TRIP Reports On America’s Rural Roads

America’s Rural Roads Are Deteriorated And Insufficient To Support Economic Growth And Mobility Demands. Rural Traffic Fatalities Are Three Times Higher Than All Other Roads.

America’s rural heartland is home to approximately 50 million people and its natural resources provide the primary source of the energy, food and fiber that supports the nation’s economy and way of life. But, according to a new report, the roads and bridges that serve and connect the nation’s rural areas face a number of significant challenges, including inadequate capacity to handle the growing levels of traffic and commerce, limited connectivity, the inability to accommodate growing freight travel, deteriorated road and bridge conditions, a lack of desirable safety features, and a traffic fatality rate far higher than all other roads and highways. The report, “Rural Connections: Challenges and Opportunities in America’s Heartland,” was released today by TRIP, a national non-profit transportation research group based in Washington, D.C. It defines Rural America as all places and people living outside the primary daily commuting zones of cities with 50,000 people or more.

The TRIP report found that despite a recent decrease in the overall fatality rate on the nation’s roads, traffic crashes and fatalities on rural roads remain disproportionately high, occurring at a rate more than three times higher than all other roads. In 2009, non-Interstate rural roads had a traffic fatality rate of 2.31 deaths for every 100 million vehicle miles of travel, compared to a fatality rate on all other roads of 0.75 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles of travel. And although they carry only 25 percent of all vehicle miles of travel in the U.S., crashes on the nation’s rural, non-Interstate routes resulted in 51 percent of the nation’s 33,808 traffic deaths in 2009. Inadequate roadway safety design, longer emergency vehicle response times and the higher speeds traveled on rural roads are factors in the higher traffic fatality rate.

In addition to disproportionately high traffic fatality rates, the roads and bridges in rural America have significant deficiencies. In 2008, 12 percent of the nation’s major rural roads were rated in poor condition and another 43 percent were rated in mediocre or fair condition. In 2010, 13 percent of the nation’s rural bridges were rated as structurally deficient and 10 percent were functionally obsolete.

“The safety and quality of life in America’s small communities and rural areas and the health of the nation’s economy ride on our rural transportation system.  This backbone of the heartland allows mobility and connectivity for millions of rural Americans and provides crucial links from farm to market, moves manufactured and energy products, and provides access to countless tourist and recreational destinations,” said Will Wilkins, executive director of TRIP.  “But, with long-term federal transportation legislation stuck in political gridlock in Washington, America’s rural communities and economies could face even higher unemployment and decline.  Funding the modernization of our rural transportation system will create jobs and help ensure long-term economic development and quality of life in rural America.”

“Congress must not delay in passing a robust, multi-year highway and transit bill in order to address the transportation challenges faced in rural America and the nation as a whole. The reauthorization of SAFETEA-LU is a key opportunity to move U.S. infrastructure into the 21st century, bolster economic recovery efforts, and improve the quality of life in every corner of our nation,” said John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

America must adopt transportation policies that will improve rural transportation connectivity, safety and conditions to provide the nation’s small communities and rural areas with the level of safe and efficient access that will support quality of life and enhance economic productivity. This can be done, in part, by modernizing and extending key routes to accommodate personal and commercial travel, improving public transit access to rural areas, implementing needed roadway safety improvements, improving emergency response times, and adequately funding state and local transportation programs to insure sufficient preservation and maintenance of rural transportation assets.

 

Rural Connections: Challenges and Opportunities in America’s Heartland

 

September 2011

 

Executive Summary

America’s rural heartland plays a vital role as home to a significant share of the nation’s population, many of its natural resources and the primary source of the energy, food and fiber that supports America’s economy and way of life.  The strength of the nation’s rural economy relies greatly on the quality of its transportation system, particularly its roadways, which link rural America with the rest of the U.S. and to markets in other nations. The economy of rural America, which supports the quality of life for the approximately 50 million Americans living in small communities and rural areas, rides on the quality and connectivity of the rural transportation system. But roads, highways and bridges in the nation’s heartland face a number of significant challenges:  they carry growing levels of traffic and commerce, lack adequate capacity, fail to provide needed levels of connectivity to many communities, are not built to adequate standards to accommodate growing freight travel in many corridors, have significant deficiencies, lack many desirable safety features, and experience serious traffic crashes at a rate far higher than all other roads and highways.  This report looks at the condition, use and safety of the nation’s rural transportation system, particularly its roads, highways and bridges, and identifies needed improvements to America’s rural transportation system.

The following are the most critical findings of the report.Rural America plays a vital role in the U.S. as home to a significant share of the nation’s population, natural resources and as the primary source of the energy, food and fiber which drives the U.S. economy.

  •     Rural America is defined as all places and people living in areas outside of urban areas with a population of 5,000 or greater.
  • Rural America is home to approximately 50 million people, accounting for approximately 17 percent of the nation’s population. Rural America contains roughly 83 percent of the land in the U.S. and is home to the vast majority of the nation’s 2.2 million farms.
  •     The nation’s rural population increased approximately 4.5 percent between 2000 and 2010, which was a slower rate of growth than urban America, which increased by approximately 11 percent during the same period.
  • Population growth in rural areas has been uneven, with growth being strongest in the South and West, and rural areas in the Upper Plain and Central states more likely to see population losses.
  • A significant movement of retiring baby boomers to rural America is considered likely over the next decade as aging Americans seek out communities that offer affordable housing, small-town quality of life, desirable natural amenities and which are often within a short drive of larger metropolitan areas.

The quality of life in America’s small communities and rural areas and the health of the nation’s rural economy, based largely on the production of energy, food and fiber, is highly reliant on the quality of the nation’s transportation system, particularly its roads, highways and bridges, which provide the first and last link in the supply chain from farm to market.

  • The annual value of agricultural production in the U.S. is $2.2 trillion
  • While farming accounts for just six percent of all jobs in rural America, for every person employed in farming there are seven other jobs in the agribusiness, including wholesale and retail trade, processing, marketing, production, and distribution.
  • A recent report by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that “an effective transportation system supports rural economies, reducing the prices farmers pay for inputs such as seeds and fertilizers, raising the value of their crops and greatly increasing market access.
  • Trucks provide the majority of transportation for agricultural products, providing 46 percent of total ton miles of travel compared to 36 percent by rail and 12 percent by barge.
  • Trucks account for the vast majority of transportation for perishable agricultural items, carrying 91 percent of ton miles of all fruit, vegetables, livestock, meat, poultry and dairy products in the U.S.
  • The Council of State Governments  recently found that “rural highways provide many benefits to the nation’s transportation system, including serving as a bridge to other states, supporting the agriculture and energy industries, connecting economically challenged citizens in remote locations to employers, enabling the movement of people and freight and providing access to America’s tourist attractions.”
  • The importance of a reliable, safe and well-maintained transportation system to economic growth in rural America was highlighted during the recent White House Rural Economic Forum, which was hosted by President Barack Obama on August 16th, 2011in Peosta, Iowa.
  • U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who hosted a breakout session on transportation and infrastructure at the Forum, wrote the following day on his blog, “We know that affordable transportation choices in our rural communities give residents better access to jobs and health care, and provide an incentive for much-needed economic development.  And continued federal investments in rural communities will create construction jobs and ensure that farmers and ranchers have the roads, rail lines, and ports they need to move their products to market.”
  • Transportation is becoming an even more critical segment of the food distribution network.  While food demand is concentrated mostly in urban areas, food distribution is the most dispersed segment of the economy.
  • A report by the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council recommends that governments improve the quality of their transportation systems serving the movement of goods from rural to urban regions as a strategy to lower food costs and increase economic prosperity.
  • A report on agricultural transportation by the USDA found it likely that market changes and shifts in consumer preferences would further increase the reliance on trucking to move U.S. agricultural products.
  • Travel and tourism in the U.S. generated over $700 billion in revenues in 2009 and the nation’s national parks, which are largely located in rural areas, receive 300 million visitors per year, many in personal vehicles.

Increases in domestic energy extraction and the production of renewable energy are increasing the demand on the nation’s rural highway system.

  • Ethanol production in the U.S. increased from 1.7 billion gallons in 2000 to 10.6 billion gallons in 2010.  Federal mandates require that production of renewable fuels, including biofuels and cellulosic fuels, reach 36 billion gallons per year by 2022.
  • The number of bio-refineries in the U.S. increased from 89 to nearly 500 between 2000 and 2010.
  • The development of significant new oil and gas fields in the North Central Plains is placing significant increased loads on the highways in those regions.

Rural Transportation Challenge:  Connectivity

Growing demand for rural mobility, combined with the failure to significantly expand the nation’s rural transportation system, particularly its network of modern highways, has resulted in a lack of adequate connectivity, which is impeding the potential for economic growth in many rural areas.

  • Travel per-lane mile on rural Interstate routes increased by 34 percent from 1990 to 2009. During the same timeframe, travel per-lane mile on the nation’s non-Interstate rural roads increased by 15 percent.
  • Sixty-six cities of 50,000 or more in the U.S. do not have direct access to the Interstate Highway System.  A list of the 66 cities can be found in Appendix A.
  • Since the routes for the Interstate Highway System were designated in 1956, the nation’s population has nearly doubled from 165 million to 311 million.
  • The abandonment of more than 100,000 miles of rail lines in recent decades, mostly in rural areas, has reduced access in many rural communities and increased reliance on trucking for freight movement.
  • Only 60 percent of rural counties nationwide have public transportation available and 28 percent of those have very limited service.

Rural Transportation Challenge:  Safety

Traffic fatalities on the nation’s rural roads occur at a rate more than three times higher than all other roads. A disproportionate share of fatalities take place on rural roads compared to the amount of traffic they carry.

  • Rural roads have a traffic fatality rate that is more than three times higher than all other roads. In 2009, non-Interstate rural roads had a traffic fatality rate of 2.31 deaths for every 100 million vehicle miles of travel, compared to a fatality rate on all other roads of 0.76 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles of travel.
  • Crashes on the nation’s rural, non-Interstate routes resulted in 17,075 fatalities in 2009, accounting for more than half – 51 percent – of the nation’s 33,808 traffic deaths in 2009.
  • Rural, non-Interstate routes accounted for 25 percent of all vehicle miles of travel in the U.S. in 2009.
  • While fatality rates on all roads have decreased in recent years, the drop in the fatality rate on rural roads has lagged behind that of all other roads from 2000 to 2009. From 2000 to 2009, the fatality rate on all roads, excluding non-Interstate rural roads, decreased by 28 percent (1.05 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles of travel to .76).   However, during the same timeframe, the traffic fatality rate on rural, non-Interstate routes declined by only 13 percent (2.65 fatalities per 100 vehicle miles of travel to 2.31).
  • The chart below details the twenty states that led the nation in the number of rural non-Interstate traffic deaths in 2009. Data for each state is available in Appendix B.

State

2009 Rural

Non-interstate

traffic deaths

Texas

1,490

California

1,164

North Carolina

907

Florida

906

South Carolina

791

Pennsylvania

611

Ohio

601

Kentucky

584

Missouri

533

Georgia

527

New York

524

Tennessee

519

Mississippi

464

Alabama

449

Oklahoma

444

Arkansas

418

Virginia

371

Michigan

369

Indiana

365

Wisconsin

363 

  • The chart below details the states with the highest rate of rural non-Interstate traffic fatalities per 100 million miles of travel in 2009 and fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles of travel on all other roads in the state in 2009. Data for each state is available in Appendix C. 

State

Non-Interstate

rural

All other

roads

South Carolina

4.70

.32

Florida

3.47

.98

Rhode Island

2.99

.89

Arkansas

2.89

.89

California

2.86

.68

Texas

2.83

.89

Kentucky

2.82

.78

Arizona

2.78

.98

Montana

2.76

1.14

North Dakota

2.75

.48

North Carolina

2.74

.43

Oklahoma

2.71

.96

Tennessee

2.68

.92

West Virginia

2.62

1.21

Louisiana

2.57

1.49

Kansas

2.50

.57

Delaware

2.41

.79

Oregon

2.34

.53

Nevada

2.33

.98

Missouri

2.31

.75

Inadequate roadway safety design, longer emergency vehicle response times and the higher speeds traveled on rural roads compared to urban roads are factors in the higher traffic fatality rate found on rural, non-Interstate routes.

  • Rural roads are more likely than urban roads to have poor roadway design, including narrow lanes, limited shoulders, sharp curves, exposed hazards, pavement drop-offs, steep slopes and limited clear zones along roadsides.
  • Because many rural routes have been constructed over a period of years, they often have inconsistent design features for such things as lane widths, curves, shoulders and clearance zones along roadsides.
  • Rural roads are more likely than urban roads to be two-lane routes.  Seventy percent of the nation’s urban non-freeway arterial and collector roads have two-lanes, compared to 94 percent of rural non-freeway, arterial and collector routes having two-lanes.
  • Rural roads are more likely than urban roads to have narrow lanes.  A desirable lane width for collector and arterial roadways is at least 11 feet.  But, 24 percent of rural collector and arterial roads have lane widths of 10 feet or less, compared to 18 percent of urban collector and arterial roads with lane widths of 10 feet or less.
  • In 2009, 34 percent of all fatal crashes on non-Interstate rural roads involved a vehicle leaving the roadway, whereas only 21 percent of fatal traffic crashes on all other routes involved a vehicle leaving the roadway.
  • In 2009, vehicles driving on rural roads were nearly twice as likely as vehicles on all other roads to be involved in a fatal traffic accident while attempting to negotiate curves.  In 2009, 23 percent of all vehicle occupants killed in rural, non-Interstate crashes involved a vehicle attempting to negotiate a curve, while only 12 percent of vehicle occupants killed in all other crashes involved a vehicle attempting to negotiate a curve.
  • Vehicles driving on non-Interstate rural roads are far more likely than vehicles traveling on all other roads to be involved in a fatal head-on collision.  In 2009, 15 percent of rural fatal multi-vehicle crashes were head-on collisions, compared to eight percent of all other traffic crashes.
  • While the vast majority of rural roads are two-lane facilities, very few rural traffic fatalities occurred while one vehicle was trying to pass another.  In 2009, only three percent of all vehicle occupants killed in rural, non-Interstate crashes died in crashes where one vehicle was trying to pass another vehicle.
  • Most head-on crashes on rural, non-Interstate roads are likely caused by a motorist making an unintentional maneuver as a result of driver fatigue, being distracted or driving too fast in a curve.
  • While driver behavior is a significant factor in traffic crash rates, both safety belt usage and impaired driving rates are similar in their involvement rate as a factor in urban and rural traffic crashes.

Numerous roadway safety improvements can be made to reduce serious crashes and traffic fatalities.  These improvements are designed largely to keep vehicles from leaving the correct lane and to reduce the consequences of a vehicle leaving the roadway. 

  • The type of safety design improvements that are appropriate for a section of rural road will depend partly on the amount of funding available and the nature of the safety problem on that section of road.
  • Low-cost safety improvements include installing rumble strips along the centerline and sides of roads, improving signage and pavement/lane markings including higher levels of retroreflectivity, installing lighting, removing or shielding roadside obstacles, using chevrons and post-mounted delineators to indicate roadway alignment along curves, adding skid resistant surfaces at curves and upgrading or adding guardrails.
  • Moderate-cost improvements include adding turn lanes at intersections, resurfacing pavements and adding median barriers.
  • Moderate to high-cost improvements include improving roadway alignment, reducing the angle of curves, widening lanes, adding or paving shoulders, adding intermittent passing lanes or adding a third or fourth lane.
  • The use of Roadway Safety Assessments (RSAs) is a proven approach that can improve roadway safety on rural roads.  Improved data collection on rural road safety can help to identify roadway segments with dangerous characteristics..
  • Systemic installation of cost effective safety solutions and devices in rural areas helps to improve safety not just by targeting problem points (“black spots”) on a road, but also making entire segments safer by improving those roadway segments that exhibit the characteristics that typically result in fatal or serious-injury crashes.

Rural Transportation Challenge:  Deficient Conditions

The nation’s rural roads, highways and bridges have significant deficiencies.

  • In 2008, 12 percent of the nation’s major rural roads (arterials and collectors) were rated in poor condition and another 43 percent were rated in fair condition.
  • The chart below details the states with the greatest percentage of major rural roads in poor condition in 2008. Rural pavement conditions for all states can be found in the Appendix D.

STATE

PERCENT POOR

Vermont

36

Idaho

31

Oklahoma

30

Rhode Island

30

Hawaii

29

Kansas

28

West Virginia

27

Arkansas

23

New Hampshire

21

New Mexico

21

Alaska

20

Missouri

20

Connecticut

19

Maine

19

California

18

Pennsylvania

17

South Dakota

17

Michigan

16

Illinois

16

Mississippi

15

  • In 2010, 13 percent of the nation’s rural bridges were rated as structurally deficient. A bridge is structurally deficient if there is significant deterioration of the bridge deck, supports or other major components. Structurally deficient bridges are often posted for lower weight or closed to traffic, restricting or redirecting large vehicles, including commercial trucks, school buses and emergency services vehicles.
  • In 2010, 10 percent of the nation’s rural bridges were rated as functionally obsolete. Bridges that are functionally obsolete no longer meet current highway design standards, often because of narrow lanes, inadequate clearances or poor alignment.
  • The chart below details the states with the highest share of rural bridges rated structurally deficient in 2010.  Rural bridge conditions for all states can be found in Appendix E.

 

stATE

Percent Structurally Deficient

Pennsylvania

28

Rhode Island

26

Oklahoma

23

Iowa

23

South Dakota

21

Nebraska

19

Missouri

18

North Dakota

17

Mississippi

16

Hawaii

16

New Hampshire

15

Maine

15

Louisiana

15

North Carolina

14

New York

14

Michigan

14

West Virginia

14

South Carolina

14

California

14

New Jersey

13

Transportation Opportunities in Rural America

America must adopt transportation policies that will improve rural transportation connectivity, safety and conditions to provide the nation’s small communities and rural areas with the a level of safe and efficient access that will support quality of life and enhance economic productivity.

The following recommendations by TRIP for an improved rural transportation system are also based partially on findings and recommendations made recently by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO),the National Highway Cooperative Research Program (NCHRP), the Council of State Governments (CSG) and the Ports-to-Plains Alliance

Improve access and connectivity in America’s small communities and rural areas

 

  • Widen and extend key highway routes, including Interstates, to increase connectivity to smaller and emerging communities to facilitate access to jobs, education and healthcare while improving access for agriculture, energy, manufacturing, forestry, tourism and other critical segments of the rural economy.
  • The NCHRP report found that the construction of an additional 30,000 lane miles of limited access highways, largely along existing corridors, is needed to address the nation’s need for increased rural connectivity.
  • Modernize major two-lane roads and highways so they can accommodate increased personal and commercial travel.
  • Improve public transit service in rural America to provide improved access for people without access to private vehicles, including older people.

Improve rural traffic safety

  • Adequately fund needed rural roadway safety improvements and provide enhanced enforcement, education and improved emergency response to reduce the rate of rural traffic fatalities.
  • Implement cost-effective roadway safety improvements, including  rumble strips, shoulder improvements, lane widening, curve reductions, skid resistant surfaces at curves, passing lanes, intersection improvements and improved signage, pavement markings and lighting, guardrails and barriers, and improved shielding of obstacles.

Improve the condition of rural roads, highways and bridges

  • Adequately fund local and state transportation programs to insure sufficient preservation of rural roads, highways and bridges to maintain transportation service and also to accommodate large truck travel, which is needed to support the rural economy.

All data used in this report is the most current available.  Sources of information for this report include:  The Federal Highway Administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the United States Department of Agriculture, the Council of State Governments and the U.S. Census Bureau. 

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