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Serving Rural America


Image of divided highway crossing river in a rural area

In May 1999, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced its first Rural Transportation Initiative. The primary objective of the Rural Transportation Initiative is to guarantee that rural areas and small communities gain the economic, social, environmental, and community benefits that the U.S. Department of Transportation programs provide.

Effective communication with the residents, local officials, businesses, and governments of rural areas and small communities is essential to the success of the Rural Transportation Initiative. In June 1999, the Department released the first publication of the Rural Transportation Program Guide. This publication, the second edition of the Rural Transportation Program Guide, provides new and updated information about Department of Transportation programs that are targeted to or have special uses for rural America.

The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), enacted just one year before the Rural Initiative, provides more surface transportation resources for rural areas and small communities than ever before. Through the Rural Transportation Initiative, the Department is working to ensure that people in rural areas are involved in transportation planning and decision making, and share in the benefits flowing from a transportation system that:

The Rural Transportation Initiative is intended to be a starting point from which we can realize a transportation system better positioned to serve small communities and rural areas. It also is a step toward further involvement of rural areas in the transportation planning process by which transportation investment decisions are made.

Since the implementation of the first Rural Transportation Initiative, the Department has achieved several goals for rural areas and small communities. Among the major milestones are the following accomplishments:

image of winding road along bare mountain side overlooking a small city and a river

There are several key challenges in rural areas, including: engaging local officials in the transportation planning process; improving safety even as travel continues to increase; preserving and enhancing the environment; supporting economic growth; and responding to social and demographic changes.

Transportation Planning: The Department of Transportation has sought to engage a wide variety of stakeholders in the transportation planning process. Requirements for public involvement have increased, especially with the passage of TEA-21. Although metropolitan areas have metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) so that local officials can help develop regional transportation plans, it is a challenge to engage rural stakeholders in the transportation planning process. The Department of Transportation is working to increase the involvement of local rural officials in the transportation planning process. The Department is also exploring various methods by which states can work in consultation with local officials on transportation plans. It is a challenge to find processes that are effective and efficient for states and local rural stakeholders.

Safety: Although we have made great progress in highway safety, even as travel has increased dramatically, highway deaths and injuries continue to overwhelm all other transportation-related deaths and injuries. These place a huge burden on our economy - an estimated $150 billion annually - and have high personal and social costs as well. The greater isolation and distances in rural areas present special problems from a safety perspective. Certain types of crashes, including rail-highway grade crossing and run-off-the-road, are more prevalent in rural areas. Also, the distance to medical services can be longer than in metropolitan areas, thereby lengthening the response time that can be critical in treating crash victims.

Travel: As travel in rural areas continues to increase at an unprecedented rate, meeting the demand in rural areas creates some challenges. The distances involved and the lower population density create difficult conditions, particularly in providing non-automobile alternatives for the growing population in rural areas that cannot or choose not to use private automobiles. Additionally, demographic trends such as the aging of the rural population present unique challenges for travel. The growing importance of tourism in rural areas demands transportation solutions that preserve and protect the scenic, cultural, historic and natural environment.

image of long line of railroad freight cars disappearing into the distant horizon

Environment: Major national legislation has been enacted to protect our air and water as well as the cultural, historic, scenic and natural resources integral to our quality of life. Transportation activity has important impacts on the environment, from air and water quality to land use. Rural areas are particularly concerned about protecting the natural environment from which its residents draw a large share of their desired quality of life. Another environmental consideration of key importance to rural areas and small communities is land use. It is essential that we continue to account for the costs of transportation decisions that affect these non-renewable resources and provide assistance, where possible, to mitigate adverse effects on our rural communities and the environment.

Economic Activity: To sustain the economic vitality of our Nation, continue our high standard of living, and compete effectively in international markets, we require efficient transport of passengers and freight throughout the country. Many rural communities have shifted from an agricultural-based economy to one dependent on manufacturing, service, or tourism. Responding to this fundamental economic change and allowing these communities to compete on an equal footing for business creates a need for a different mix of transportation services.

image of tugboat pulling barge

Demographic changes: Recent data indicate that the population growth of many rural areas is more vibrant than previously projected. Moreover, rural areas are aging, often at a higher rate than urban areas. These trends underscore the need for a spectrum of transportation choices to meet daily and local travel needs, and to provide adequate intercity passenger transportation. This program guide, Serving Rural America, provides information about the U.S. Department of Transportation's grant programs that are of the most direct interest to rural areas and small communities. These programs are designed to meet the transportation challenges of rural America. The guide also includes a brief discussion of programs that address transportation concerns spanning rural and urban areas. The Appendix includes additional references and information on offices to contact for further details.

Updated: 3/26/2012
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