After years of “discrimination” by Washington bureaucrats, rural communities are finally set to get a long-overdue share of federal money for roads, rail, and airports, a key promise of President Trump.
In a major funding shift championed by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, officials have revealed that rural areas that received 21% of $7-$8 billion in infrastructure funds in past years received up to 70% in an early campaign to improve transportation safety and capacity and will get half from now on.
“Rural America is not looking for a handout … They merely want not to be overlooked or discriminated against and to have their fair share in the distribution of federal resources,” Chao told us about her new program, Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success, or ROUTES.
In the less than two months after Chao first talked about it in St. Louis, ROUTES has been embraced by transportation officials around the country as a boost to help increase safety and move goods through small towns.
In Iowa, Transportation Director Mark Lowe said the new funding would be used for road “modernization,” improving bus systems to get workers into urban areas, and even river lock systems to move goods.
In Missouri, Gov. Mike Parson said fixing broken infrastructure is a top focus, and Chao’s plan comes just in time. “Transportation drives our economy, and improving infrastructure is a major step toward maintaining our highway system and ensuring we have the framework for access and expansion in the future. We appreciate Secretary Chao’s continued support and commitment to infrastructure in Missouri,” he said.
ROUTES is winning cheers in Congress, too.
“Almost half of all traffic fatalities in the country occur on rural roads, despite only one-fifth of the U.S. population living in these rural areas. This disproportionately high number is due, in part, to crumbling infrastructure and lack of funds to fix the issues,” said Arkansas Republican Rep. Bruce Westerman.
“Secretary Chao’s ROUTES initiative is an important step in recognizing and addressing the need to invest in America’s rural areas,” said Westerman, who has co-authored a legislative package similar to DOT’s, the Rural Roads Safety Act, introduced with Democratic Iowa Rep. Abby Finkenauer.
In Chao’s plan, rural areas will apply for the funding, which a special council will review. Initial rewards from discretionary funds could come as early as next spring.
Chao’s DOT is not telling local communities or states how or where to spend the money. “The federal government is not pushing this on them or telling them what to do,” said a senior Chao adviser.
What’s more, DOT wants to help poor communities unable to come up with the federal project match of 20%. “We’re trying to be nimble,” said the DOT adviser.
Lowe, president of the Mid-America Association of State Transportation Officials, credited DOT with working with states to formulate ROUTES. “They are treating us as a partner,” he said, adding, “It’s not a one-way conversation.”
For Chao, who travels back home through rural areas of Kentucky with her husband Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, the driving issues are improving safety and treating rural areas more equitably.
“The ROUTES initiative arose from increasing awareness of the tremendous inequities in resources devoted to urban versus rural America. Until recently, the Department of Transportation’s discretionary infrastructure grant programs were severely skewed to urban areas,” she said.
“The disparity in resources has significant safety and economic ramifications. Rural America comprises nearly 70% of roadways, and those carry 47% of America’s truck traffic. Though only 20% of Americans reside in rural areas, 46% of traffic fatalities occur on rural roads,” she added.
Iowa’s Lowe said making simple improvements such as widening roads and installing center lane rumble strips, while inexpensive, can improve safety. “You can do a lot with that kind of money,” he said.