Rural and Urban Areas Must Work Together

Keynote address: Emil Frankel, USDOT Assistant Secretary of Transportation Policy

Photo of Emil Frankel

“Rural transportation is an important, yet complicated, issue,” Emil Frankel, USDOT assistant secretary for transportation policy, remarked to begin his keynote address during the public portion of the forum. “Rural America is many things, not one thing,” he said, “and this requires citizens in both rural and urban areas to work together for a common goal.” Frankel went on to share important insights about the issues shaping the next surface transportation funding measure and outlined several core elements of the Bush administration’s proposal that will most impact rural transportation.

According to Frankel, the reauthorization bill currently under consideration by Congress—formally known as the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2003 (SAFETEA)—takes a fiscally responsible approach to continuing the funding program, known in recent years as ISTEA, then TEA-21, without using fuel tax or general-fund money. “SAFETEA will build on the remarkable accomplishments of ISTEA and TEA-21,” Frankel explained. “The proposed funding retains several key programs; there are also several important policy reforms contained in SAFETEA aimed at increasing highway safety and expediting highway improvements.”

Within existing legislation, one of most successful programs, Frankel said, is the National Scenic Byways program, which designates roads that have outstanding scenic, historic, cultural, natural, recreational, and archaeological qualities as All- American Roads, National Scenic Byways, or the new inclusive term “America’s Byways.” The program also provides funding for scenic byway projects on federally or state-designated scenic byways, and for planning, designing, and developing state scenic-byway programs. “In Minnesota, which has six roads designated America’s Byways, and all over the country, these byways are part of the economic fabric of urban, and particularly, rural communities,” Frankel explained. “These byways help improve tourism in rural areas, which increases the amount of money flowing into communities and creates more jobs.”

“Healthy people mean healthy communities,” he continued. “Clearly there’s a need in this country to change lifestyles. Our proposal increases funding for programs that provide for the construction of pedestrian walkways and bicycle transportation facilities and for carrying out nonconstruction projects related to safe pedestrian and bicycle use. In addition, the Recreational Trails Program provides increased funds to develop and maintain recreational trails for motorized and non-motorized recreational trail users.”

“We also need to address the unique safety needs in rural America,” he said. “Rural areas bear the brunt of transportation fatalities. Although safety-belt use in rural areas increased in 2003, it’s still below the national average.” The Bush administration, Frankel explained, is committed to reducing highway fatalities and believes that nothing would make a greater difference in these numbers than to increase the use of safety belts everywhere in America. The administration’s SAFETEA bill offers proposals to increase safety-belt use. “Part of this goal is to include more flexibility in how states can use funds,” Frankel revealed. “The Bush administration wants local government to use common sense to solve transportation needs, and rural programs will receive their fair share when included in the formula program.”

Enactment of this bill, he added, would be an important step in reducing highway fatalities and injuries, and providing greater flexibility to state and local governments to use these funds consistent with a comprehensive strategic highway safety plan. The president’s proposal would provide more than $201 billion in funding for highway and safety programs and nearly $46 billion in funding for public transportation programs from fiscal year 2004 through fiscal year 2009.

Frankel also addressed a few other elements of SAFETEA not necessarily directed toward rural transportation, including proposals for environmental streamlining, expanding the resources available for investment, and improving connectivity. “One of our great challenges is fulfilling the dream of the ‘I’ (intermodalism) in ISTEA,” he said. “We’ve not made as much progress as we need to. We need a seamless system that cuts across modes. Again, we’ ve made some progress, but it’s not as seamless as it needs to be; connections need to be improved. The way we are structured institutionally and financially creates a stovepipe, and we believe some of the new SAFETEA legislation will help correct this.”

Emil Frankel delivered these keynote remarks March 15, 2004, at the third James L. Oberstar Forum, hosted by the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth.