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Rural Connections: Challenges and Opportunities in America's Heartland

May 2020


America’s rural heartland is the primary source of many of the goods and products that supports our nation’s economy and way of life. It also is home to a significant share of the nation’s population and many of its natural resources and popular tourist destinations. The strength of the nation’s rural economy is heavily reliant on the quality of its transportation system, particularly the roads and highways that link rural America with the rest of the U.S. and to markets in other countries. The importance of the rural transportation system as the backbone of the nation’s energy, food and fiber supply chain has been heightened during the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

America’s rural transportation network provides the first and last link in the supply chain from farm to market. The quality and connectivity of America’s rural transportation system supports the economy of the entire nation and quality of life for the approximately 60 million Americans living in rural areas. Good transportation is essential in rural areas to provide access to jobs, to facilitate the movement of goods and people, to access opportunities for health care and education, and to provide links to other social services.

Roads, highways, rails and bridges in the nation’s heartland face a number of significant challenges: they lack adequate capacity; they fail to provide needed levels of connectivity to many communities; and, they cannot adequately support growing freight travel in many corridors. Rural roads and bridges have significant deficiencies and deterioration, they lack many desirable safety features, and they experience fatal traffic crashes at a rate far higher than all other roads and highways. This report looks at the condition, use and safety of the nation’s rural transportation system, particularly its roads, highways and bridges, and identifies needed improvements.

Addressing the nation’s rural transportation challenges will require a significant increase in investment, but the tremendous decrease in vehicle travel that has occurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic is estimated to reduce state transportation revenues by at least 30 percent – approximately $50 billion — over the next 18 months.

Rural areas in this report are based on the U.S. Census Bureau definition, which defines rural areas as regions outside of urban areas with a population of 2,500 or more. Road, bridge and safety data in this report is based on the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) definition for rural areas, which allows states to use the U.S. Census Bureau definition to identify rural routes or to define rural areas as regions outside of urban areas with a population of 5,000 or more.