Rising congestion in popular tourist destinations, inadequate roads to serve growing agricultural and energy output, and emerging cities that are not connected to the interstate system all require immediate attention and investment to ensure that America’s rural areas stay connected. Yet too often policy discussions overlook the need to improve connectivity mobility outside metropolitan areas.
According to Connecting Rural and Urban America, a new report released Aug. 30 at news conferences held in Little Rock, Ark., and Wichita, Kan., more investment is needed in America’s rural transportation system to keep agriculture, new energy products and freight moving; improve access for the travel, recreation and tourism industries; connect new and emerging cities; and to ensure reliable access to key defense installations.
“Improving connectivity and mobility for the 60 million Americans who live in rural areas is just as important as improving mobility for those who live in metropolitan areas,” said John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials (AASHTO). “Rural states are essential to the nation’s success, not only to meet the needs of their own citizens, but also to maintain their part of the national network on which the U.S. economy depends.”
The AASHTO report offers a three-point plan to ensure the connectivity of rural and urban America. In any reauthorization of federal transportation legislation:
1) Continue to fund rural portions of the Interstate Highway System and other federal-aid highways that connect America;
2) Double federal investment in rural transit systems to meet rising demand; and
3) Expand the existing capacity of the interstate system, upgrade rural routes to interstate standards and connect newly urbanized areas to the interstate system.
Key findings from the report include:
* Sixty-six cities with populations of 50,000 or more – including one state capital – do not have immediate access to the interstate system;
* During the next 30 years, 80% of the nation’s population growth is expected to concentrate in the South and West;
* In 2008, almost one out of eight people aged 65 and older lived in rural areas. This elderly population exceeds 9.6 million people and relies heavily on rural roads and public-transit systems for their transportation; and
* Many of the nation’s most popular tourist destinations – including ski slopes, seashores and national parks – experience significant traffic delays. Many of these destinations are not close to interstate or National Highway System routes.
AASHTO President and Mississippi DOT Executive Director Larry “Butch” Brown said, “In Mississippi, we’re fortunate to have waterways, ports, highways and rail, but we must ensure that all rural states have good transportation options that will enable them to generate jobs and create strong economic growth.”
“Arkansas is a rural state with many more highway needs than funds to meet those needs. We have over 16,000 highway miles in our system – 12th-largest state highway system in the nation. While nationally there are cities with populations over 50,000 that are not served by an interstate – we have a city of 20,000 not even connected to an interstate with a four-lane highway – El Dorado,” said Dan Flowers, director of the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department and president of Southeastern Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials.
The report also finds that rural economic development efforts depend on access to Interstate and National Highway System routes.
“Luring job-creators to Kansas – such as the Siemens plant in Hutchinson that will manufacture wind turbine generators and the National Bio-Agro Facility at Manhattan – are welcome additions that will create hundreds of jobs. But they will create capacity issues for our infrastructure, as well,” said Kansas Transportation Secretary Deb Miller.
Existing businesses and industries also depend on a well-functioning rural highway system.
“Rural roads are critically important to the success of our industry,” said Marvin Childers, president of The Poultry Federation. “Getting feed delivered to our farms and the chickens, turkeys and eggs delivered from the farms to our processing plants in a timely manner must take place for our industry to succeed. Trucking is a critical mode of transportation for rural America. It carries 70% of agricultural and food products and provides the link between farmers, manufacturers, processors and markets. We cannot survive without a quality transportation system. Improving and keeping our transportation infrastructure in good repair is very, very important to the economy of this region.”