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Planning for Transportation in Rural Areas

I. Introduction

A. Background

Rural America relies on transportation services, both passenger and freight, to provide connections to the regional, national, and global economy. We commute to work, go shopping, run errands, visit family and friends, and go on vacation. To do this, we travel by automobile, airplane, train, boat, bus, bicycle, and on foot. Products and services also need to be delivered from place to place. Oil, machine and electronic components, agricultural products, special deliveries, and other goods arrive by truck, train, and airplane.

The quality of life and economy in rural America depends on an efficient, effective, comprehensive, and coordinated multimodal transportation system that provides choices for the movement of people and goods and allows quick transfers between modes when and where they are needed. The need to maintain transportation linkages between rural and urban areas is very important to the economy, public health and safety, and the social structure of rural America.

Effective rural transportation planning improves the multimodal and intermodal transportation system and helps to ensure that the quality of life and economy in rural America is maintained and enhanced. It does so by providing a strategic perspective on system investment over an extended period of time. Good rural transportation plans consider a wide range of investment, operational, and technology options that can meet the multimodal transportation needs of transportation system users. Most importantly, effective rural transportation planning provides the users and stakeholders of the transportation system with ample opportunity to participate in the planning process, thus ensuring maximum input into the desires, visions, and directions for transportation system investment.

B. Federal Rural Transportation Policy

In May of 1999, the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) announced the Rural Transportation Initiative to ensure that rural areas and small communities share in the mobility, economic, and social benefits that many USDOT programs provide. The Initiative aims to increase the capacity of rural America to play a more integral role in the planning and decision-making that shape transportation systems. It also provides an array of technical assistance and grant programs to enable communities to plan, develop and improve air, surface, and water transportation infrastructure.

1. Rural Initiative Objectives

2. Rural Initiative Outcomes

3. USDOT Programs

USDOT programs can help address the safety, infrastructure, and other concerns outlined in the objectives of the Rural Initiative. Many of these programs are authorized through the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), and the Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century (AIR-21). By passing these authorizing bills, Congress provided rural America with many tools to address its transportation system in a holistic manner.

The Rural Transportation Initiative is intended to be a first step - a beginning from which a transportation system can evolve which is better positioned to serve small communities and rural areas. It is also critically important that rural areas be involved in the state transportation planning process by which transportation investment decisions are made regarding public funds.

C. Document Structure

The document is organized into the following sections:

  1. Introduction. This section provides an overview of rural transportation planning and policy and outlines the structure for this document.
  2. Our Rural Transportation System. This section increases understanding about how "rural" is defined, the characteristics of the rural system, and the conditions and challenges addressed by rural transportation plans.
  3. Responsibility for Rural Planning. This section describes how various jurisdictional levels address rural transportation planning including roles, responsibilities, and alternative jurisdictional approaches.
  4. Successful Rural Transportation Planning. This section provides an overview of issues to be resolved before starting the planning process, success factors and key elements to address, and public consultation and environmental review approaches.

Four appendices at the end of the document provide the following additional information and resources:

Throughout the document, references are provided for additional sources of information on rural planning approaches.

Updated: 3/28/2012
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