Rural residents are more likely to need an automobile to get around than urban residents are. But that doesn’t mean roads are the only issue on rural communities’ transportation agenda, the U.S. secretary of Transportation told the Rural Assembly on Thursday morning.
“One of the myths I’m trying to dispel is that transit is an urban phenomenon and that all rural communities care about is roads,” said Anthony Foxx, the former Charlotte, North Carolina, mayor who currently heads the nation’s Transportation Department.
“I’ve seen too much to believe that. I’ve heard from rural people who have said, ‘I’d still be unemployed if I didn’t have a van or bus to get to my new job.’ Or ‘I have an older person I couldn’t’ get to the doctor or the clinic if it weren’t for transit.”
He urged participants at the closing session of the National Rural Assembly to speak up about the vitality of transit in rural areas.
The Rural Assembly, which gathered about 175 participants from around the country, has been meeting in Washington, D.C. this week. The assembly links rural organizations, communities, and national networks that are working on rural issues such as community development, Internet access, education, health, and education.
Like the other Cabinet secretary who addressed the Rural Assembly, Foxx delivered a familiar message about the importance of rural communities to the United States.
“We as a nation we cannot afford to have our rural communities disconnected, because the fiber of this country is knitted together by every single place,” he said. “Every community matters. … Tranportation is something that we do together. I’ve never seen a ‘single-person’ road before. I’ve never seen a ‘Democrat-or-Republican’ road, a rural-or-suburban-or-urban road.”
He also said rural areas – like the rest of the nation – face a backlog in basic repairs and maintenance to infrastructure like roads and bridges. But DOT grants for local improvements can be a big problem for smaller communities because of “match.” DOT grant programs like TIGER require local government to match federal dollars with their own spending. Small and poor communities can suffer, as a result, Foxx said.
“One thing I’ve discovered is that the poorest people tend to live in areas that are poor,” he said. And that makes it tough to meet matching requirements to get federal funds for road and bridge repair and other projects.
The DOT has experimented with awarding an $18 million grant to a three-county area including Clairborne County, Mississippi. The project will create a “blitz” of work to repair 18 bridges and 40 miles of road.
“We want to provide rural leaders with more resources,” he said. “We want to help them maintain and build for the future.”
He urged rural advocates to push Congress to enact a long-term transportation bill, rather than relying on short-term renewals that, he said, don’t allow communities to plan for the future.