Thursday, June 9, 2011

White House Rural Council & usRAP: Two Peas in a Pod

This morning, President Obama signed an executive order to establish a White House Rural Council, which would be the first of its kind to focus on policy initiatives for Rural Americans. In a statement posted to the White House Blog, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who chairs the Council, noted that this will provide an opportunity to focus on a number of critical issues, including upgrading and modernizing infrastructure in these areas.
This is especially welcome news in light of the fact that rural roadways continue to pose numerous safety challenges. While the level of safety on the nation’s road network varies, rural roads often fall under the highest risk category. In fact, two-lane rural highways – many of which are characterized by narrow travel lanes, hairpin turns, limited sight distances, and abundant roadside hazards – see fatality rates double or triple those found on America’s safest roads, our Interstates. President Obama has already made large investments in infrastructure in rural America, but much more is needed.

The AAA Foundation is proud to lead a major undertaking – the U.S. Road Assessment Program (usRAP) – to develop a systematic assessment of the nation’s road network. The project uses crash location and roadway data to create risk maps, wherein road segments are color-coded according to the level of relative risk they pose as indicated by measures like crash rate and density. In addition, road segments are evaluated for safety and assigned star ratings based on their design features. Star ratings look at roadway elements that impact the likelihood of crashes occurring and the level of protection afforded to road users in the event that a crash does happen.

With many local agencies struggling under tight budgets and staffing shortages, collecting the data required to systematically prioritize roadway project investments can be extremely burdensome, yet without this data limited resources may not be targeted to the projects yielding the greatest safety benefits. What makes usRAP so innovative is that it can provide highway departments and transportation officials with the additional tools they need to make these allocations effectively. By limiting the highest risk category to 5 percent of roadway length, usRAP also helps States meet Federal obligations to report their 5 percent of roadway locations with the most urgent safety needs.

Given that infrastructure upgrades do not occur overnight, many of the usRAP materials are presented in a “consumer-friendly” manner, with the goal being that the general public can access them in order to learn about the level of safety offered by the road networks they rely on every day. Given the dangers posed by many rural roadways and the lack of transportation alternatives in many rural communities, this may be a valuable – and lifesaving – public service to rural Americans looking to factor safety considerations into route choices.

Secretary Vilsack stated that he will be communicating with Rural America to “ensure that every American is aware of the programs and services they can access.” We hope that state and local governments will take a closer look at usRAP in light of the Administration’s renewed commitment to Rural America and learn about the significant role it could play in shaping the future of the nation’s infrastructure by guiding investment decisions and always keeping safety the top priority.

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