From Andrea Kiepe, Transportation for America

Double the average amount of auto accident fatalities, the highest household transportation expenses, growing congestion, crumbling roads and bridges, and the increasing need for transportation options to serve an aging population.

While these statistics might sound like they’re from an inner city neighborhood, they actually represent the very real transportation challenges in rural America. Though some form of public transit serves 83 of 87 Minnesota counties, rural people depend on cars and trucks for most of their transportation. That makes them particularly vulnerable to gas price spikes and means they spend more of their family income on transportation. Americans in the lowest 20% income bracket, many of whom live in rural communities, spend close to 42% of their total annual incomes on transportation. In neighborhoods with abundant transit options, transportation accounts for just 9% of annual household income.

For many rural folks, no access to a reliable vehicle means not being able to get around. For seniors, this lack of options can leave them unable to access such essentials as groceries, the pharmacy, and their doctor’s office. More than 50% of non-drivers age 65 and older stay home on any given day— in part because they lack transportation options.

“We found that if older folks didn’t have extended family nearby, they just didn’t get out,” said Muriel Krusemark, head of Hoffman, Minnesota’s Economic Development Authority. To address this issue, the group undertook the re-design of Main Street. They started with a few interested vendors and a local resident who could purchase two empty store fronts. The Main Street Galleria opened with 27 small businesses. Two other store fronts became a healthcare mall financed by a grant from Prime West. Four medical specialists are now in town from one to eight days a month. This program is a unique opportunity for small, rural towns that wouldn’t be able to support these practices on their own.” Now locals don’t have to arrange for a ride to Alexandria to see specialists, they can walk there.

 “Small town residents deserve to have services and products available here or transportation to get these services and products elsewhere,” said Krusemark.

Starting a weekly farmers market in a downtown park was another successful project for Hoffman, spurring nearby towns like Cyrus to start their own. Local non-profits raise money with a community dinner during the farmers market. Children enjoy themselves in the playground and their parents and seniors have a chance to visit.

“The seniors sometimes keep talking in the park until 9 o’clock. We bring 200 people into Hoffman on farmers’ market nights. I hear kids asking their parents, ‘Is it Wednesday yet?’” says Krusemark.

Walkable, accessible downtowns have made the traditional American small town a romantic ideal of the good life for generations. As rural areas struggle with aging populations, economic challenges and gas-cost instability; they need to recommit to traditional, dense town centers and create more diverse transit options so residents can access them – as well as nearby towns.

“One of the things that makes small town life so desirable is the ability to walk downtown, buy the things you need and talk to your neighbors. The work Muriel and local volunteers are doing in Hoffman shows the potential for revitalizing rural communities. Walkable downtowns with amenities and better transit options can keep young people from moving away and help towns thrive,” says Andrea Kiepe, Minnesota Field Organizer for Transportation for America.

Transportation for America (T4A) is working on legislation that would make these improvements easier.  The draft legislation would allow rural regions to designate a town center for a rural region, and then form a rural transportation planning organization that can do long term multi-modal planning for the specific needs of their area. These rural transportation planning organizations could then approach USDOT for funding, just as the Met Council does in the Twin Cities. That would make sure rural communities have more than just limited input in the statewide transportation planning process.

Draft language also prioritizes studying which rural roads have the biggest safety risks and then targeting resources to fix the problem. Rural connectivity improvements like rail corridor, local street networks and intercity bus improvements would be eligible for Surface Transportation Program funding.

T4A is also working with local partner organizations like TLC to support Rep. Oberstar’s Critical Asset Investment (CAI) provisions in the pending House Surface Transportation Authorization Act of 2009. This legislation would prioritize road and bridge maintenance and repair over road expansion and provide substantial funding to make that happen. T4A recommends making the CAI language even better for rural areas, by expanding it to include off system bridges and the entire federal aid system.

“Everyone is aware that we have a big gap. Our roads and bridges need serious repair and maintenance. Doing that reduces wear and tear on our vehicles and creates badly needed jobs in the recession. But there’s not yet political agreement on how to raise the funds. We want to change that,” says Kiepe.
T4A is looking for people with stories about their experiences with rural transportation and rural communities that need change or are great examples of what works. Please contact Andrea Kiepe at 612.991.9497 or email her at andrea.kiepe@t4america.org to get involved or ask questions about T4A’s platform.

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