New Brief on Rural Transportation Needs and How the Makeup and Philosophy of the 112th Congress Could Impact Rural America

I have a new Capitol Research brief out this week entitled “Rural Transportation Needs.” The concept for the brief evolved from a resolution our CSG Transportation Policy Task Force approved at the 2008 annual meeting in Omaha. One of the lines in that resolution reads “be it further resolved that the Council of State Governments supports a transportation authorization that considers the needs of both urban and rural areas.” That line, I believe, was an effort by our members to address what some at the time feared could become an urban bias in a fundamental reorganization of federal transportation programs under a new authorization regime. Three years later, that resolution is due to sunset later this year under CSG bylaws (we will likely endeavor to renew or revise it accordingly). There still is no agreement on a successor to SAFETEA-LU, which officially expired in 2009 and has been extended six times on a short-term basis. And a sea change has occurred in Congress not only politically but demographically. Republicans, who now control the House, made many of their gains in rural areas. That impacts what the expectations are for an authorization bill and what parts of the country are likely to benefit. But it is no less important to keep in mind the unique transportation needs of rural communities as the authorization debate resumes this year.

Public policy consultant Kenneth Orski on his Innovation Newsbriefs blog writes this month about what the revamped makeup of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee may mean for authorization:

“A majority of the new GOP members come from the heartland and none of them represent big city transit-oriented districts… Thus, the House transportation committees will likely focus on the traditional concerns of keeping roads and bridges in a state of good repair. They also will be under pressure to stabilize the Highway Trust Fund by bringing transportation expenditures in line with expected gas tax receipts.  Letting available resources determine the appropriate level of spending represents a change in congressional attitude from years past when investment "needs" tended to dictate funding levels.” 

Orski also writes about how that impacts expectations for the bill:

“While the next authorization will by all accounts be more modest in size and less "transformational" than many in the transportation community would like to see, it will once again provide the states with stable and predictable multi-year funding necessary for long-term investment decisions.”

Orski believes a focus on core transportation programs in the new Congress will likely result in the scaling back of “livability” programs pushed by the Obama administration and the elimination of executive earmarks such as the Recovery Act-funded TIGER grants. Both programs were believed to benefit primarily urban areas, as I write about in the brief and in a recent blog post.

Robert Poole of the Reason Foundation concurs with Orski’s assessment. But in his Surface Transportation Innovations newsletter this month, he goes one step further. “As part of refocusing the Highway Trust Fund on core programs, it’s quite possible Congress would narrow its scope to just the Interstates and National Highway System, leaving the rest of the highways as state responsibilities,” he writes. “That partial devolution would mean costly federal regulations such as Davis-Bacon and Buy American would apply only to the core federal programs, enabling states to build and maintain other highways at lower cost. This is a profoundly different reinvention of the federal program than many were writing about several years ago. But it would be no less of a revolution.”

That kind of refocusing of federal transportation programs could have serious consequences for how rural transportation gets funded in the future.

More Reading on Rural Transportation Needs

As with past briefs, it was impossible to squeeze everything into our Capitol Research brief on Rural Transportation Needs. Here is some other worthwhile reading:

  • In the brief, there are plenty of good examples of the unique rural transportation needs. But here is one more: One rural state, North Dakota, is experiencing an economic boom thanks to its energy production. Oil production in the western part of the state has more than doubled in the last five years. With 2,000 vehicles required to service a single oil well that adds up to a lot of wear and tear on roads and bridges in the area. A December 2010 study by North Dakota State University’s Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute forecasts that $45 million will be needed annually over the next 20 years to keep roads in a state a good repair.
  • A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report examines state planning activities in advance of the next surface transportation authorization bill. The report focuses on efforts to meet rural planning needs and incorporate performance measurement into state transportation plans. GAO conducted surveys of all 50 states and 569 Rural Planning Organizations. The majority said they were satisfied with the consideration of rural needs by their state, but some were dissatisfied with their role in allocating funding to rural areas. State officials said unreliable and insufficient funding are the most common challenges when putting together long- and short-range statewide plans.