- Identifying Unmet Needs in Rural Transportation
A. What infrastructure issues are contributing to high fatality rates on rural roadways and rail-highway grade crossings (e.g., roadway condition or geometry, driver behavior, wildlife collisions)?
The rural nature of Western Nebraska creates safety issues when the mix of traffic includes heavy agricultural harvest equipment, motorcycles (especially during the annual Sturgis rally), recreational vehicles, vacationers, sight-seeing visitors, normal amounts of truck traffic, movement of large mining equipment headed toward the Bakken in North Dakota. Add into that mix deer, antelope and elk populations and there is a great potential for accidents. Having wider, 4-lane divided highways gives everyone a better chance of safe driving. Weather also plays a large hole in safety issues in the winter months.
B. What unique challenges do rural areas face related to infrastructure condition (e.g., age of infrastructure or equipment, including vehicles, bridge closures or postings, types of freight carried, weather resiliency)?
The sheer number of miles of road necessary (between population bases) is a unique challenge for NDOT to maintain safe conditions. Maintenance equipment must move further, cover more miles and be shared with other jurisdictions just to maintain the level we currently see. This does not leave much ‘resource’ remaining if we are to add miles. The extreme weather changes (temperature, moisture) makes it more difficult to maintain roadways. Especially heavy traffic during certain harvest seasons takes a heavy toll on the life of the roadways. The size of farming equipment has grown to the point it must be moved via semi-truck. They are sometimes overweight of posted weight restrictions (especially grain trucks).
C. How does infrastructure usage (e.g., access to public transportation, technology deployment) affect the lives of rural Americans?
There is little public transportation left in Western Nebraska. This severely limits the mobility of elderly populations. A small, regional routed bus is available for transport to various appointments (mostly medical in nature). Technology deployment has helped (telemedicine in particular), but is not be economically feasible if it has to be based on population. The regional, rural health network that has developed a fiber optic system in Western Nebraska is a good example of how collaborative efforts can benefit sparsely populated areas.
D. What types of infrastructure projects are most needed in rural communities to meet national transportation priorities such as safety and economic competitiveness?
The types of projects needed to meet national safety priorities center around fair, equitable access to market for commodities, ability to receive proper medical care and the access to trucking routes that serve the smaller, rural areas. Access to markets and access to goods being delivered is absolutely a lifeline, not just a convenience issue. Everything that comes to Chadron, Nebraska, for example, comes to us on a truck. Every grocery item, piece of lumber, hardware, vehicle, parts, etc. has to be brought here. The cost of that distance (freight) added on to the wholesale price creates an economic barrier to be overcome by our business people. We need 4-lane, divided highways to get commodities out and goods delivered in an efficient, cost effective way. This is critical to feeding the nation (and the world). If we want to maintain the low food prices we now enjoy, the heartland has to have safe, modern, efficient (4-lane) access to move agricultural commodities.
E. What types of rural transportation projects or services do rural communities find challenging to fund?
We believe every community in rural America finds it difficult to fund roads; whether it is maintenance or construction. This is something that must remain a federal responsibility and priority. In the rural, less populated areas, it is evident that Public Private Partnership simple do not work because there is not enough population base to create the ‘private’ part of that equation. Paying for aging bridges (both at a local and state level), or replacing those lost to floods is not possible from the local tax base.
F. What additional or alternative methods can be used to identify and prioritize rural transportation projects for funding through discretionary grants? We believe collaboration between states may hold some promise for getting projects finished, especially the ‘last few miles to the border’ locations. It has become a questions of who (which state) will commit to finishing their portion first. In the case of US Hwy 26 from Scottsbluff, NE to Torrington, WY each side of the border has less than 50 miles to finish 4 lane connections. But NDOT and WYDOT have both commented they will perhaps be more serious about finishing that mileage when the other state does their portion. Some sort of enticement (collaboration) could be in order. Perhaps just in the border situation, or more boldly, along a federally designated high priority corridor such as the Ports to Plains Alliance which exists from Canada to Mexico. Allowing ROUTES grants to be used to connect states could complete some areas that are waiting for the ‘other side’ to move.
- Addressing Unmet Needs Through DOT Discretionary Grant Programs
- What resources or direct assistance could DOT provide to support rural transportation projects or reach communities that may not be aware of DOT discretionary programs?
Resources needed to support rural communities could include ‘rural’ incentives, with an allowance for the more miles necessary to provide economic equity in the Heartland. There has also been a good deal of discussion about attempting to harmonize permitting between states. Again, collaboration can make trucking more efficient by allowing one permit application to be good throughout a specific corridor, regardless of crossing state borders. That alone would divert traffic from existing, overused roadways to less established truck routes. If the Ports to Plains Corridor was 4-lane through all 8 states, and had a single source permit system, we would see tremendous economic benefit in Nebraska from the increased truck traffic. Having specialists within DOT or each state who can coordinate and assist DOT’s with the application would be helpful, as well a system by which states could have access to ‘best practices’ examples of funded projects to review.
B. What challenges do rural communities face when applying for DOT grants and financial assistance (e.g., project prioritization, eligibility requirements, funding match)?
Rural communities not having the required population have a much more difficult time writing a successful federal grant application. At least a portion of the grant funds could be designated (through the state DOT) for rural or low populated regions. Again, if grants could be prioritized or given additional points for state to state collaboration, there may be additional impact of finishing longer stretches of roadway within high priority corridors.
C. What types of technical assistance would be effective for navigating the application process?
An experienced DOT person available for each community to consult with before submitting a grant would be helpful. Those states that have a Congressional member sitting on a transportation related committee could be a source, but not all states are that lucky. If the Congressional member’s support is needed, it should be available regardless of the state’s political connection. This could be addressed by re-implementing elected officials’ ‘demonstration project’ where they could designate each year, something innovative that they wish to support.