton of Thornton Tomasetti, who spoke on the collapse of the World Trade Center.

MBTC also develops internship opportunities with transportation industries and the Arkansas Highway Department. It names an outstanding student every year and sends students to the Transportation Research Board and other national and regional transportation conferences.


Mack-Blackwell has established three areas of excellence in transportation research: transportation infrastructure design and maintenance; traffic/logistics planning and management; and transportation policy. In addition, it has focused on rural public transportation and application of advanced technologies in rural areas.

But diversity is the hallmark of MBTC research. Although “traditional” projects like civil, industrial and mechanical engineering are well represented in the MBTC research program, other projects involve working with the Arkansas Archeological Survey to develop a GIS-based map that will expedite building projects throughout Arkansas while protecting cultural resources and working with trucking companies to increase driver retention. MBTC has conducted research on the impact of an aging population on rural transportation, welfare-to-work policies and innovative uses of GIS technology, including preventing slope failures and managing hazardous waste spills.

“At Mack-Blackwell we have always stressed interdisciplinary and intermodal projects,” said Tooley. “We are currently providing a leadership role for the development of the waterborne transportation industry in Arkansas.”

Technology Transfer

MBTC established the Center for Training Transportation Professionals (CTTP) to provide certification programs for individuals in highway construction. To date, more than 900 people have received certification in highway construction quality control testing through CTTP. Directed by Frances Griffith, CTTP has issued more than 2,000 certificates in aggregates, asphalt, concrete and soils. CTTP has recently added a laboratory certification program and is developing a course in construction staking.

For working professionals who want to pursue advanced degrees, or those wanting Professional Development Hours for renewing their professional engineering license, MBTC has developed a series of courses on video so that individuals will not have to come to Fayetteville to complete coursework. In addition, MBTC has developed a series of workshops, which are taught the two days before the Arkansas Academy of Civil Engineering annual meeting.

The Mack-Blackwell Rural Transportation Study Center addresses the infrastructure, business and socioeconomic needs of rural America by maintaining a balanced program of education, research and technology transfer. But it also is building relationships and bringing people together. John Delery, associate professor of management, noted another benefit of the MBTC balancing act: “As a contractor, I attend their meetings and it is great that they bring together researchers from different disciplines to work on transportation issues. It develops a network of scholars that have worked together on projects.”

ERSA Major

Stacy Williams loads weights onto the track arm of ERSA. Developed through research funded by Mack-Blackwell, ERSA allows asphalt samples to be tested under varying simulated traffic and weather conditions.

University of Arkansas civil engineers Kevin Hall, professor, and Stacy Williams, assistant professor, are working on an MBTC research project to reduce the cost of highway degradation by developing a way to predict rutting tendencies for asphalt pavements before they are constructed. Better pavements improve driver safety and decrease car repair expenses while producing roads that last longer.

Hall and Williams study flexible pavements – more commonly known as asphalt – which represent more than half of all road surfaces in the United States. Faced with poor correlation between laboratory and field data, they developed ERSA (the Evaluator of Rutting and Stripping in Asphalt), a wheel-tracking device used to screen flexible pavements before they are constructed to ensure they will perform as expected.

The correct formula for an asphalt mixture depends on the environment and traffic levels where it will be used. Many factors such as temperature, wetness, and slope impact asphalt’s performance. ERSA can test each mixture at a variety of temperatures and wetness conditions to determine if that batch will perform appropriately in a specific situation.

“Identifying problems ahead of time can result in better decisions about asphalt composition,” explained Williams. “We’re talking billions and billions in tax dollars, and we want to be sure what we put out there is going to last. It’s a huge expense to build a road, so we want to make sure we build it right. An extra week and a few dollars up front to test it before it is built has got to be worth it.”

Culture Clash

Before any transportation project œ a road or railroad track or airport œ can be built, the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 requires that any agency receiving federal funds assess the impact of the project on all archeological and historical properties within the project right of way. Complying with the law could become a difficult and expensive process.

In 1995 MBTC funded a proposal by Arkansas Archeological Survey (AAS) director Tom Green and survey research associate Lela Donat to develop a computer-based geographic information system (GIS) map layer and an associated digital database containing comprehensive information on every archeological site and survey in Arkansas.

To track the more than 35,000 archeological sites and 4,500 archeological projects in Arkansas, AAS began building AMASDA (Automated Management of Archeological Site Data in Arkansas), in the 1980s. The first of its kind in the United States, AMASDA is a relational database containing 130 data fields about each site. The GIS system links to AMASDA, which was expanded to include boundary information and information on sites where surveys had been conducted, but no historic materials found.

“Knowing that a site has been surveyed, but nothing was found is important,” Donat explained. “It saves the agency the time and money of repeating a survey.”

A 2002 MBTC project will create three new databases and update two existing ones. The new databases will provide photographic images of the sites and associated artifacts. Ultimately, AAS wants to make some levels of the system available on the Internet.

“This computer-based system will provide key information allowing highway project managers to better assess the significance of archeological sites and the impact of new transportation developments on those sites,” Green said.

Safe In the Zone

Dropoffs such as this pose a safety hazard for drivers. The work zone safety videwo Dropoffs shows construction personeel how to design these zones to maximize safety for workers and motorists.

Highway work zone safety is an important issue in the United States. According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Association, 768 people are killed and another 40,000 are injured in motor vehicle crashes each year in highway work zones. Sixteen percent of these fatalities involve non-motorists, and 24 percent involve large trucks.

To address work zone safety issues, MBTC teamed with the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department (AHTD) to produce a series of work zone safety videos. Created by Jim Gattis, professor of civil engineering at the University of Arkansas, the videos are used for training and refresher courses for highway workers, supervisors, foremen, inspectors œ anyone who needs to know about safe practices.

“The videos contain the same information that can be found in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices,” Gattis explained. “But videos allow us to show terrain features and other visuals to make the information more understandable. A work zone is a dynamic situation and a written manual can’t show that.”

Gattis has produced five work zone safety videos: Drop-offs, Diversions, Signs of Work, Lane Closures and Pavement Markings, which are targeted to construction professionals. He is currently working on a sixth video that is intended to inform the general public on safe driving practices in work zones. AHTD uses the videos to train inspectors and project engineers.

“Our inspectors put safety first all of the time. Safe travel for the public is the biggest part of their job,” said Alan Meadors, assistant division engineer for planning and research at AHTD. “These videos serve as a review for new employees to make them aware of the standards we need to follow. Jim Gattis took a different approach and made the videos accurate and easy to understand.”

Data by the Truckload

When John Delery and Nina Gupta, management professors in the Sam M. Walton College of Business, talk about the importance of their MBTC projects they point to the unique data set that they have accumulated on employee turnover in the trucking industry.

“Mack-Blackwell funding has allowed us to accumulate data over a long period of time,” Gupta explained. “Accumulating such a massive set of data would not be possible otherwise. Most trucking industry studies are done piecemeal and have a low response rate. Having their support allowed us to do something significant and systematic. It gave us the luxury of doing it right, which will benefit the industry, academe and the research process.”

Delery and Gupta have accumulated data on a wide range of management practices and other aspects of operations and outcomes. To date, they have produced eight journal articles and more than a dozen conference presentations, and they have just begun to mine the data.

Their work has had an impact on the trucking industry and caused some companies to change their management practices. “We showed them that the management of the driver workforce has a very relevant impact on organizational outcomes,” said Gupta. “It is not just a matter of who pays the most money. There are many things going on and it isn’t just one aspect that matters.”

MBTC-sponsored research has been very beneficial to the many small firms in the trucking industry. “Without Mack-Blackwell, this kind of research would not get funded,” Delery explained. “Most trucking companies in our database are small and under-researched, but they are most in need of this information. The high response rates show that they are anxious to improve, but they can’t afford to do research or hire consultants.”

Delery points out that the MBTC projects also have had an impact on the way research is conducted. “They have allowed us to look at the research from a methodological standpoint œ what affects response rates, the kinds of things that encourage people to respond, what kinds of valid information can be collected from an individual.”

In addition to improving research techniques and providing useful information for firms and drivers, Delery and Gupta believe that their projects will advance management science because what they have learned can be applied to other organizations.

About The Author

University Relations Science and Research Team

University Relations Science and Research Team

Matt McGowan
science and research writer

Robert Whitby
science and research writer

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