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VTRC History



  Portrait of Tilton E. Shelburne

Tilton E. Shelburne     

  • 1944 - The Research Section

    The Virginia Department of Highways provided $20,000 to its Division of Tests to create a new Research Section. This action was the genesis of the nationally respected research program at what is now the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).

    Tilton E. Shelburne, a research engineer with Purdue University’s Joint Highway Research Project, became the department’s first head of research.

    Initial activities of the Research Section were limited to field studies.

    Early research primarily involved materials studies – soils, aggregates, portland cement, bituminous concrete, bituminous mixtures and stabilized mixtures – although other projects went beyond traditional materials testing and research.

    Shelburne set the tone that has been the thread through all the decades of research this group, in all its iterations, has provided the commonwealth, when he told a state highway meeting in 1951: “The research state of mind … is the problem-solving mind as contrasted with the let-well-enough-alone mind. It is the composer mind instead of the fiddler mind. It is the ‘tomorrow’ mind instead of the ‘yesterday’ mind.”

  • 1948 – Virginia Council of Highway Investigation and Research

     The Virginia Department of Highways and the University of Virginia agreed in late 1948 to establish a cooperative research unit, effective early the following year, to replace the department’s Research Section.
    On Feb. 1, 1949, the new Virginia Council of Highway Investigation and Research, a partnership of the highway department and U.Va., opened at the university in the engineering school. 
      The First Administration Board and Advisory Members

    First Administration Board and Advisory Members  

    In the early years, the Council continued its primary focus on materials. Through this research, Virginia helped establish national standards for skid resistance and major advancements in the types of materials and construction techniques used to build highways.

    The relocation to Charlottesville and the University of Virginia was also the start of a new part of its mission – which continues to this day – to train future transportation professionals in collaboration with the university.

    The Council continued on this research track through the 1950s and into the 1960s.
  • 1966 – The Virginia Highway Research Council

    The Virginia Department of Highways and the University of Virginia modified their original agreement in 1966, creating several significant changes for their transportation research partnership:
    • The research group got a new name – the Virginia Highway Research Council
    • The Administration Board, charged with establishing policy “in all matters pertaining to personnel, finances, facilities and the research program,” was enlarged, with an additional member appointed by the highway commissioner and another by the U.Va. president. 
    • A new provision allowed the board to appoint “a Research Advisory Committee, or Committees, at its discretion, to assist in the formation of plans and policies.”

    As the scope of the council’s activities broadened, it added research into economics, traffic management, safety, maintenance, structures, environmental and historical concerns.
    By the latter 1960s, the Council had grown to the extent that it could no longer fit into its Thornton Hall quarters at U.Va. The Council negotiated with U.Va. and the Highway Department to build a new facility on Observatory Hill on the western edge of the U.Va. Grounds. 
    The construction of a separate, modern building wholly dedicated to the Council provided a new 42,000-square-foot structure, completed at a cost of $1.3 million, with space for more than 100 employees, laboratories and a library, all under one roof. 
     Although he did not live to see its construction, it was appropriate that the new building was named after the man who, more than anyone else, had shaped the Council. The Tilton E. Shelburne Building was completed in 1973.

  • 1970's – The Virginia Highway and Transportation Research Council

    By 1970, the Council was conducting projects ranging from traditional materials research to developing ways to prepare environmental impact statements and establishing standards for constructing the first noise barriers in Virginia.

    In 1974, the Council again got a new name – the Virginia Highway and Transportation Research Council – in line with the department’s new name – the Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation. The department and U.Va. once again modified their joint agreement authorizing the Council to confirm the relationship and conduct research projects to meet the changing times. 
     This decade also brought a new emphasis to the Council: that of environmental research. In response to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969 and the department’s increased sensitivity to the environment, the Council saw an explosion of environmentally-related projects in the early 1970s, which led to an unprecedented amount of work by researchers other than engineers at the Council. .
    In 1986, the Council’s Technology Transfer Center was established, funded by allocations from the federal Rural Technical Assistance Program and from VDOT, part of a national network of technology transfer centers which provide technology information and support services to all transportation agencies in the host state.
  • 1980's – The Council's Research Expands

     A sampling of Council studies during the 1980's shows a continuation of the same trends that started during the 1970s, with an increasing emphasis on technology and the environment.
    Materials and engineering research continued, but with changes in scope. There is no clearer illustration of this than the end of the venerable Council skid-testing program in 1984 – although the Council continued to oversee skid tests throughout the department in the districts for a few more years until 1988
    In 1982, members of the Council’s Safety Section served as staff support for Governor’s Task Group on drunken driving. The General Assembly passed legislation in 1984 based on the group’s work. 

    The Safety Section also supported studies on mandatory seat-belt use – that legislation passed in 1987.  Safety Section researchers continued to support the Division of Highway Safety, which was independent until 1983, when the General Assembly merged it into the Department of Motor Vehicles, creating a Transportation Safety Administration within the DMV. Thereafter, the Safety Section provided research support to this unit within DMV and received DMV funding for its operations.