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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Public Roads - September/October 2002

Take Me Home, Country Roads

by Stephanie Roth

"The strength of the program is its focus on partnerships." Comments like this are frequent sentiments among stakeholders aware of the Rural Capacity Building Initiative, a new Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Federal Transit Administration (FTA) program. The idea for the initiative was born in August 2001 at a focus group in Annapolis, MD. At the meeting, a diverse group of Federal, State, and local rural transportation planners, and other interested parties, convened to discuss issues of concern to rural America.

Reconstruction of a section of the Grand Loop Road in Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park demonstrates how deteriorated and unsafe rural roads can be significantly improved.

The issues are broad and wide-ranging. From a transportation perspective, they include defining what exactly constitutes a rural area, safety concerns specific to rural transportation systems, geographical and road characteristics, rural demographics, non-metropolitan growth, economic development, and the preservation of community character, among others. Planners in rural areas often do not have the staff and financial resources to address these myriad issues, creating a need to do more with less.

Rural America is a diverse area of incalculable significance to the Nation. Although people typically think of cities as the centers of political, economic, and social activity, 50 million people—21 percent of our Nation's population—live in rural areas. Approximately 83 percent of the land in the United States is rural.

Much of America's highway network lies outside of metropolitan areas. Of the approximate 6.3 million lane kilometers (3.9 million lane miles) of public road in the United States in 1999, close to 80 percent is located in rural areas. In addition, while populations are smaller and more dispersed outside of metropolitan areas, travel is roughly equal to that in cities. In 2000 the total annual vehicle miles traveled was approximately 1.8 million kilometers (1.1 million miles) in rural areas, compared with 2.7 million kilometers (1.7 million miles) for urbanized areas. Fewer people live in rural counties than urban areas, but they have to drive longer distances to reach their destinations. For all of these reasons, transportation planning in non-metropolitan areas needs to become comparable to the existing transportation planning in cities.

Rural areas comprise more than 83 percent of U.S. land and contain 80 percent of the Nation's roadway lane miles.


Passing a Crossroads

The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991 and the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) signified a major change in U.S. transportation policy. The previous emphasis in national transportation policy focused on construction of the interstate system. The virtual completion of the system in the 1990s signified a crossroads in Federal transportation direction. In the past decade, emphasis has shifted to maintenance, operation, and preservation of the existing system, while still providing capacity and safety improvements in order to maintain mobility options, both for freight and passengers.

ISTEA and TEA-21 also placed increased emphasis on the planning process in making decisions about transportation investments. The process was broadened to include factors such as environmental sensitivity, intermodal connectivity, and economic impacts. The metropolitan planning process, in existence since the 1960s, was strengthened through increased emphasis on the role of metropolitan planning organizations as the forum for metropolitan decisionmaking. For the first time, a statewide planning process was required under ISTEA. This process is to coordinate metropolitan planning throughout a given State, as well as undertake a statewide planning process that includes non-metropolitan areas. For example, ISTEA required, and TEA-21 continued, a mandatory set-aside from the Surface Transportation Program for non-metropolitan areas with populations less than 5,000.

Although the planning process for metropolitan areas has been in place for almost four decades, rural transportation planning is not as clearly defined. Under ISTEA and TEA-21, States are required to consult with local governments when conducting rural transportation planning. Rural areas are to work with States on transportation issues affecting their communities, rather than receiving information about transportation plans and improvements after they are made. This requirement has given local officials a greater role in influencing transportation decisions for their communities.

In order to develop sound transportation planning for rural areas, an understanding of the key issues affecting rural America is essential. These issues have significant implications for planning.

Defining Rural

Even defining what constitutes a "rural area" is a major issue. There is no universally accepted definition, but the most widely used by Federal agencies is the one provided by the Office of Management and Budget—any county that is not designated as part of a Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) is rural. Most MSA counties include an urbanized area of at least 50,000 residents. Metropolitan planning areas for which metropolitan planning organizations do transportation planning must include at least the Census-designated urbanized area plus that area expected to be urbanized within the next 20 years. Therefore, the planning areas of many metropolitan planning organizations include some rural areas.

The Census Bureau defines "rural" as all territory that falls outside urbanized areas and urban clusters. Urbanized areas include a central city and the surrounding densely settled territory that together have a population of at least 50,000. Urban clusters generally fall in the 2,500- to 50,000-population range.

For transportation planning purposes, the Office of Management and Budget definition is used. For highway functional classification and outdoor advertising regulations, "rural" is considered any areas with less than 5,000 in population.


Safety is the U.S. Department of Transportation's (USDOT) highest priority. USDOT places a strong emphasis on safety on highways in particular because approximately 94 percent of all transportation-related fatalities and injuries involve motor vehicle crashes on highways.

Safety is of particular importance in rural areas because crashes are more likely to be fatal in rural than urban areas. In 2000, there were 21,798 fatal collisions on rural roads versus 14,826 for urban roads. The high number of rural fatalities is likely due to a variety of factors, including extreme terrain, faster speeds, increased alcohol involvement, and the longer time intervals from the occurrence of a crash to the availability of medical treatment, due to delays in locating crash victims and the distance to hospitals.

This section of road near the entrance to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon was designed to blend with the undisturbed natural terrain of the national park and provide a safe drive.

This section of road near the entrance to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon was designed to blend with the undisturbed natural terrain of the national part and provide a safe drive.


Safety related to at-grade rail crossings is also an important issue for rural America, as is bicycle and pedestrian safety because bicycling and walking are prevalent modes of transportation in some rural areas. Thirty-five percent of bicyclists' fatalities occur in rural areas and, although fewer pedestrians are injured in rural areas than in urban areas, incidents with pedestrians are more likely to be fatal due to the time it takes to reach a hospital.

Geography and Road Maintenance

Many rural roads have steep grades and mountain passes, which can pose challenges for transportation planning. Not all rural roads are paved—in fact, half of all rural roads are not paved. These road characteristics can add to maintenance costs.

Unlike metropolitan areas, populations in rural areas tend to be rather dispersed, with large distances between population and employment centers. Even so, congestion in many rural areas has increased, particularly those adjacent to cities and those with amenity-based economies. Increased congestion adds to the cost of roadway maintenance and can detract from rural quality of life.

Many rural jurisdictions have difficulty keeping up with maintenance. According to a 2001 report by FHWA and FTA, approximately 40 percent of county roads in rural America are inadequate for current travel, and nearly half the rural bridges longer than 6 meters (20 feet) are structurally deficient. Although some States use rural planning organizations to decide on transportation investments, many do not, and the responsibility for maintenance rests primarily with local governments. Many cities and counties have a limited financial base for generating maintenance funding.

Rural Populations

The demographics of rural areas differ from their more populous neighbors. Not only are rural areas smaller in population, they tend to be comprised of older residents. Young people flock to cities in search of job opportunities, leaving the older residents in the small towns and outlying areas. Also, many senior citizens relocate to smaller communities when they retire.

Reconstruction of 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) of rural roadway in Connecticut included areas of nearly 12-meter (40-foot) rock cuts and 6-meter (20-foot) fills, resulting in improved sightlines, curvature, and drainage.

Elderly populations have different transportation needs that have to be considered in the planning process. When people reach an age where they are no longer able to drive, sufficient alternatives should be available so that they remain mobile and able to access health care and other services. Services often are located in neighboring communities, so both local and intercity public transportation should be provided. For this reason transportation planning is closely coordinated with human service planning in many rural areas.

Highway-Oriented Travel

Despite the need for public transportation given the demographics of rural residents, transit service is on the decline in many rural areas. Although some 1,600 local agencies provided rural transit service in 1998, approximately 38 percent of the Nation's rural residents live in areas without any public transportation. Less than 10 percent of Federal spending for public transportation goes to rural communities.

Today there are 4,500 communities with daily intercity bus service compared with 23,000 in 1956. Intercity rail service is limited, and air service serving rural areas tends to be expensive. Rural transportation planners need to look at initiatives to increase the effective use of these other modes to reduce dependence on highways and provide alternatives for rural residents for getting to where they need to go quickly, efficiently, and cost-effectively.

Growth and Development

Many rural areas and small communities tend to fall into one of two categories: They are either in decline and in need of economic development and revitalization, or they are becoming bedroom communities to rapidly growing metropolitan areas and planners need to find strategies to manage this growth effectively. Both scenarios pose unique challenges, including issues of community character, preservation of open space, land use, historic preservation, and economic development. Many small communities prefer to preserve their rural character rather than becoming sprawling suburban communities.

Jurisdictional Issues

The rural transportation system is decentralized. Most roads are funded and maintained by different levels of government: local (city and county), State, and Federal. Rail rights-of-way are usually privately owned and operated by railroad companies, airports by public or quasi-public organizations. Intermodal facilities are generally privately owned. All of this means that there is a large and diverse group of players involved in rural transportation, which presents coordination challenges for those responsible for comprehensive planning.

Some States use regional planning organizations to carry out rural transportation planning. Similar in function to metropolitan planning organizations, the regional planning groups perform largely a coordinating role with metropolitan planning organizations and State departments of transportation (DOTs) in carrying out the planning process. Some fulfill primarily an advisory function, while others do have some control over transportation funds.

In other States, rural planning is undertaken strictly by the State DOTs. In still others, small cities and counties are involved. The reason for such variation is that States have different laws and institutional structures. These variations pose challenges for planners at FHWA and FTA regarding national-level efforts to implement the rural transportation planning aspects of TEA-21.

Comprehensive Planning

Planning issues in rural areas tend to be interrelated to a greater extent than in metropolitan areas. Transportation planning needs to be done in concert with land use planning, human service planning (access to jobs), community and historic preservation, economic development, preservation of open space, as well as other issues. Rural planners are charged with determining how to best coordinate transportation decisionmaking with these other planning processes.

The USDOT Rural Initiative

In 2001 the USDOT launched its Rural Initiative to address these issues systematically. This initiative builds upon established programs to ensure optimal coordination and integration among the various transportation modes, while encouraging rural community involvement in the planning and decisionmaking process. The initiative is a Department-wide strategic planning effort to guide USDOT's rural priorities over the next few years.

For Additional Information

The following sources provide information on rural issues and transportation:

  • Serving Rural America, November 2001. Guide to DOT programs addressing rural transportation needs. Hard copy available online at
  • Planning for Transportation in Rural Areas, July 2001. FHWA/FTA resource for rural transportation planners. Hard copy available online at
  • Rural America, Winter 2002. U.S. Department of Agriculture /Economic Research Service publication. Entire issue dedicated to rural transportation (contact Eileen Stommes, ERS, at 202-694-5414 or
  • FHWA Rural Transportation Planning Web site:
  • The Rural Transportation Toolbox: A joint Department of Transportation/Department of Agriculture Web site for rural areas and small communities at

The initiative's first goal is to inform rural transportation practitioners, including community developers, local officials, and transportation providers, about recent research, available programs, and current practices. The second objective is to provide resources to assist rural transportation practitioners in planning and project implementation, and the third is to support policies that help rural communities attain their economic, social, and environmental goals.

The Rural Initiative strives to ensure that rural areas and small communities share in the increased mobility and economic and social benefits of USDOT programs, and facilitate economic integration with the rest of the country and the world.

The Rural Capacity Building Initiative

One component of USDOT's Rural Initiative is the joint FHWA-FTA Rural Capacity Building Initiative (RCBI), which addresses rural planning issues through a multifaceted program providing a venue for training, technical assistance, information dissemination and exchange, and outreach. RCBI represents a partnership among FHWA, FTA, the State DOTs, rural transit providers, regional development organizations, local governments, local technical assistance centers, and national associations (primarily the National Association of Regional Councils, the National Association of Development Organizations, and the National Association of Counties/National Association of County Engineers).

RCBI marks the first initiative in which such a diverse group of stakeholders has embarked on a program with shared goals. The initiative is also an integral part of an overall planning capacity-building effort by FHWA and FTA to improve rural, statewide, and metropolitan planning capacity.

RCBI Activities

Starting in May 2001, the program began convening focus groups to bring key players to the table to discuss rural planning issues. Participants include representatives of State DOTs, rural development organizations, local governments, local elected officials, local technical assistance centers, rural transit providers, and national associations working with rural issues. In many instances the meetings were the first times that many of these entities have participated in joint discussions of rural transportation planning issues. The three meetings held to date have resulted in a broad and candid exchange of ideas. FHWA and FTA are developing a 6-hour workshop for rural transportation planners, and the workshop was piloted in February 2002. A shorter version also will be developed for rural local elected officials.

The initiative's staff has developed various publications to provide information on transportation issues facing rural America and serve as a resource on USDOT programs serving rural areas. To facilitate outreach, the initiative developed an interactive, multimedia conference display highlighting USDOT programs serving rural America. The display was unveiled in April 2002. Also under development is a rural transportation Web site to facilitate information dissemination.


FHWA is in the midst of an intense effort to collect and survey available data on rural America and construct a geographic information system (GIS) linking the data. The data will provide a snapshot of rural America, which will assist in developing national-level policies and programs for rural transportation planning.

The data also will provide information that State and local planning partners can use in their rural planning processes.

FHWA is in the final stages of developing a database documenting "rural centers of excellence." The database identifies existing organizations that provide assistance to rural America in the areas of transportation and development. The organizations include associations, universities, not-for-profit organizations, and private sector entities.

In response to TEA-21 requirements, FHWA and FTA prepared a study of the effectiveness of the participation of local elected officials in transportation planning and programming. To undertake such a study, FHWA and FTA coordinated with a wide variety of organizations and other Federal agencies and held several workshops to gather input for the study. This work resulted in a set of principles of effective consultation and a series of recommendations and next steps as the community works together to enhance the participation of rural local officials in the planning process.

The Beeline Highway (Route 87) is located in Maricopa County, Arizona. Improvements were completed in November 1997.


Source: USDOT, FHWA, Highway Statistics 1997. Taken from "Transportation in Rural America: Issues for the 21st Century." Rural America, Winter 2002.