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EXPERT AVAILABLE: Rural Highways Underfunded, Pose Safety Risks, MU Experts Say

Rural transportation infrastructure investment needed

October 11th, 2011

Story Contact: Nathan Hurst, 573-882-6217,

The views and opinions expressed in this “for expert comment” release are based on research and/or opinions of the researcher(s) and/or faculty member(s) and do not reflect the University’s official stance.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – According to the Federal Highway Administration, rural roads make up 80 percent of the national road network and carry about 40 percent of all vehicle traffic. With Congress unable to pass a long-term transportation funding bill, Tom Johnson, the Frank Miller Professor of Agricultural and Applied Economics at the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri, and Brian Dabson, director of the Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI) housed in the Truman School, say that despite the importance of rural roads to the nation’s economy, upkeep for those roads remains underfunded.

“With population declines in many rural areas, the loss of tax revenue has left county and city government without the means to maintain the extensive network of roads,” Johnson said. “This increases traffic incidents and poses serious safety risks. More than 57 percent of traffic fatalities nationwide occur on rural roads.”

In their white paper, “Rethinking Federal Investments in Rural Transportation: Rural Considerations Regarding Reauthorization of the Surface Transportation Act,” Johnson and Dabson argue the importance of investing in rural transportation infrastructure, specifically public transit systems. They say that current rural transit systems tend to be primarily local in nature and do not provide connectivity so that users can conveniently travel outside of their immediate areas.

“Public transit systems are particularly important for the elderly and people with disabilities as well as people who don’t have cars,” Johnson said. “Federal statistics show that more than 1.6 million rural households don’t have access to cars while 38 percent of rural residents live in areas without any public transit options. This leads to problems because rural residents in the lowest 20 percentile income bracket spend 42 percent of their income on transportation alone.”

As Congress considers reauthorizing the federal surface transportation bill, Johnson and Dabson’s recommendations include:

  • Supporting local engagement in planning, decision-making and resource allocation;
  • Encouraging innovation and integration for effective rural transportation outcomes;
  • Shifting resources to address the most pressing rural needs and opportunities as they are locally defined;
  • Creating integrated regional transportation, economic development, and land-use planning and implementation;
  • Supporting greater attention to rural “place-making,” through quality of life investments that offer amenities that attract people to work and live in small cities and towns.

Formed in 1990 at the request of members of the Senate Agriculture Committee with foundational support from Iowa State University, University of Nebraska and MU, RUPRI is now an institution of national significance with a presence in many parts of the country. RUPRI’s mission is to provide objective analysis on the rural impacts of public policies and programs.