WASHINGTON — U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao this week led the inaugural meeting of the ROUTES Council, which was created to find solutions to improving the use of the Department of Transportation’s discretionary grant funds in support of rural America’s transportation system.
The initiative, known as the Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success (ROUTES) Initiative, will analyze the department’s discretionary funding and financing opportunities to ensure rural communities’ transportation infrastructure helps the national transportation network meet desired outcomes for safety and economic competitiveness.
“Rural infrastructure has historically been neglected and the ROUTES Initiative will address this to boost safety, commerce and quality of life for all who rely on these transportation networks,” Chao said.
Rural communities and their transportation networks have been instrumental in building and supplying urban areas throughout our nation’s history, carrying people from city to city and carrying freight from bedrock American industries such as agriculture, mining, forestry, and manufacturing, Chao said, yet rural transportation infrastructure has significant challenges.
While one-fifth of Americans live in rural areas, 70% of America’s road miles are in rural areas, carrying nearly 50% of the nation’s truck traffic. In addition, 44% of automobile travel on rural roads is done by metropolitan area citizens, and rural America’s traffic fatalities are disproportionately high, totaling 46% of fatalities in 2018. Further, of the nation’s bridges that are posted for weight limits, 90% are in rural areas.
Chao unveiled the ROUTES Initiative at the annual meeting of the American Association of State Highway Transportation Officials (AASHTO) in St. Louis, Missouri, last month. The initiative will be led by the ROUTES Council, a new internal deliberative body at the Department, which will identify critical rural transportation concerns and coordinate efforts among DOT’s different modal administrations. The council will initially review public comments, meet with rural stakeholders, and publish user-friendly information, including a rural resources handbook.
The new ROUTES Initiative will address these national transportation challenges by assisting rural stakeholders in understanding how to access DOT grants and financing products, and developing data-driven approaches to better assess needs and benefits of rural transportation projects.
The DOT said this builds on the model pioneered by the Department’s Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) loan program’s Rural Project Initiative, which offers lower project-cost thresholds for loan eligibility, subsidized interest rates, and the coverage of fees to encourage use of the credit program for infrastructure projects in rural areas. The department will engage rural transportation stakeholders at events over the coming year to educate project sponsors about the funding and finance opportunities at DOT, as well as to receive their feedback.
To learn more about the ROUTES Initiative, visit www.transportation.gov/rural.