As part of its continuing focus on rural transportation, the U.S. Dept. of Transportation is launching a new initiative that aims to provide more information to rural areas about DOT infrastructure funds for which they could qualify.

The new effort, dubbed ROUTES, for Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success, doesn’t create any new types of DOT grants or increase funds for existing programs. But it seeks to spread the word in rural areas about the availability of current types of DOT infrastructure aid.

In announcing the program on Oct. 8 in St. Louis, at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials annual meeting, DOT Secretary Elaine Chao noted that the fatality rate on rural roads is double the rate on urban roads and 80% of the bridges that are in poor condtion are in rural locales.

She said in her prepared remarks for the AASHTO conference, "Addressing these inequities calls for a sharper focus on our investments in rural areas to meet national priorities."

Brian Deery, senior director of the Associated General Contractors of America's highway and transportation division, says that the DOT initiative "does put an emphasis on getting rural areas more into the mix of projects," especially for DOT's discretionary funding programs, which regularly draw many applications seeking much more total funding than DOT has available.

Deery notes that programs such as Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) grants and Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) grants are "a relatively new funding option for states, and they really had to gear up in order to put those grant applications together."

He adds that small and regional contractors should benefit from increased funding for rural infrastructure projects, which tend to be relatively small in dollar terms.

The ROUTES program follows other DOT efforts under the Trump administration and Chao’s leadership at the department, to emphasize rural infrastructure needs.

For example, in its Infrastructure for Rebuilding America, or INFRA, grant program, for which states and localities compete for funds to help finance highway and freight projects, DOT has increased the share of dollars that go to rural projects.

Of the $856-million 2019 INFRA round, whose winners were announced on July 25, rural projects received $464.8 million, or 54%, of the total dollars awarded. In announcing the awardees, Chao noted that figure represents a 10-percentage-point increase over the 2018 INFRA round results.

Rural TIFIA loans

In addition, DOT in 2018 began a new push to draw more rural applicants for its 21-year-old Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program, which provides low-interest loans at attractive terms for infrastructure projects. The department says that most TIFIA loans have gone to big projects in urban metropolitan areas.

Under TIFIA, the minimum project size for rural projects is $10 million, compared with a $50-million minimum for urban projects.

Chao also said that as part of the new ROUTES initiative DOT is forming an in-house rural transportation infrastructure council to coordinate rural activities among its various agencies, such as the Federal Highway Administration, Federal Transit Administration and Federal Aviation Administration.

Rep. Sam Graves (Mo.), the top Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, welcomed DOT's new rural infrastructure action. He said in a statement, “Making sure that small and rural communities can compete for federal infrastructure dollars will help maintain our critical national transportation network.”

Story also corrected on 10/10 to show that the TIFIA program is 21 years old. Original story said it was 31 years old. TIFIA was created in the 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21).

Story corrected on 10/15: INFRA grant winners were announced on July 25, not Sept. 25.