Remarks As Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
Rural Transport Poverty Lunch
World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
Wednesday, January 22, 2020
I’m so pleased that WEF is drawing attention to rural transportation needs and solutions.
For those who’ve always had easy access to transportation, it can be difficult to understand the plight of those who haven’t. Transportation links workers to jobs. It links adults and children to education, groceries, medical care and other vital services. Transportation enables commerce. It’s vital to economic growth, competitiveness and creating jobs and opportunity.
But as many of us know, transportation can be a significant challenge for rural communities. And it’s especially challenging for seniors, people with disabilities and low income families. That’s why 81% of U.S. counties provide rural transit service.
Let me share a few facts about rural transportation in the United States. The U.S. has about 4 million miles of roads and over 600,000 bridges. The Interstate Highway System in the U.S. is 48,000 miles: 60% is located in rural areas, and 40% is in urban areas. Overall, 69% of our country’s road lane miles are in rural areas.
Rural infrastructure benefits everyone, not just rural residents. These are the places where our manufactured products, agriculture and other commodities come from and move through. 44% of the people traveling on rural roads are urban residents passing through these communities!
Safety is my #1 priority, so it is very concerning that the fatality rate on rural roads in the U.S. is twice that of urban roads. Only 19% of Americans live in rural areas, yet 46% of our country’s highway fatalities occur in rural areas.
Rural transportation networks are vital to every Nation’s economy and quality of life. In my country, nearly half of all truck vehicle miles travelled occur on rural roads. Two-thirds of rail freight originates in rural areas.
But there are inequities in my country’s rural transportation infrastructure, which the U.S. Department of Transportation is working to address. Annually, the Department spends about $70 billion for infrastructure. Since FY 2016, the rural share of funds awarded nearly doubled in the nine federal transportation programs that distinguish between rural and non-rural. And the number of awards made to rural projects more than tripled.
On October 8, 2020 I announced the ROUTES initiative, which stands for Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success. This is a new program to help rural communities access federal transportation grant funding and loan programs. It also improves data sharing to help rural communities better analyze their transportation needs. As part of this initiative, the Department established a ROUTES Council. It will aggressively reach out to rural communities to help them better identify and assess their transportation needs, and craft solutions.
Let me also note that at the federal level, we recognize the importance of private sector investment in infrastructure. So the Department’s transportation funding programs increasingly give priority consideration to projects that promote innovation and include private sector participation.
These are just a few of the new initiatives launched in the United States to help bridge the gap between urban and rural transportation networks. I look forward to hearing how others are working to close this gap.