US Transportation Secretary, Elaine L Chao has chaired the inaugural meeting of a new council that aims to address the disparities in rural transportation infrastructure and funding in order to meet the country’s priority transport goals of safety and economic competitiveness.
Announced by Chao last month at the annual meeting of the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) in St Louis, Missouri, the new Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success (ROUTES) Initiative, will analyse the US Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) discretionary funding and financing opportunities to ensure rural communities’ transportation infrastructure helps the national transportation network to meet desired outcomes for road safety and improved commercial freight movement. The new ROUTES Council will oversee and manage the improved use of USDOT funding opportunities and programs in support of the USA’s rural transportation system.
Rural communities and their transportation networks have been instrumental in building and supplying urban areas throughout the country’s history, carrying people from city to city for work, and moving freight from key industries such as agriculture, mining, forestry, and manufacturing. However, rural transportation infrastructure has significant challenges.
While only 20% of Americans live in rural areas, 70% of the country’s road miles are in rural areas, carrying nearly 50% of the nation’s truck traffic, which create significantly more wear-and-tear on rural roadways. Of all the USA’s bridges that are posted for weight limits, 90% are in rural areas, meaning heavy trucks must cover three-times the distance of the those in urban areas to find a safe route.
The Initiative is also needed for safety, as a disproportionate number of US roadway fatalities occur in rural areas. Despite their low resident population, 46% of the country’s highway deaths occur on rural roads, as well as 39% of all highway-rail crossing fatalities, with the overall highway fatality rate being more than twice that of urban areas. In fact, 44% of personal vehicle miles travelled (VMT) on rural roadways are actually urban residents traveling to destinations outside their home metropolitan areas, so rural roadway safety becomes a national issue.
Acting as a new internal deliberative body at the USDOT, the ROUTES Council will identify critical rural transportation concerns and coordinate efforts among the agency’s different modal administrations. The Council will initially review public comments, meet with rural stakeholders, and publish user-friendly information, including a rural resources handbook.
The ROUTES Initiative will also assist rural stakeholders in understanding how to access USDOT grants and financing products, and develop data-driven approaches to better assess needs and benefits of rural transportation projects. This builds on the model pioneered by the agency’s Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan program’s Rural Project Initiative, which offers lower project-cost thresholds for loan eligibility, subsidised interest rates, and the coverage of fees to encourage use of the credit program for infrastructure projects in rural areas.
Opening the initial ROUTES Council meeting, Chao said, “Rural infrastructure has historically been neglected and the ROUTES Initiative will address this to boost safety, commerce and quality of life for all who rely on these crucial transportation networks.”