Rural roads: Where finance and safety collide
Rural roads experience a large number of fatalities — much more than urban interstates — yet they get the least amount of federal investment per lane mile. That is the conclusion of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Counties (NACo) based on a report by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO). The report, which was completed in July 2001 and was commissioned by NACo, examined the distribution of federal funding between urban and rural roads, and the number of fatalities by type of roadway.
According to the GAO, rural roads accommodate 40 percent of all vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the United States, yet, in FY1999 (the latest year for which data is reported), they were the site of 60 percent of traffic accident fatalities. Adjusted for VMT, the fatality rate from traffic accidents on rural roads was nearly 2.5 times greater than the rate on urban roads.
Furthermore, the GAO report shows that, in FY1999, states spent $7,800 per lane mile on urban roads and $1,700 per lane mile on rural roads. (Those figures represent money from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) only; they do not include money from other federal agencies, states or local governments.)
For NACo, the report confirms what it has known for years: that rural roads require increased federal funding for safety initiatives. “It has been a shame that rural roads have the highest number of fatalities, and apparently there is not enough federal money being targeted to those roads,” says Bob Fogel, associate legislative director for NACo.
As a result, NACo and local officials are paying close attention to the reauthorization of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), scheduled next year. They are pushing for dedicated funding for rural road safety and more control over the distribution of funds.
A new approach
In preparation for TEA-21 reauthorization, Congress is holding hearings to review stakeholder recommendations. NACo is taking that opportunity to bring attention to the need for a separate program tailored specifically for rural road safety.
In February, Karen Miller, county commissioner for Boone County, Mo., and NACo first vice president, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Highways and Transit regarding the reauthorization of TEA-21. “NACo believes that TEA-21 reauthorization must include a commitment to rural regions and rural elected officials,” she said, adding that rural regions will be hurt by the $8.6 billion cut in highway funding being proposed by the Bush Administration. “Rural roads are in need of substantial federal investment,” she noted. “Safety is the primary reason.”
Currently under TEA-21, the FHWA provides approximately $30 billion per year to state DOTs for roadway construction and improvement projects. The money is allocated to 13 federal highway programs and three related adjustment accounts.
According to the GAO report, the four largest of those programs — the Surface Transportation Program (STP), the National Highway System Program, the Interstate Maintenance Program and the Bridge Replacement Program — distribute most of the TEA-21 funds. The money received by local governments for rural roads comes primarily from STP.
If local officials have their way, the reauthorized TEA-21 will include a provision for the FHWA to add the Rural Road Safety Program (RRSP) to its current list of initiatives. NACo is pushing for the creation of the RRSP and calling for an additional $1 billion to fund it. Fogel explains that the RRSP would define which types of roads qualify as rural and which types of projects are needed to improve rural road safety. The funds issued by the program could be used by state DOTs only for roads and projects that meet those definitions.
The Fredericksburg, Va.-based American Traffic Safety Services Association (ATSSA) also supports the creation of an RRSP. However, it proposes that the program be funded through a 10 percent safety set-aside — which could equal approximately $730 million — in the STP. According to ATSSA, the money could be used to make low-cost safety improvements such as improving signage, marking pavement, and installing guardrails and traffic lights on rural roads. ATSSA also proposes an additional $3 billion in new funding to enhance overall safety for all of the nation’s roadways.
Both NACo and ATSSA believe that current FHWA programs do little to promote funding of local roads. “In a state like California, [the state highway authority] is responsible for highways. So, there is no incentive [for it] to put money into local roads,” says Rob Dingess, director of government relations for ATSSA. “If you can set aside federal funds and designate them so that they can only be spent to make safety improvements to certain categories of roads, then the DOT can’t use the money for any other purpose than for those roads.”
In addition to pushing for dedicated funding, NACo and ATSSA want more local representation “at the table” so they have a say in how and where state DOT money is spent. “Our view is if locals are sitting at the table and deciding how the money should be spent — let’s say county X has a problem and a plan to fix [that problem] — then the money would be more likely to be available to them,” Fogel explains.
“It was TEA-21 that statutorily called for a consultation process in each state for obtaining rural local officials’ input in the statewide transportation plan,” Miller reminded subcommittee members during her recent testimony. “While some states have a process in place and the Federal Highway Administration did issue guidance on [inclusion] to its field offices, the U.S. Department of Transportation has yet to issue final regulations on rural planning requirements. We very much hope this issue can be resolved so that it does not carry over to the reauthorization.”
Other organizations, including the National Association of Regional Councils, the National Association of Towns and Townships, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors are expressing similar positions with regard to equal representation for rural officials.
By joining planners “at the table” and by obtaining dedicated funding for rural roads, local governments will be better equipped to step out from behind the curve and improve safety on the nation’s most deadly roads.