USDOT Announces Rural Transportation Initiative

USDOT Announces Rural Transportation Initiative

October 18, 2019  | Jeff Davis

The U.S. Department of Transportation on October 8 announced a new initiative for promoting and coordinating rural transportation needs.

“Rural America, which has a disproportionately high rate of fatalities and is historically neglected, needs to have its transportation needs addressed,” said Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao at the annual AASHTO meeting in St. Louis.

Since everything these days has to have an acronym, the new plan is the ROUTES initiative (Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success). A fact sheet on the initiative indicates that it will have three activities:

  1. Collecting input from stakeholders on the benefits rural projects offer for safety and economic outcomes, as well as the type and degree of assistance rural projects require.
  2. Providing user-friendly information to rural communities to enhance understanding about DOT’s infrastructure grant options.
  3. Improving DOT’s data-driven approaches to better assess needs and benefits of rural transportation infrastructure projects.

1 and 3 seem rather anodyne, but item 2 is interesting because one of the specifics cited in Secretary Chao’s announcement was educating rural governments on new infrastructure financing provisions made possible by a change in law under the FAST Act. FAST did not make many changes to the federal TIFIA credit assistance program, but one of those changes was rural-focused. FAST allows a state infrastructure bank (SIB) capitalized with a TIFIA loan to establish a “rural projects fund” to make loans for rural infrastructure projects. These projects would be smaller than your average TIFIA project (costs “shall be reasonably anticipated to equal or exceed $10,000,000 but not to exceed $100,000,000.”

Projects with eligible costs of less than $75 million are also eligible to have DOT take care of the TIFIA application fees – the FAST Act requires DOT to reserve at least $2 million of each year’s TIFIA funding to use in lieu of fee payment by applicants for such projects.

The ROUTES program will be run by a multimodal council (with representatives from FHWA, FTA, FRA and FAA), to be chaired by the Under Secretary of Transportation. Chao’s announcement said that the first meeting of the council could occur as soon as next month.

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