The Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success (R.O.U.T.E.S.) Initiative was announced by U.S. Department of Transportation (UDOT) Secretary, Elaine Chao, on Monday. The initiative includes a toolkit designed to streamline the grant application process for infrastructure projects.
“This is a new program that will help applicants in rural America navigate the very complicated landscape of all kinds of grants at the department,” Chao told AgriTalk Host Chip Flory. “This will help rural America improve its infrastructure and increase safety.”
Chao says the rural transportation network has been instrumental in building and supplying urban areas throughout the nation’s history, yet rural America has been long overlooked and neglected.
“I come from a world (and) know firsthand how important America's rural transportation networks are. I always tell people, look, America is not looking for handouts. We just want our fair share,” says Chao, who hails from Kentucky and is married to Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell.
Chao says that prior to the Trump administration, only 25% of discretionary grants were awarded to rural areas.
“In this administration, this department has awarded more than 62% of these infrastructure grants to rural areas,” she notes. “Just the last go around, we had a bunch of what's called build grants. It's $900 million. Over 20 projects were selected, and 53% of the money went to rural America.”
While only 19% of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, 45% of all roadway fatalities and 34% of all public highway-rail grade crossing fatalities occur on rural roads, and the fatality rate on rural roads is two times higher than on urban roads, according to UDOT.
“Of the bridges that need repair work, 80% of those bridges are in rural areas,” Chao adds.
Discretionary grant applications can be complex and resource-intensive to complete, she says. Many of the Department’s discretionary grant programs require non-federal funding to cover a portion of project costs, which—at least historically—has presented an additional barrier to rural communities with limited funding.
“One of my observations in interfacing with the government, and particularly the federal government, is they do a really good job at information generation but a very poor job at information dissemination,” says Michael Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition.
“For rural counties, to expect them to go to such and such a report and find it on page 922 paragraph B—that there's a grant program that's accessible to them—I don't know of many rural county engineers who would have the time and ability to access that.” Steenhoek says, adding, “(But) any opportunity to make this information and these resources with these grant programs accessible to rural America, I think it's a great thing.
Chao says the toolkit is easy to access and use. “Just click on the icon and you’ll see and can go through all the grant programs that are eligible for road repairs, road building, ports, bridges, airports…and we have discretionary grants. We want equity in the distribution of these federal resources.”
Chao says the grants have various criteria that must be met by applicants. In addition, some are available to local governments to use while others are available to the private sector.
More information on the toolkit is available here: https://www.transportation.gov/rural/toolkit