OTF Voices

Rural transportation can’t be left behind

Common Wealth Magazine, Boston, Massachusetts

By Natalie Blais and John Stout

Fix it first should take precedence over new urban highways

FOR THE PAST several decades, the federal government has chronically underfunded rural transportation. Facing severe budget shortfalls, which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 health crisis, rural counties across the country have been forced to remove pavement from their roads because they lack funds to address potholes and cracks.

Similarly, cash-strapped rural transit providers have struggled to get rural residents where they need to go due to inadequate funding, diminished staffing, and aging fleets. While rural buses cut services and existing roads are being turned back into dirt, state and local governments across the country continue to waste tens of billions of dollars on unnecessary highway expansions each year, mostly in urban areas.

While the $1 billion I-90 Allston project advances in Boston, residents in western Massachusetts, such as those living in Franklin, Hampshire, and Hampden Counties, cannot get to and from essential services. Despite our regional transit authorities stretching every dollar, we still lack access to public transportation on evenings and weekends. Meanwhile, our cash-strapped towns struggle to maintain our roads.

In fact unpaved roads that constitute over half of the total roadway miles in some of our communities are literally being washed away during more frequent and increasingly intense storm events, which will only get worse as the climate crisis intensifies.

But there is hope that this will soon change. In our nation’s capital, the Senate recently passed the bipartisan $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a major victory for President Biden’s agenda. If this legislation passes the House later this month, the federal government will finally have the necessary investments to transform our transportation system so that it’s healthier, more sustainable, and ready to meet our challenges and aspirations for the 21st century.

While this legislation marks progress, to truly address the long-standing rural-urban imbalance in transportation funding, we need to shift our priorities away from road building by adopting a “fix-it-first approach.” Instead of wasting taxpayer dollars on constructing new urban highways, we should fix the roads we already have. That way we can redirect funding away from polluting and ineffective highway boondoggles, which only lead to more cars clogging our roads, more vehicle deaths, and more asphalt running through the middle of our cities, and instead focus on repairing our existing transportation infrastructure in rural communities.

But we can’t stop there. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recently released report makes it clear that we need to decarbonize our country’s fossil fuel-based transportation system, now the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US, if we are going to avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change. In addition to using this massive new infusion of federal funds to begin to address our country’s more than half a trillion dollars in accumulated road and bridge repair backlog, $211 billion of which is specific to our rural transportation network, we also need to ensure that we are creating more sustainable ways for Americans to travel, regardless of where they live.

Here in the Northeast, the Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI) would do just this. Set to begin in 2023, TCI is a regional agreement designed to cap pollution from fossil-fuel powered vehicles and provide improved access to sustainable transportation options. In addition to providing much-needed funds to maintain rural roads and bridges, TCI would supply rural communities with the resources to increase the adoption of electric vehicles by installing more chargers, enhancing and electrifying public transit networks, increasing micro-transit options, and building more walking and bike-friendly paths. Not only would improving pedestrian infrastructure provide people with more options to safely get around, it would also improve health outcomes by promoting physical activity and fuel economic development by expanding outdoor recreation opportunities.

Throughout the Northeast, voters across party lines are in support of investing in better rural transportation options. To support these goals we need to ensure that programs like TCI are rolled out quickly and effectively.

As we move to the next stage of the federal infrastructure debate, the outlook for rural transportation is looking brighter. Still, there is more work to be done to build a modern, sustainable transportation network for all Americans, regardless of where they live. To truly make a difference, we need to stop using our transportation budgets to fund urban highway expansion and instead put that money into repairing the roads and bridges we already have as well as creating healthier, more carbon-conscious options for people to travel, especially in rural communities.

State Rep. Natalie M. Blais of Sunderland represents the 1st Franklin District in Northwestern Massachusetts. John Stout is a transportation advocate with MASSPIRG, a Boston-based organization that advocates for the public interest.

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