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Front Line: New DOT Focus on Rural Development

“Economic success” is a critical component of the Department of Transportation’s new initiative.

Q1 2020
Last October U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced a new initiative focusing on transportation and related development challenges in rural areas. The new effort was called ROUTES — Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success. ROUTES will build on two successful DOT discretionary grant programs, now called BUILD and INFRA (previously known as TIGER and FASTLANE, respectively). BUILD supports varied projects. INFRA has a freight focus.

Many rural communities, of course, have successfully competed for these grants. It’s DOT’s concern, however, that these individual successes don’t provide the far-reaching leverage necessary to deliver benefits across vast rural areas. In addition, many rural areas start a notch or two behind their urban counterparts and new funding may just be used for catch-up, not new investment.

With ROUTES, DOT gives rural projects a unique lens. DOT cites three persistent concerns: safety, infrastructure, and usage. In rural areas certain roads and ports, for example, may face particularly harsh, but temporary, demands — during harvest season for example. If maintenance is deferred because of cost, that wear-and-tear can impact other assets, leaving an entire region less competitive.

In November, DOT published a request for information seeking comments about best ways to get ROUTES started. DOT asked two basic questions:
  • How can it best identify unmet needs in rural transportation?
  • How can those needs be best addressed via DOT’s discretionary grant programs?
Comments have come in from a range of interested parties, from state DOTs and county engineers to transit and passenger rail supporters. Not surprisingly, one common comment has been to send more money, particularly for roads and bridges.

Economic Success Is Key
Importantly, though, ROUTES is not just about money (of which there’s never enough). In fact, it’s not just about roads. With ROUTES, “economic success” is a critical component. ROUTES seeks to impact a wide range of transportation infrastructure, from roads and bridges to aviation to rail to pipelines.

In DOT’s discretionary grants programs, the transport investment complements a bigger development picture — completing access to a barge/truck intermodal facility, for example. Private-sector investments are additionally important to the overall project mix. Hence DOT’s concerns about getting this right — there could be bigger payoffs, in areas needing the help, for the same amount of money.

Some common ideas emerge from the comments to DOT:
  • Make the grants process easier;
  • Provide DOT staff expertise to help with grant applications;
  • Focus on projects already vetted by local development or planning groups; and
  • Reduce local match requirements (a step already taken by DOT).
Comments from North Carolina’s DOT highlight how some states already give special attention to rural development. NC has a “Hometown Strong” initiative, based in the Governor’s office, that teams-up state agency leadership to help project sponsors in rural counties.

To the extent DOT decides these kinds of ideas, and initiatives will benefit its grants programs, private-sector developers should be on the lookout for changes in how applications are ranked from certain localities. Sites that are part of a coordinated review, with carefully developed economic benefits, could move up in rank. Watch for new ROUTES developments in the coming months.
The Lexicon:

ROUTES — Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success
BUILD — Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development
FASTLANE — Fostering Advancements in Shipping and Transportation for the Long-term Achievement of National Efficiencies
INFRA — Infrastructure for Rebuilding America
TIGER — Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery

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