History of the Larson Institute

The Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute (the Larson Institute) is a major interdisciplinary research center of Penn State, administered through the College of Engineering. The institute was renamed in January 2008 to honor the extraordinary legacy of its co-founder and first director. An endowment fund, The Thomas D. Larson Fund for Excellence, was established in 2007 to support the education and training of the nation's future transportation leaders.

The Founding: Why an Institute?

Like many long-standing institutions, the Larson Institute began as an idea. At Penn State, researchers had been active in transportation-related research in the 1950s. Growing interest brought together a Transportation Studies Committee of six individuals with limited University support in 1966. Among the committee members were the Institute's three co-founders: Tom Larson, professor of civil engineering; Wolfgang Meyer, professor of mechanical engineering; and Bob Pashek, professor of business logistics. By 1967, the quality of research under the auspices of this committee and transportation developments at the state and federal levels indicated that a stronger, more cohesive organization was desirable. The committee therefore proposed the formation of a transportation research center, and on February 23, 1968, the Pennsylvania Transportation and Traffic Safety Center was officially established. The previous year, transportation researchers had organized the first Pennsylvania Highway Transportation Conference and Workshop at Penn State and conducted a study for establishing a public transportation system for the University Park campus. 

The Early Years

During its first year of operation, fiscal 1968-69, the center's contract research dollar volume increased from $48,000 to $700,000. Its multidisciplinary mission was already apparent, with the number of participating University departments increasing from six to 11. In the April 1969 Status Report, Tom Larson, as the center's first director, put forth a clear and compelling vision for the organization: "A major goal for the future and within the basic objectives of the Center is the evolution of an organization and method of operation compatible with the academic goals of this University and still comparable in terms of efficiency and creativeness with commercial research groups. Among other things, this requires that the Center be, in fact, a Center rather than simply an office for the administration of contracts. The philosophy of the University and the inclination of the staff appear to support this kind of development."

Unique and diverse research initiatives followed. A preliminary design study and cost estimate for a model license testing facility for Pennsylvania motor vehicle operators was completed in 1969. In 1971, construction began for a Pavement Durability Research Facility at Penn State, in part to address the need for a pavement design procedure for the Pennsylvania Department of Highways. The early facilities included the construction and testing to failure of an experimental prestressed concrete bridge from 1971-74. That bridge was replaced in 1980 by an experimental segmental bridge as part of the Institute's developing full-scale research facilities.

PTI: A Forward-Looking Enterprise

In 1974, the PTTSC was renamed the Pennsylvania Transportation Institute. By 1978, the multidisciplinary faculty, students and staff at the Institute had produced over 1,000 publications and presentations. Total dollar value of contracts over 10 years was $6.6 million, with 29 active contracts. In the Institute's 1978 report, Larson contemplated the imminent challenges facing the industry and the nation. "Despite the mobility expectations of the American public and the clear fact that this mobility has been central to our progress, support for transportation is declining and our systems are in jeopardy. Both state and federal highway expenditures have been decreasing in constant dollars since 1970, while the Federal Highway Administration estimates that the highway system in the United States is wearing out at a rate 50 percent greater than the current rehabilitation effort...Clearly the pattern emerging is a threatening one."

Larson didn't fret; he looked forward. "Contributions from the research community are urgently needed as one means for improving this picture. In the highway area these contributions could range from more cost-effective maintenance practices to understanding the citizen's reluctance to pay the cost of a service so universally used. For transit, a key issue is finding ways to provide quality service, better comfort, convenience, and reliability at affordable costs. For all transportation there looms the uncertainty of the availability of fuel. What will we use to power our systems in the years immediately ahead? It seems certain that the energy situation will rank as the most significant influence on transportation for the rest of the century. University transportation research groups have the opportunity to contribute to these pressing needs in direct ways. More importantly, they can educate students to have the comprehensive view of transportation that is a prerequisite to future progress."

Building on the Vision

Since Larson's tenure, eight individuals have served as director of the Institute: Thomas Larson, Bob Pashek, J. J. Henry, Bohdan Kulakowski, Lily Elefteriadou, John Mason, Martin Pietrucha, and Eric Donnell. The ensuing years have seen many developments and additions come to the Institute and to the University in support of the Institute's unwavering mission of teaching, research and service.

Energies at the Institute in the years that followed brought vibrant new initiatives to Penn State. The Institute's partnership with PennDOT in 1983 produced the Local Technical Assistance Program, one of the leading technology transfer centers in the nation. The Mid-Atlantic Universities Transportation Center (MAUTC) was established at the Institute/Penn State in 1987 to direct a dynamic consortium of academic centers in Federal Region III. In 1989, the Altoona Bus Research and Testing Center was created by federal mandate in nearby Altoona, Pennsylvania, to test all new model transit buses prior to their commercial availability. 

In 1993, the Institute launched a new era of close collaboration with PennDOT through the MAUTC/PennDOT Partnership. The Institute's early and ongoing pavement research made it the logical site for the establishment of the Northeast Superpave Center, now known as the Northeast Center of Excellence for Pavement Technology (NECEPT), in 1995. In 2003, the College of Engineering acquired space for the Civil Infrastructure Testing and Evaluation Laboratory (CITEL), which provides extensive research and learning opportunities for Institute faculty and students. Tom Larson's earlier pondering about the nation's future fuel needs would get a direct response beginning in 1999 with the establishment of the Graduate Automotive Technology Education (GATE) Center at Penn State, awarded by the Department of Energy, with a focus on in-vehicle, high-power, energy storage systems. The Air Products Hydrogen Fueling Station at Penn State, installed in 2005, is now helping to usher in the new hydrogen economy.

Larson Name Honors Unwavering Mission

In 2008, the Penn State Board of Trustees officially changed the Institute’s name to reflect the extraordinary legacy left by Tom Larson to the University, the Commonwealth and the nation. Today, the Larson Institute, operating under the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has 47 affiliated academic and research faculty representing colleges, departments, institutes and campuses from across the University system. Engineering departments represented include Civil and Environmental, Mechanical and Nuclear, Architectural, Electrical, Engineering Science and Mechanics, and Industrial and Manufacturing. Other departments represented include Statistics, Fuel Science, Supply Chain and Information Systems, Curriculum and Instruction, and The Behrend College School of Engineering and Engineering Technology. 

Today, diverse public and private-sector initiatives continue to engage the Institute's capabilities and expertise. The Institute's activities include more than 150 active projects. Institute initiatives have supported numerous graduate students and National Science Foundation fellows. More than 50 dedicated staff support these activities. The Institute's external research fund expenditures exceed $8 million for contracts valued at more than $40 million.



The Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute is Penn State’s transportation research center. Since its founding in 1968, the Larson Institute has maintained a threefold mission of research, education, and service. The Institute brings together top faculty, world-class facilities and enterprising students from across the University in partnership with public and private stakeholders to address critical transportation-related problems.

Thomas D. Larson Pennsylvania Transportation Institute

201 Transportation Research Building

The Pennsylvania State University

University Park, PA 16802-4710

Email: rdb28@psu.edu