Grant delay slows research center development

The federal government granted four Oregon universities a $16 million federal grant in August 2005, to aid the Center for Transportation Studies at Portland State in national-level research, but the schools are still waiting for the check to arrive.

“We have never been really certain about when the grant would happen, though most of us hoped it would be before now,” said Professor Robert Bertini, director of the center.

The center for transportation at PSU is a collaborative program, in partnership with the University of Oregon, Oregon State University and the Oregon Institute of Technology. The 2005 grant enabled the center to become one of 10 nationally funded transportation centers that researches to help solve current transportation problems and possible future problems affecting the country, according to Bertini.

“No project or program has been approved yet, since we don’t have federal authorization to start any projects or programs,” Bertini said. “The delayed projects have impacted faculty and students to some extent. Delays in federal funding are fairly typical and we have managed to keep most of our students supported.”

Bertini traveled to Washington, D.C., this week to meet with officials at the U.S. Department of Transportation, where he hoped to get a timeline for funding and the review of research proposals in place.

“We are still playing the waiting game,” he said.

He expects to receive the grant notification within the next month, and then things will be able to get started.

“When that happens, I’m sure we will be very excited,” he said.

The original $16 million grant was to be disbursed over five years.

“The first year’s grant was supposed to be $2 million, but will now be $1.56 million after a typical decision process that occurs,” Bertini said.

The second year’s award will be approximately $3 million, followed by three more years at $3.5 million each.

The transportation center is a part of the Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA) at the U.S. Department of Transportation, a government program looking to advance research and innovation in transportation technology.

To fund a research project, the center must raise half the money locally and then the federal government will fund the other half as a dollar-for-dollar match from the government.

The research at the center will examine all forms of rail, bus and highway transportation, as well as bicycle and pedestrian issues. Its focus is both urban and rural, and the grants from the federal government are aimed at addressing regional transportation problems.

The new center emerged from the older Intelligent Transportation Systems Laboratory, launched in 1966 as part of the School of Business Administration, and moved to the College of Urban and Public Affairs in 1987. The infusion of federal resources will create many new opportunities for students, including fellowships, research assistantships, stipend and tuition remission positions for graduate students, and hourly stipend positions for undergraduates. He said 20 to 25 students already work on these projects, and many of the PSU faculty are waiting to submit proposals.

“Over the next few months,” Bertini said, “[we] will be preparing a strategic plan which will involve the input and participation of our four universities’ faculty and administration, plus our broad array of stakeholders including local, regional, state and federal agencies, industry, advocacy groups and the private sector.”

He said the planning will help clear up some of the center’s lingering procedural questions.

“The strategic planning process will be very healthy and inclusive, and will identify our research selection process, among other things,” Bertini said.

While there is still no definite answer on when the funding will come through, Bertini expects the center to be up and running during the summer, and hopes that research projects will be selected through a peer-review process in time to start in the fall.

“We’re still sort of a caterpillar waiting to turn into a butterfly,” he said.