A Transportation Bill for Rural America
Editor's Note: Federal transportation policy is stuck. Congress has been unable to reauthorize the bill that funds the nation's transportation programs since it expired in September 2009.
The Rural Policy Research Institute has written a report about rural transportation issues as Congress again takes up this important aspect of federal policy. We have excerpted portions of the report below. For a full copy, go here.
The report was written by Brian Dabson, Thomas G. Johnson and Charles Fluharty.
The quality and quantity of the transportation systems that serve rural America have been steadily eroding for many decades.
Economic and demographic shifts, deregulation, and underinvestment have all had detrimental impacts on the economic opportunities in rural America and the quality of life for rural residents.
And, as is the case in other public sectors, rural transportation decision-making has suffered from the more limited resources and technical capacities which rural county and municipal jurisdictions have at their disposal, compared to their urban counterparts. Consequently, rural interests are less able to participate in transportation planning and priority setting.
Transportation is an essential component of rural economic development and quality of life. However, in the past federal transportation priorities and investments have not always been adequately aligned with local and regional needs and priorities because of structural impediments to collaboration.
This has resulted in economic development, cost of living, accessibility, safety, health, and overall quality of life outcomes that have not achieved their full potential.
As Congress begins consideration of this omnibus reauthorization (officially called the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act), five policy goals should serve as principles against which to assess whether the diverse components of this new legislation are actually positing policy innovations which can yield more positive, substantial, and long-term outcomes for rural America, and thus for the nation as a whole.
Will this approach ...
• build capacity to support local engagement in planning, decision-making and resource allocation?
• encourage innovation and integration to enhance the efficacy and efficiency of these investments?
• shift resources, where appropriate, to address the most pressing rural needs and opportunities?
• encourage integrated regional planning and implementation?
• lead to improved quality of life in rural communities?
The multi-year legislation that funds the nation’s transportation programs – the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act (SAFETEA-LU) expired on September 30, 2009. Although a draft reauthorizing surface transportation legislation was introduced in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in June 2009, Congress has yet to act. As a result, federal highway and transit programs have been operating on a series of short-term extensions.
Amid this uncertainty and debate, there has also been an unfortunate framing of transportation priorities by some advocates that places rural and urban interests in direct opposition.
For example, a July 2009 a New York Times article bemoaned “a pattern of spending disproportionately on rural areas” that was apparently evident in transportation projects approved under the federal stimulus package (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act). The article cited Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program: “…states take this peanut-butter approach, taking the dollars and spreading them around very thinly, rather than taking the dollars and concentrating them where the most complex transportation problems are” referring to the 100 largest metropolitan areas.
(See The Daily Yonder’s report on this article here.)
Transportation for America/Daily Yonder
Such comments stir advocates to one’s position but fail to appreciate the immense challenges which policymakers face in crafting approaches actually to address the diverse needs of all Americans. They also ignore the fact that many rural counties and small towns did not receive any transportation funding at all under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).
Rural transportation advocates argue that the current system for planning, building, and maintaining transportation infrastructure in rural areas falls short of meeting the need for access to jobs, shops, services, education, and healthcare within small cities, towns, and their surrounding regions . A position paper from the National Rural Assembly (2010) saw the reauthorization of the Transportation Act as an opportunity to modernize, strengthen and integrate the transportation systems that connect rural people and places to each other and urban commercial centers, while protecting landscapes, habitats and livelihoods of rural communities” (p.1).
The paper laid particular stress on the need to incorporate diverse rural voices, including Native American tribes, in the conversation. “If transportation planning and construction is to support the needs of rural residents, regional economic development, interstate and national commerce, then all voices must be part of the next federal transportation bill” (p.1).
The National Association of Development Organizations (NADO) has proposed a series of policy goals that envision the development of a modern, sustainable and seamless surface transportation network that fully integrates and connects the nation’s small urban and rural regions with global, metropolitan and neighboring markets.
In particular, NADO is asking that enhanced leadership and decision-making roles in statewide and regional transportation planning, programs, and project-investment prioritization processes be given to the existing system of metropolitan planning organizations and the emerging network of rural planning organizations. NADO envisions that this change in responsibilities would be accompanied by changes in legislation and regulations to provide dedicated funding, higher levels of integration of statewide and regional transportation planning with economic development, housing and land use, and increased investments in public transportation.
However, rural regions must also be assured the same level of choice in pursuing multiple transportation goals and options that their urban counterparts receive. While some will argue that not all these principles are applicable in a rural context, or less conversant with rural priorities, we must guard against semantics getting in the way of wiser rural system design. This is about rural competitiveness, quality of life—locally-defined, and “place-making” considerations, all recognized as very important in attracting and retaining young people.
All these outcomes are just as important to rural families as to those living in cities.
Rural Transport and Deregulation
“In the last 25 years, transportation in rural America has been transformed by deregulation, devolution of Federal responsibilities to state and local governments, and traffic growth created by the booming economy of the 1990s,” Eileen Stommes and Dennis Brown wrote in 2002. “All forms of rural transportation – highways, passenger service (transit, intercity bus, and passenger rail service), trucking, inland waterways, rail freight service, and passenger air service – have been affected.”
• Deregulation of intercity bus services, while leading to greatly improved long-haul service, no longer required cross-subsidization of low revenue routes from the profits of high-earnings routes, with the result that only 5,000 locations are now being served compared with 11,000 in the 1980s.
• Deregulation of the trucking industry led to significant growth in smaller trucking companies – there are some 500,000 – that provide more frequent and faster services in response to just-in-time manufacturing demands and online commerce, but such increased traffic has also resulted in increasing road accident fatalities and increased maintenance costs for local governments.
• Deregulation of railroads led to a reduction in the network by one third from a century ago as aggressive streamlining led to consolidation and the abandonment of unprofitable rural track.
Some of the impact on freight haulage in rural areas has been offset by the rise of short-line operators, but the creation of Amtrak in 1971 led to a halving of passenger routes leaving rural towns without any service. Amtrak now focuses on a network linking major metropolitan areas with fewer than 200 non-metropolitan communities on its routes and few connections to local transit systems.
• Deregulation of the passenger air services in the 1970s allowed air carriers to enter or leave markets at will. Airports in some 100 rural communities are thus dependent on subsidies from the Essential Air Service program to remain in operation, and these commitments will always be in peril, as budgetary considerations challenge the efficacy of every rural federal allocation.
Although these decisions taken in the 1970s and 1980s were made in what was deemed to be in the national interest, they have left rural America with a greatly diminished transportation system. Other Federal decisions, such as the North America Trade Agreement, have led to major increases in heavy truck traffic and concerns about road failure and repair costs on the rural road network.
According to the Federal Highway Administration (2001), there are 3.1 million miles of rural roads, accounting for 80 percent of the national road network. They carry about 40 percent of vehicle miles traveled. About 50 percent are paved and 90 percent are two-lane or less.
City and county governments are responsible for 95 percent of unpaved and 55 percent of paved roads. This extensive rural road network represents a legacy from a rural America that was once more highly populated than it is today. With population declines in many rural regions, the loss of tax revenues has left county and city governments without the financial means to maintain and preserve this network.
As a result, some 40 percent of county roads are not adequately maintained and there is a major backlog of work needed. Also funds to serve new economic development projects for tourism, agriculture, or manufacturing are hard to find. In areas of growth, on the urban fringes and in high amenity areas, local governments are finding it hard to respond to increases in traffic, especially on roads that are outside the Federal-aid system.
There are many consequences of this continuing underinvestment, the most obvious being that of safety. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration3, rural areas accounted for 56 percent of fatal road crashes and 57 percent of fatalities nationwide. These are attributed to excessive speed, alcohol use, and accident response times and/or time to receive medical treatment.
Public transit, comprising mainly buses and demand response services, are particularly important for elderly and people with disabilities, but also necessary for those who do not have access to private cars. There are about 1,200 systems operating in half of rural counties nationwide, but they tend to be local in nature, and generally not connected to regional and national passenger systems. Thirty-eight percent of rural residents live in areas with no public transit. There are also 3,700 systems specifically for the elderly and people with disabilities, and others operated by human services agencies.
Matters are made worse by both geographic challenges and the complex system of responsibilities and funding. “Long distances between population centers, steep grades, mountain passes, more dramatic weather events and effects on road conditions, and a dispersed system with high unit costs for service delivery, operations, and maintenance” (FHWA, 2001) provide the operating context for rural transportation.
But responsibilities are spread across multiple layers of government, private corporations, and nonprofit agencies in ways that make coordinated and comprehensive transportation planning and implementation very challenging. Roads are funded and maintained by different levels of government – cities, counties, states, and federal.
State and federal governments provide much of the capital funding for rural public transit leaving operations to local governments and nonprofit agencies. Rail rights-of-way are privately owned and maintained, and airports are owned by public or quasi-public organizations with carriers owning the facilities.
Finally, there are the related issues of technical capacity and local engagement in transportation planning and priority setting. The remoter the rural area, the less likely will be the availability of professional staff resources and technical capacity to work on these complex transportation issues, and the more likely that decisions that have a direct impact on rural communities will be taken at the state level, often without adequate local consultations.
Hence the concerns expressed by organizations such as the National Association of Development Organizations, the Rural Assembly, and Transportation for America.