Friday, July 11, 2014
America's rural heartland is home to nearly 50 million people, and its natural resources provide the energy, food and fiber that support the nation's economy and way of life. But, a new report finds that the nation's rural transportation system, which is critical to the nation's booming agriculture, energy and tourism sectors, is in need of modernization to address deficient roads and bridges, high crash rates and inadequate connectivity and capacity. The report, “Rural Connections: Challenges and Opportunities in America's Heartland,” was released today by TRIP, a national nonprofit transportation research group based in Washington, D.C. It defines “rural America” as counties that lack an urban area of at least 50,000 in population or lack a large commuting flow to an urban county.
The TRIP report found that traffic crashes and fatalities on rural roads in South Carolina are significantly higher than all other roads in the state. In 2012, non-interstate rural roads in South Carolina had a traffic fatality rate of 3.99 deaths for every 100 million vehicle miles of travel. This was the highest rate nationally and nearly six times higher than the fatality rate of 0.68 fatalities on all other roads in South Carolina.
“On our secondary (rural) roadway system that is federal-aid eligible 31 percent were poor and only 19 percent were in good condition in 2008; and lapsed to 50-percent poor and 20-percent good condition in 2013,” said Eric Dickey, chairman of the South Carolina Alliance to Fix Our Roads (SCFOR). “This is compound by our secondary (rural) roadway system that is non-federal-aid eligible with 33 percent poor and only 14 percent good in 2008; and lapsed to 50 percent poor and 10 percent good in 2013. While South Carolina struggles to maintain its interstate and primary roadway systems the rural roadways are neglected and continue to deteriorate.”
A significant number of South Carolina's rural bridges are also in need of repair. According to the TRIP report, in 2013, 12 percent of South Carolina's rural bridges were rated as structurally deficient.
“More than 46 million Americans live in rural and less densely populated areas of the country where their primary mode of transportation is a personal vehicle,” stated Kathleen Bower, AAA vice president, Public Affairs. “Motorists expect and deserve safe, well-maintained roads and bridges, no matter if they are traveling on the interstates or rural roads. Congress must act quickly to provide a sustainable solution for the federal Highway Trust Fund to ensure that states can continue to make necessary infrastructure investments that will benefit all travelers.”
The report also finds that the development of major new oil and gas fields in numerous areas as well as increased agricultural production are placing significantly increased traffic loads by large trucks on non-interstate rural roads, which often have not been constructed to carry such high load volumes. The average travel per-lane mile by large trucks on major, non-arterial rural roads in the U.S. has increased by 16 percent from 2000 to 2012.
“America's rural transportation system is an integral component to the success and quality of life for U.S. farmers and ranchers,” said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. “Adequate roads and bridges are necessary to deliver our agricultural bounty to markets at home and abroad. As we see additional growth and opportunities in rural America, we must work together to take advantage of those opportunities and to ensure that infrastructure supports and enhances our rural communities.”
The federal surface transportation program is a critical source of funding for rural roads. But a lack of adequate funding of the federal program may result in a significant cut in federal funding for the country's roads, highways and bridges. The impact of inadequate federal surface transportation revenues could be felt as early as this summer, when the balance in the Highway Account of the federal Highway Trust Fund is expected to drop below $1 billion, which will trigger delays in the federal reimbursement to states for road, highway and bridge projects, which would likely result in states delaying numerous projects.
“So many of our industry's manufacturing facilities and their workers are located in rural America, where they depend on safe and efficient roads for their livelihoods,” said Rick Patek, group president of Astec Industries and 2014 chairman of the Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM). “As Congress weighs how to extend the Highway Trust Fund, they would be well-advised to read this report and consider the effects of their actions on rural roads.”
Nationwide federal funding for highways is expected to be cut by almost 100 percent from the current investment level for the fiscal year starting October 1 (FY 2015) unless Congress provides additional transportation revenues. This is due to a cash shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund as projected by the Congressional Budget Office. In South Carolina, this could mean a cut of $633 million for highway and transit improvements if a lack of adequate revenue into the Federal Highway Trust Fund is not addressed by Congress.
The TRIP report finds that the U.S. needs to adopt transportation policies that will improve rural transportation connectivity, safety and conditions to provide the nation's small communities and rural areas with safe and efficient access to support quality of life and enhance economic productivity. To accomplish this, the report recommends modernizing and extending key routes to accommodate personal and commercial travel, implementing needed roadway safety improvements, improving public transit access to rural areas, and adequately funding the preservation and maintenance of rural transportation assets.