Rural roads in sad state

Legislators urged to craft funding plan

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If you want to get from here to there, don't expect smooth driving in Pennsylvania's rural areas.

The commonwealth was tied for 12th place in terms of the highest percentage -- 17 percent -- of major rural roads in poor condition in 2008.

That ranking comes from a new report detailing the sorry state of the nation's rural transportation infrastructure amid its growing importance.

While the country roads here are bad, they can't compare to the bridges, according to "Rural Connections: Challenges and Opportunities in America's Heartland" by TRIP, a transportation research group.

With 4,105 rural bridges -- or 28 percent -- rated structurally deficient in 2010, Pennsylvania was at the top of the heap, TRIP said.

"The state of the nation's rural roads and bridges is distressingly bad," said Stephen E. Sandherr, CEO of Associated General Contractors of America.

It's nothing new that Pennsylvania's bridges are in bad shape. But the focus on infrastructure problems in rural areas takes on an added significance here because the state has the third-largest rural population, with 2.8 million people.

Pennsylvania also had the sixth-highest number of traffic fatalities on rural roads that were not interstates in 2009, though it was not even in the top 20 when measured by number of fatalities per 100 million miles of travel.

In a conference call accompanying the release of the report Thursday, representatives of associations for general contractors, road and transportation builders and state highway officials urged politicians in Washington, D.C. to craft a viable six-year funding plan that doesn't skimp on rural infrastructure in favor of urban mass transit.

Congress has not passed a long-term transportation funding mechanism.

"What I think rural America clearly needs is a fair share of highway and transit funding. They can't afford to see that proportion reduced," said John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

"As TRIP's report makes clear, our rural roads and bridges have suffered while Washington has dithered," Mr. Sandherr said. "If you want to maintain economic prosperity you have to make investments in transportation."

TRIP's report details the importance of rural roads and bridges to both personal and commercial travel in light of shifting demographics and the long, steady decline of the nation's rail system.

"The strength of the nation's rural economy relies greatly on the quality of its transportation system, particularly its roadways, which link rural America with the rest of the U.S. and to markets in other nations," the report said.

But despite growing levels of traffic, rural roads, highways and bridges don't measure up, according to the report. They don't have enough capacity, can't accommodate growing freight traffic, don't connect well enough to rural communities and are unsafe in many ways.

There are 50 million people classified as living in rural America on 83 percent of the land and that number is expected to grow over the next decade as baby boomers retire to the sticks, the report said.

Along with the transportation requirements of that residential population there is the need to move food by truck from farms to urban centers and the reliance on rural roads for the 300 million visitors per year to U.S. national parks.

Road closures, bridge restrictions, traffic backups resulting from infrastructure problems all impact the economy.

"So much of the nation's commerce and produce moves along our back roads and byways," Mr. Sandherr said.

Despite the significant use of rural roads, TRIP found, there are widespread problems with safety. Rural roads have a traffic fatality rate more than three times higher than all other roads.

TRIP attributed the poor results to rural roads having narrower lanes, sharp curves, limited shoulders and other design flaws.

The group called for improving access, connectivity and safety of rural roads as well as fixing roads, highways and bridges in the country.

"Providing the nation with a rural transportation system which will support the nation's economic recovery and future development will require that the U.S. invest in rural transportation system that is safe, efficient, well-maintained and which provides adequate mobility and connectivity to the nation's smaller communities," the report stated.


Jonathan D. Silver: jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962.


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