Transportation in Rural America—Challenges and Opportunities

Remarks by Congressman James Oberstar, March 14, 2004


“Transportation in Rural America—Challenges and Opportunities” is a great theme for this year’s forum. The social and economic landscape of rural America continues to change. To support the evolving rural economy, we must continually tune our transportation system to meet rural needs.

I know rural America. I grew up there; I’ve served counties in Minnesota for 30 years, in a district with counties the size of some East Coast states—27,600 square miles. It is larger than any congressional district east of the Mississippi River. Outside of Duluth, the District is made up predominately of small communities and rural areas.

A brief historical context will be useful for this forum on transportation in rural America, including recent trends in rural demographics, implications for the rural transportation system, and the rural-oriented initiatives in highway and transit reauthorization legislation in Congress. I hope you have read Steve Lockwood’s superb introduction to our theme of rural transportation issues.

History of rural transportation in America

Just over 100 years ago, rural America was synonymous with agriculture, and also with poverty. It was largely the same as it had been at the time of the American Revolution. Horses performed most of the physical work on farms and were the means of transportation from farm to town. The nearest town might even have had a railroad to move people and agricultural products to town and market and manufactured goods to the general stores and implement dealers of rural towns.

In 1885, there were only four registered automobiles in the United States, but, by 1929, there were more than 26 million. This truly was a revolution in rural transportation. A horse required care, feeding, periodic rest, and traveled at low speed. The horseless carriage—although not as reliable then as today’s cars—got by on less maintenance than horses, had greater endurance, could carry heavy loads, and could usually travel faster—if the roadway permitted!

The automobile greatly reduced the loneliness and isolation of farm families, and it gave them a new, more reliable form of moving their goods and themselves to market—reliable … at least most of the time. We’ve all seen pictures of a team of horses pulling a car out of the mud, conditions that led rural leaders to advocate better roads for the countryside. Bicyclists led the way.

Kimble County, Texas, is an example of a rural area that desperately needed better roads. In 1917, the road leading west from the county seat had washed out and was described as “a quagmire so hopeless that even a single horse had difficulty getting through.” The town’s citizens assembled a work party, with each man bringing his own pick and shovel to work on the road. That was the first meager, self-supporting effort to get a better road.

A year later, Kimble’s citizens became more active. They now had 200 motor vehicles, no paved roads, and no system of roadways to connect them with the outside world. The county passed a $150,000 bond issue to finance road construction, escape isolation, and provide access to markets elsewhere in Texas. Within two years, a network of roads covered Kimble County.

California is another example. In 1909, the state legislature authorized bond issues for construction of a paved state highway system. These initial efforts “got the farmer out of the mud,” created farm-to-market roads to move crops to customers, and otherwise changed rural life. Farms were no longer isolated; families could go to town more often—to sell crops, to purchase goods, and to socialize.

Rural roadway networks continued to evolve, weaving the nation together with a fabric of paved roadways, most of them with only two lanes. By the 1950s, you could travel across rural America with relative, but time-consuming ease. Some of us remember the Burma Shave humor that reduced the monotony—like these jingles:

Don’t stick/ Your elbow/ Out so far,/ It might go home/ In another car
—Burma Shave
Twinkle, twinkle/ One-eyed car,/ How I wonder/ WHERE/ You are
—Burma Shave

Then came one of the greatest developments in transportation: rural and urban construction of the Interstate Highway System—a vastly safer roadway, a significant increase in speed, a wider range of market opportunities, and greater accessibility. It gave the farm family access to seek jobs off the farm, in nearby towns and cities. The Interstate has been so effective in transforming the rural landscape that you often have to travel far off the Interstate to find truly rural areas.

Recent national trends in demographics and rural economics

Rural areas continue to change, just as they have throughout the past 100-plus years. From 1950 to 1990, most rural counties nationwide saw declines in population, although this trend was reversed during the 1990s. Between 1990 and 1997, most rural counties actually experienced substantial growth. Interestingly, rural counties farther away from big cities grew faster than rural counties adjacent to large metropolitan areas.

During the 1990s, both older people and younger people moved to rural areas. Migration to rural areas was highest for the 26 to 30 age group and second highest for those ages 1 to 17. Families with young children were being drawn by the promise of a rural, simpler lifestyle, lower housing costs, and a quality of life not available in metropolitan areas.

Older retirees are also migrating to rural areas. Combined with the established population that is aging in place, these two phenomena form a concentration of older people. In 1991, 31 percent of all Americans over age 60 lived in rural areas. The rate of growth of the older population in rural areas was more than twice as fast as total rural population growth.

Agricultural-based rural economies still exist in many regions of the country, but with their own personality and their own mix of economics and industry. Rural America is not uniform. Nationally and in Minnesota, rural economies vary—from resource extraction (mining), forestry and wood-fiber production to ranching, recreation, and tourism, as well as agriculture.

Rural economies have also changed substantially during past decades. Employment in agriculture, forestry, and mining all were on the decline through the middle of the last century. By 1980, jobs in rural manufacturing outnumbered agricultural employment three to one. In addition to manufacturing, service industries such as tourism and retirement services also have been growing in rural areas.

The shift from agricultural employment is the result of technology improvements, crop science, and farm management—all of which have boosted productivity—which, in turn, led to farm consolidation, decreases in farm employment, and a surplus in farm labor. This trend has forced rural labor markets to shift to other economic sectors.

The impact on the typical rural farm family has been dramatic: 100 years ago, almost all of a farm family’s income came from the farm; now, the farm provides only 16 percent. Many who live on farms have full-time jobs in “town”—in manufacturing, service, or other economic sectors.

Recent Minnesota trends in demographics and rural economics

Nationwide, the Bureau of the Census tells us, 21 percent of the population lives in rural areas. Here in Minnesota, 29 percent of our citizens live in rural areas—1.4 million people.

The situation in Minnesota is well described by University of Minnesota professor John Adams’ study of the Minnesota countryside. To quote:

"[The] Population of the state was initially distributed according to agricultural activity, exploitation of forest products, and metal mining. Following World War II, the fortunes of the mining industry were mixed at best, with ups and downs due to business-cycle fluctuations in domestic demand, redistribution of the American population, and economic activity from the Northeast to the South and West, the introduction of the taconite enrichment process, the petering out of the best deposits of hematite and magnetic ores, and competition from foreign ores. Forestry remains an important industry in terms of value of construction products manufactured from wood, but the share of workers engaged in forestry and the forest products industry has shrunk to low levels. Agriculture remains one of the state’s leading industries, but it is highly mechanized and industrialized, so only a tiny fraction of the state’s labor force works in farming even though it remains vitally important in the agriculture-based manufacturing supply chain."

For more than five decades, Minnesota’s population has shifted from extensive resource-based economic activity in rural areas to job opportunities in urban areas. The social and economic changes include a greater geographical separation of home and workplace, smaller families, more labor force participation by women, more single-person households, more discretionary income, and more free time to engage in shopping, recreation, and other leisure-time pursuits.

Implications for serving rural America’s transportation needs

The success of our rural roadway system has also created new challenges: a rural society structured around the automobile; land-use patterns that depend on a vehicle for mobility; and isolation—again—for the elderly, young, and low-income people who do not have access to the automobile.

The changing economies and changing demographics of rural America clearly have transportation implications. The most evident is for transportation services, in an automobile-dominated transportation system for those who do not have access to a car: the elderly, those too young to drive, and the poor. While rural jobs several decades ago were mostly on the farm, our rural population today must have transportation to jobs that are located in the next town, the next county, or beyond.

The social and economic changes also have transportation implications. The greater physical separation of home and workplace, smaller families, more labor force participation by women, more single-head-of-households, more discretionary income, and more free time to engage in shopping, recreation, and other leisure time pursuits—all involve more trips, longer drives, and a demand for greatly improved surface transportation.

What’s in the House reauthorization bill for rural transportation?

As you know, we continue to work on reauthorization of highway and transit programs in the House. The bill that the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee introduced in November 2003 included several initiatives oriented to rural transportation. Right now we are refining that bill in terms of programs and funding levels.

I am optimistic that the rural transportation initiatives will remain in the bill ultimately passed by the House, although at lower funding levels than we originally envisioned. And while those funding levels will be lower than originally envisioned, they are still likely to represent very significant increases over the funding levels for these programs in TEA-21.

In the transit title of the bill, there are significant increases in funding for the Non-urbanized Area Formula program. This program received $1.18 billion during the six years of TEA-21. Funding for the next six years will likely be in the range of $2 billion. A portion of this money may be directed to Intercity Bus Transportation, a program that helps to support intercity bus service in those instances where financial support is needed to maintain or provide service to rural communities. This program will likely increase from $177 million during TEA-21 to over $300 million during the next six years.

The Rural Transit Assistance Program (RTAP) provides monies for research, training, technical assistance, and other support services to meet the needs of transit operators in non-urbanized areas. Funding for RTAP will increase from $31 million (TEA-21) to about $40 million over the next six years.

Two additional transit programs will also benefit rural areas. The Jobs Access and Reverse Commute (JARC) Program established in TEA-21, and a Chairman Don Young proposal—the New Freedom Initiative, will assure rural areas a percentage of a state’s allocation. The JARC Program provides transportation services to help workers on welfare and other low-income individuals get to and from jobs and employment-related activities. The New Freedom Initiative will provide transportation assistance to persons with disabilities, including transportation to and from jobs and employment support services. Job Access will increase from $500 million in TEA-21 to about $900 million in the new authorization; New Freedom Initiative is set at $600 million for its first six years.

The highway title has three programs for rural highways: National Scenic Byways, Federal Lands Highways, and Indian Reservation Roads. The National Scenic Byways Program recognizes scenic roadways of national significance, promoting rural tourism. Scenic Byways will likely receive a healthy increase of about a third more than the $148 million in TEA-21.

The Federal Lands Highways Program includes funding for Park Roads and Parkways, Forest Highways, and Indian Reservation Roads—all three of which we have throughout rural northern Minnesota. Park Roads, like the Scenic Byways Program, helps to promote tourism-oriented economies in rural areas. Forest Highways support multiple uses in our National Forests, including tourism and resource development. The Indian Reservation Roads program promotes economic development on tribal lands. The Federal Lands Highways Program will likely increase several hundred million dollars over the $4.07 billion in funding it received during TEA-21.

Rural highway safety

A disproportionate number of injuries and fatalities in the United States occur on rural highways. Nationwide, 61 percent of roadway fatalities occur on rural roads, even though only 39 percent of the vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) occur on rural roads and only 21 percent of the population lives in rural areas. In Minnesota, rural areas report an even higher percentage of roadway fatalities—69 percent. Part of the explanation is that 48 percent of VMT in Minnesota occurs in rural areas.

What are some of the reasons that a disproportionate share of fatalities and injuries occur on rural roadways? Many of those roads were built in the early 20th century and have changed little since then. Some were built before good practices in geometric highway design were developed. Many have seen substantial increases in traffic volume over the years. Result: unsafe roadways and the horrific result is often injury or fatality for roadway users.

Much of the rural local and collector roadway system has narrow shoulders—or no shoulder at all, blind intersections, or poor sight distance. Motorists from urban areas and other unfamiliar drivers may not perform well on these “substandard” roadways. Weather conditions, such as snow, fog, and sleet, combined with dated roadway design, also contribute to the problem.

The House Bill includes a new High-Risk Rural Road Safety Improvement Program. This program will direct funds toward rural local and collector roadways that have a high accident rate for fatalities and injuries. It targets funding where it will provide the greatest safety benefit.

All of the above provisions, which direct resources to rural areas, are included in the House bill. As we proceed to conference with the Senate, our goal is to maintain these important programs, both in content and funding level, in the bill that is reported out of conference.


Our nation’s rural areas—their demographics and economies—are in the path of monumental change, with significant effects on the rural transportation structure. We are gathered here in this forum on transportation in rural America to understand more fully the challenges and the opportunities.

Past investments in transportation dramatically improved rural America. We are challenged to build on the past, to understand the dynamics of the present, and to peer over the horizon to the future to adapt, innovate, and protect the best of rural life so that the 59 million rural Americans can enjoy enhanced mobility, a good quality of life, and a safe transportation system. I am ready for the challenge, and I ask that all of you join me in creating the solutions.

Rep. Oberstar delivered these remarks March 14, 2004, at the third James L. Oberstar Forum, hosted by the Center for Transportation Studies and held