Rural Transportation: Growing challenges for growing communities

Arizona’s small towns and rural communities are growing rapidly. In the quad-city area anchored by Prescott, the Central Yavapai Metropolitan Planning Organization (CYMPO) projects a 74% population increase by 2040. The Arizona Department of Administration projects that Pinal County will gain over half a million residents during the same time frame. These are just two examples of the type of population expansion that is straining regional roads and highways.

Areas outside of Phoenix and Tucson are especially dependent on a strong transportation system to link them to the rest of the world and to support economic activity. Rural residents often have to drive farther to get to work, school, shopping and other services. The average annual vehicle miles traveled by residents of rural Arizona is 13,100 compared to 8,400 for their urban counterparts.

Adequate transportation infrastructure is essential for commercial activity as well. For example, the Greater Yuma Economic Development Corporation lists Logistics and Distribution as one of six “leading industries.” Yuma’s strategic location near both Mexico and Southern California make it a natural hub for the movement of goods. Yuma’s ability to maintain this competitive advantage depends on strong and well-maintained highways.

Safety is a critical issue on rural roads and highways. Nationally, 55% of all traffic fatalities occur on rural roads despite the fact that only 19% of Americans live in rural areas and rural roads handle only 32% of all vehicle miles traveled. In Arizona, the rural road fatality rate is 2.66 per 100 million miles, more than double the rate in urban areas. Poor road conditions are a factor. A recent study in Coconino County found 35% of roads to be in poor or severe condition. To complicate matters further, some of our state’s rural communities lack adequate alternate routes that can be used to evacuate an area in the case of a wildfire. Areas like Oak Creek Canyon and Page have experienced mudslides that blocked major roadways such as Highway 89, inhibiting the ability of residents and visitors to travel safely.

The federal government plays a large role in funding the maintenance and expansion of roads in Arizona. This funding comes through several programs. For example, around 22% of all roads in the state are maintained through the Federal Lands and Highways program due to the large number of national parks and federal lands. The Highway Trust Fund (HTF) is an important source of funding for local and county governments. An estimated one-third for all HTF funds go to roads and highways outside of urban centers. The current version of MAP-21, the legislation authorizing and funding the HTF, provides more flexibility to states on how to invest their allocation. MAP-21 eliminated a $90 million annual set-aside from the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP) for High Risk Rural Roads (HRRR) and replaced it with a “Special Rule” obligating states to work with regional planning organizations in smaller communities to identify projects in need of financing.

Rural areas are highly car-dependent since lower population densities make mass transit largely impractical. Rural areas get 6% of federal funds for public transportation administered by the Federal Transit Administration. Reductions in the Bus and Bus Facilities Program has left some rural areas with insufficient funds to purchase buses. The lack of a bus program impacts low-income workers and the disabled who may have difficulty getting to work.

Local leaders are paying attention to transportation challenges and taking matters into their own hands. This past November, voters in Coconino County approved a 3/10 cent sales tax increase devoted to repair, improve and service county-maintained roads. This is expected to generate approximately $6 million annually. At the same time, Flagstaff voters supported a 1/3 cent sales tax to repair city streets. As funding from the federal government becomes less dependable, we can expect to see more local or statewide initiatives to secure the necessary resources for the future transportation needs of our rural communities and small towns.

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