Rural transportation has traditionally meant cars and pickups, highways and Greyhound buses. While the intercity buses are fewer and farther between, however, that doesn't change people's needs to get from place to place. Most people have cars and trucks, but some elderly or disabled people can no longer drive easily. Moreover, when gas prices go up, some unemployed and lower-income people can no longer afford to drive as much.
In coming years, the percentage of people over 65 years of age living in rural America is expected to triple. For seniors, mobility can be especially challenging and more safe transportation alternatives are needed.
The upcoming federal jobs bill and transportation reauthorization legislation present timely opportunities for new ideas and mobility solutions. Congress can help provide rural Americans with better access to government and medical services, education, jobs and visits with friends and families by making two important investments: recognizing the rural intercity mobility access provided by expanded high-speed rail service; and using new technologies for better scheduling and coordination of rural transit shuttle services.
First, modern, fast, comfortable and convenient higher-speed intercity rail service will help rural transportation access. Most people think about high-speed rail as linking Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul, St. Louis and other big Midwest cities, but carefully chosen stops along the way can provide important new transportation services for rural residents. The fast trains shouldn't have a lot of stops, which would make them into milk runs. However, there will be stops in places like La Crosse, Wisconsin, Bloomington - Normal, Illinois, Battle Creek, Michigan, and Winona, Minnesota, which are accessible to outlying rural areas. Let's look at the improved mobility and access that this provides for rural America:
There are 15 rural counties in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa with nearly 550,000 people within a 50-mile radius of La Crosse. High-speed rail service would provide these rural residents with better access to Chicago, Madison, Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul and other cities in-between.
There are 14 counties in Illinois with more than 1,000,000 people within a 50-mile radius of Bloomington - Normal. High-speed rail service would provide these residents with better access to Chicago, St. Louis, Springfield and other cities.
There are 16 counties in Michigan and Indiana with more than 2,000,000 people within a 50-mile radius of Battle Creek. High-speed rail service would provide these residents with better access to Chicago, Ann Arbor, Detroit and other cities in-between.
There are 13 counties in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin with more than 600,000 people within a 60-mile radius of Winona. High-speed rail service would provide these rural residents with better access to Chicago, Madison, Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul and other cities in-between.
Scheduled shuttle buses between outlying rural towns and the Battle Creek, Bloomington, LaCrosse and Winona train stations would make this rail service more accessible for meeting rural mobility needs.
According to an economic study conducted for nine state Departments of Transportation, the new Midwest high-speed rail network can create 57,000 permanent new jobs across the region, produce more than $1 billion in additional household income, and spur almost $5 billion in private new development near Midwest rail stations.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee proposes to invest $50 billion in general revenue funds over five years to support high-speed rail development across the nation. The full Congress will soon address transportation infrastructure and funding issues. High-speed rail development is a key opportunity for rural America, not just for the big cities. Let's seize this opportunity to gain benefits for both rural and urban Midwesterners.
Second, advanced software, communications and GPS technology have enhanced scheduling for urban bus systems and air taxis. In Chicago and Madison, for example, people can check their Blackberrys and iPhones to find out when a bus will actually arrive at their stop. This type of scheduling technology and internet service can also be applied to make rural transit shuttle services more efficient, predictable and coordinated for moving people from place to place.
Imagine a flexible transit service in which rural riders could call or email a dispatcher asking to be picked up in a certain timeframe. The software program determines the most efficient routes, timing and coordination for drivers shuttling among passenger pick-ups and drop-offs. Although this may be more challenging and less time-certain in spread out rural areas than in more dense urban areas, modern software scheduling technology can make these shuttle services work better.
Congress should provide funding for 10 - 15 pilot projects through a competitive grants program focused on harnessing technology for on-demand transportation services in underserved rural areas. Let's deploy new technologies creatively to improve the efficiency of rural transit services in providing access to jobs, government services and health care. This would be especially helpful for elderly and disabled rural residents who cannot drive.
The federal Section 5311 Rural Public Transportation Program provides $400 - $500 million annually to support rural transit and infrastructure development, and about $8 million is allocated for the Section 5311(b)(3) rural transit technical assistance and training program. Innovative pilot programs for on-demand rural transportation services should fit well.
It's time for new ideas for better rural transportation. Let's seize the strategic opportunities for Congress to support new transportation solutions that improve mobility for people in rural areas and support more livable communities. All people in our country deserve the dignity that comes with mobility.
Howard A. Learner is the executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, the Midwest's leading environmental and economic development advocacy organization.