Wrap-Up of the 2011 National Rural Transportation Peer Learning Conference

For three days last week  I helped to staff this annual conference with RPO America, which marked its fifth year in existence. This year’s event was held here in Washington, D.C. Notwithstanding a minor earthquake the day before its start and an approaching hurricane the weekend after it adjourned, the conference went quite well. Transportation planners from 33 states and Washington, D.C. representing rural planning organizations (RPOs), councils of government (COGs) from small metros, state DOTs and two branches of the federal government (EPA and USDOT) came to share best practices from their organizations.

In two and a half days we covered a lot of ground, by there were two sessions in particular that I found especially useful:

1) Connie Shade from the Lower Savannah Council of Governments led a session on mobility in rural areas and small metros. With the recent triumph of a new and expanding transit system serving Orangeburg and Calhoun Counties in South Carolina under their belt, the organization was able to present the Cross County Connection as a model. The 30 or so people in the room had a lively conversation about the nuts and bolts like how to set up and fund such a system. However, I found the most interesting topics to be about the details of keeping a transit system running. For example, how can you attract people who have not previously used transit? Solutions mentioned ranged from marketing campaigns to engage people needing medical transportation to “wraps” on bus windows that make them appear to be more populated.

The Cross County Connection was also recognized as one of the 16 Excellence in Regional Transportation Awards in advance of the conference, and was one of two to win the brand new Trailblazer Award, chosen by their peers as one of the most innovative rural transportation projects of the year. Congratulations to the Lower Savannah COG for this honor!

2) Kathy Ruffalo also provided a legislative update, to bring the current mess that is Congress’ attempt to reauthorize surface transportation legislation. Congress will reconvene next week, and according to Ruffalo, here is what we can expect. After a summer in which debate over raising the nation’s debt ceiling and how to pay down the deficit “sucked all the air out of the room,” attention to other issues was hard to come by in Congress. Even so, both the House and the Senate were working on versions of a new transportation bill, to replace SAFETEA-LU, which expired almost two years ago and has been continued via short-term extensions since then.

The House’s version of the bill, headed by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is a traditional six-year authorization, and will propose only spending that can be met by the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which would entail a deep cut in the amount of funding allotted to transportation. By contrast, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is proposing a two-year bill, with funding levels continued at the same level as currently. This would mean that Congress must locate about $12 billion in addition to the proceeds of the Highway Trust Fund. The one thing that both houses do agree on, fortunately, is an expansion of the TIFIA loan program. As a strong advocate of maintaining and upping the quality of our existing transportation infrastructure, this is a bright spot in the long slog of reauthorization.

Another issue is that the federal gas tax will also expire on September 30th of this year. This unfortunate coincidence means that Congress will need to act to extend this as well, or the government will be unable to collect this much-needed revenue. After the impasse over FAA reauthorization meant millions in airline ticket taxes were not collected earlier in the summer, no one in Washington appears to have the appetite for another such obstacle. Ruffalo pointed out that the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Commission did recommend a 15-cent increase in the gas tax, giving legislators more authority to recommend a much-needed revenue generator.

The takeaway for planners in RPOs is that transportation is in fact on the minds of Congress, whether or not it appears that way. However, in order for effective programs to result from the next surface transportation bill, there must be consensus on a timeline, and a funding source must be identified. It all comes down to that.

Disclaimer: I work for NADO, which organized the conference, but these views are solely my own.


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