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Rural America Cashes in Under Trump

It's a great time to be living in the middle of nowhere.

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has created a new panel to help steer money to rural America, President Trump's political base, in a way that seeks to circumvent federal funding formulas that have typically helped urban areas with complicated infrastructure needs.

Chao's Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success initiative will identify grant-worthy projects to improve rural economies and traffic safety while undoing the transportation funding approach of the Obama administration.

Since 2009, the USDOT has given out $7.1 billion in discretionary grants to 554 projects — and under President Obama, the money was weighted toward cities and transit projects. Rural localities which make up 19 percent of the nation's population collected roughly 20 percent of the funds, while 35 percent of the grants went to roads and bridge projects on average under Obama.

The Trump administration reversed those ratios, doling out 70 percent of those grants to rural areas and the same percentage to highway projects in its first two years. The switch so irked the then GOP-led Congress that it watered down the split to 50-50 in Fiscal Year 2019 — an amount that still vastly shortchanged cities, where the president is weakest politically.

Chao argued that pastoral counties deserve a chunk of federal funds since 46 percent the nation's traffic fatalities and nearly three quarters of vehicle miles traveled occur in rural areas.

“Rural America is not looking for a handout. ... They merely want not to be overlooked or discriminated against and to have their fair share in the distribution of federal resources,” she told the Washington Examiner this week.

But transportation advocates say the program is a cynical ploy to "distribute spoils" of victory to Trump's political base and industries that rely hauling freight over long distances.

"There’s no silver lining to it, it’s just another indication that with Trump in the White House, urban areas won’t get much help from the feds to solve their transportation challenges," TransitCenter spokesman Ben Fried told Streetsblog.

Even smaller awards get scrutinized for how they can benefit rural areas. Last week, the USDOT doled out $423 million for states to purchase new buses and build infrastructure. In this round, the Trump administration allocated 28 percent to rural areas, tripling the provision set in the statute. Much of the bus facility funds went to smaller cities in Republican strongholds like Bakersfield, Calif, Colorado Springs,

"The Trump administration has made a point of saying that big cities have big tax bases and can raise revenue more than rural areas, but it is impossible to separate that from politics," Eno Center for Transportation senior fellow Jeff Davis told Streetsblog. "Population density is the best predictor for how you vote right now and they are giving a higher share of transit money if they can on discretionary side to rural areas."

Chao's ROUTES group held its first meeting last month without making recommendations, but its members are preparing to help rural stakeholders identify transportation needs and help them apply for assistance.

It's unclear how much money the council will be able to allocate or which kind of projects will be selected, but the council emphasized limitations in freight transport in rural areas, noting that heavy trucks in rural areas travel three times the distance as in urban areas since 90 percent of bridges in rural areas have weight limits that won't accommodate them.

Even greater expenditures on rural roads and bridges could be coming in February when the USDOT releases its budget and the restrictions in transportation formula funding set by the Obama administration finally expire later next year.

"We'll see how much more formula money they'll put toward rural transit," Davis said. "Their political base is rural America and they're trying to have as many high profile things in the news."

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