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Elaine Chao in St. Louis

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao speaks Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, at the annual meeting of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation officials at the Marriott St. Louis Grand hotel in downtown St. Louis. Photo by Mark Schlinkmann, mschlinkmann@post-dispatch.com

ST. LOUIS — U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced here on Tuesday an initiative to ensure that rural road and other infrastructure needs get “full consideration” when her department hands out discretionary grants.

Chao said officials in federal highway, aviation, railroad and transit agencies will work in tandem to examine grant programs so that they “better support” rural areas.

Chao said President Donald Trump’s administration, including the Department of Transportation, is “especially concerned” with rural areas’ infrastructure needs.

“Rural America is not looking for a handout,” Chao said at the annual meeting of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials at the Marriott St. Louis Grand hotel.

“Rural America just wants fairness and equity in the distribution of funds.”

Chao added that “prior to this administration,” rural areas got only 21% of funds in one major grant program, now known as BUILD. Under Trump, she said, rural areas have gotten 70%.

McClatchy Newspapers last June reported similar percentages in comparing a shift of emphasis from urban areas through the program under Democratic President Barack Obama to rural areas under Trump, a Republican.

Democratic candidates typically do well in cities while Trump’s 2016 election win was helped by strong rural support.

BUILD stands for Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development.

Under the new ROUTES initiative announced Tuesday, a new Rural Transportation Council will improve analysis of rural projects that apply for federal money and help local officials access and navigate them. The council will include local and state governments and national organizations, Chao said.

ROUTES is short for Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success.

Chao said 69% of the country’s road mileage is in rural areas holding 19% of its residents.

“But rural transportation infrastructure is challenged by disparities,” she said. “The disproportionate rate of crash fatalities in rural areas is especially alarming. The fatality rate on rural roads is twice that on urban roads.”

She said 72% of large-truck fatalities, 67% of pickup-truck fatalities and 58% of SUV fatalities are in rural areas.

Moreover, she said, 80% of the nation’s bridges in poor condition are in rural areas.

Downtown projects honored

Also on Tuesday, a series of major downtown St. Louis area projects — including the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge and the revamped Gateway Arch area — won the grand prize in a national transportation competition.

The entry was submitted jointly by the Missouri and Illinois departments of transportation.

The competition, called America’s Transportation Awards, was sponsored by the national organization meeting here Tuesday, the AAA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The competition evaluated projects for impact on quality of life and community development; technology and innovation; and operations excellence.

Across the nation, 39 state transportation agencies submitted 81 entries.

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