By land, water and air, transportation infrastructure binds together the United States of America. Every day, Americans take over a billion trips — usually on the nation’s 4 million miles of roads. Rivers, streams and other obstacles are traversed via America’s 616,096 highway bridges.
Federal resources focus on the subset of U.S. roads deemed most important for national mobility, commerce and defense. Of the 2.5 million lane miles of roads that span this system, 59 percent are in rural areas. About 7 percent of the traffic on these roads occurred on poor quality pavement. Sixty percent of the 48,000-mile Interstate Highway System is in rural areas.
Deteriorating infrastructure is having repercussions. Aging bridges in need of upgrading negatively impact freight and people. Eighty percent of bridges in the U.S. rated to be in poor condition are located in rural areas. Freight-hauling truck drivers in rural areas often contend with lengthy detours to find a bridge able to handle the weight, which consumes fuel and time.
Rural infrastructure is not just for the benefit of rural residents. Forty-four percent of passenger vehicle traffic in rural areas is urban residents travelling. So it should concern everyone that the fatality rate on rural roads is twice that on urban roads. Only 19 percent of Americans live in rural areas, yet 46 percent of the nation’s highway fatalities occur there.
Safety is reason enough to focus more resources on improving rural infrastructure, yet there are many additional compelling motivations.
Rural transportation networks — which bring manufactured products, agriculture and other commodities to markets — are vital to our nation’s economy and all Americans’ quality of life. Nearly half of all truck vehicle miles travelled (VMT) occur on rural roads, and two-thirds of rail freight originates in rural areas.
The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) during this administration has directed substantially more federal grant funds to rural projects, primarily through the BUILD and INFRA programs. And the Rural Project Initiative was implemented so that more rural project sponsors would utilize the federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan program. But we recognize that it can be difficult, time-consuming and expensive for rural communities to apply for these grants.
On Oct. 8, 2019, at the annual meeting of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, I announced the Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success (ROUTES) Initiative to better support the nation’s critical rural transportation infrastructure.
This USDOT effort will help rural communities access federal transportation grant programs. It will provide user-friendly information to these communities to assist in applying for discretionary grants. It will improve sharing of rural data and analysis to achieve national transportation infrastructure goals. The ROUTES Initiative will involve not just highway infrastructure but airports and transit as well.
Transportation can be a significant challenge for seniors, people with disabilities or lower incomes and other residents. Public transportation is for many a lifeline to necessities, including a workplace, health care, groceries and other vital services. That is why 81 percent of U.S. counties provide rural transit service. But these rural transit services face unique challenges compared to urban mass transit systems and so the ROUTES Initiative will also be addressing these needs.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s newly formed ROUTES Council will soon be underway. Beginning in January, USDOT representatives will participate in conferences throughout the country to interact closely with rural communities on their transportation infrastructure challenges and needs.
Transportation infrastructure is generally an arena in which there is bipartisan concern and agreement. While urban communities have transportation needs, they are better equipped to seek out federal resources to address their needs, while rural areas often lack the capacity to fully compete for federal transportation infrastructure funding. The ROUTES Initiative and other administration efforts will provide rural areas with increased access to data to improve planning and development of grant applications. And all of America will be better off for it.
• Elaine L. Chao is the 18th U.S. Secretary of Transportation. She previously served as U.S. Secretary of Labor from 2001 to early 2009 and is the first Asian-American woman in U.S. history to be appointed to the President’s cabinet.