Midwestern view: Bring transit to rural areas
Rural transportation has traditionally meant cars, pickups, highways and Greyhounds. While intercity buses are fewer and further between, that doesn't change people's needs to get from place to place. Most people have cars and trucks, but some el...
Rural transportation has traditionally meant cars, pickups, highways and Greyhounds.
While intercity buses are fewer and further between, 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; and with gas prices going up, some unemployed and lower-income people can no longer afford to drive much. In rural America, where the percentage of people older than 65 is expected to triple, mobility can be challenging, and more transportation alternatives are needed.
The upcoming federal transportation reauthorization legislation should provide room for new ideas and mobility solutions. Congress can help provide rural Americans with better access to government, medical services, education, jobs, and visits with friends and families.
One way is with modern, fast, comfortable, convenient and higher-speed intercity rail service.
Most people think about high-speed rail as linking big Midwestern cities. But carefully chosen stops, as well as conventional-speed rail extensions to more distant places, can provide important transportation services for rural residents, too.
Fast trains shouldn't have a lot of stops, which would make them into milk runs. However, in the rail network being planned for the Midwest, there probably will be stops in places such as La Crosse, Wis., and Bloomington, Ill, as well as in Duluth and Des Moines.
The planned new high-speed rail service between Chicago and St. Paul should be extended to Duluth. There are six counties in Minnesota and Wisconsin with more than 325,000 people within a 50-mile radius of Duluth. Rail service would provide these residents with better access to Minneapolis-St. Paul, Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago and other cities. Scheduled shuttle buses between outlying rural towns and Duluth could make these passenger trains 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, produce more than $1 billion in additional household income and spur almost $5 billion in private new development near rail stations.
High-speed rail is a key opportunity for rural America, and not just for big cities.
A second way Congress can help is through federal funding for rural areas to deploy the innovative software, communications and GPS technology that enhance scheduling for urban bus systems and air taxis. In places like Chicago and Duluth, people can check their iPhones and Blackberrys to find out when a bus will actually arrive at their stop. This type of scheduling technology and Internet service can be applied to make rural transit shuttle services more efficient, predictable and coordinated.
Imagine a flexible transit service in which rural riders could call or e-mail a dispatcher, asking to be picked up in a certain time frame. The software program determines the most efficient routes, timing and coordination for drivers shuttling among passenger pickups and drop-offs. Although this may be more challenging and the timing of stops less predictable in spread-out rural areas than in dense urban areas, modern software scheduling technology can make shuttle services work better.
Congress should provide funding for 10 to 15 pilot projects 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 especially be helpful for elderly and disabled rural residents who cannot drive.
Innovative pilot programs for on-demand rural transportation services should fit well with funding already proposed to support rural transit and infrastructure development and for a rural transit technical assistance and training program.
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.
Howard A. Learner is executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, an environmental and economic development advocacy organization based in Chicago with offices in Minnesota and six other Midwestern states. He wrote this commentary exclusively for the News Tribune.