Missouri News: U.S. Secretary of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announces transportation initiative for rural America

St. Louis, Missouri (STL.News) –  There’s a new initiative to address disparities in transportation infrastructure in rural America.  On Tuesday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao was in St. Louis to deliver a keynote address at the annual American Association of State Highway and Transportation meeting.  It was there that Chao announced the Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success initiative, also known as R.O.U.T.E.S.

“Rural America, which has a disproportionately high rate of fatalities and is historically neglected, needs to have its transportation needs addressed,” said Chao.

“We will bring together leaders and staff in key infrastructure modes – Highways, Aviation, Transit, and Railroads – to examine grant programs’ potential to better support the Nation’s critical rural transportation infrastructure.” Chao added.

During her speech, Chao cited transportation safety statistics in rural America.

“Rural communities and their transportation networks are vital to our nation. 69 percent of the Nation’s lane miles are in rural areas.  Two-thirds of rail freight originates in rural areas.  But rural transportation infrastructure is challenged by disparities.  The disproportionate rate of crash fatalities in rural areas is especially alarming. 19 percent of Americans live in rural areas.  Yet, 72 percent of large truck occupant fatalities, 67 percent of pickup occupant fatalities, and 58 percent of SUV occupant fatalities occur in rural areas.  The fatality rate on rural roads is twice that on urban roads.” Chao said to a crowd of transportation officials.

Chao also announced the formation of a rural transportation infrastructure council, the ROUTES Council, to lead the way on this initiative.  This new internal deliberative body at the Department will identify critical rural transportation concerns and coordinate efforts among DOT’s different modal administrations.  The Council will initially review public comments and create a rural resources handbook, holding its first meeting in November 2019.

Meanwhile, the Infrastructure Improvements to Downtown St. Louis project – a collaboration between Illinois and Missouri DOTs that delivered major multimodal enhancements to both states, received the Grand Prize in the 2019 America’s Transportation Awards competition. The $801 million project dramatically improved travel times and provided a new connection to the iconic St. Louis Arch.

In addition, the Georgia DOT’s Northwest Corridor Express Lanes project received the highest number of online votes in the competition, earning it the People’s Choice award.

Overall, 39 state DOTs nominated 81 projects in four regional contests, with the four highest-scoring projects in each region comprising the list of 12 national-level finalists that battled it out for the two prizes announced today.

“This annual competition is tough,” said Jim Tymon, AASHTO’s executive director.

“All 81 of this year’s project nominees demonstrate the many ways transportation improves the quality of people’s lives. Some of these projects increased mobility by giving commuters more travel options, including biking and walking. Others spurred economic development, cut traffic congestion, or improved safety. And while we honor today’s champions, the biggest winners are by far the American people.” Tymon added.

The collaborative Illinois/Missouri DOT project involved relocating an interstate to the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge; a four-lane cable-stayed bridge that opened in 2014.  That bridge set the stage for a broad swath of further improvements, including new lane ramps leading to and from the bridge, as well as an extra lane between St. Louis and St. Clair County in Illinois.  A park then replaced the previous interstate location, with bicycle and pedestrian access points added to the banks of the Mississippi River.

The competition was sponsored by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, AAA, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the 12th annual competition evaluated projects in three categories: Quality of Life/Community Development; Best Use of Technology & Innovation; and Operations Excellence.