I was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, last week tell a Senate Banking Committee hearing what our new surface transportation law, MAP-21, can do for folks living in rural communities, small cities like Sioux Falls, and on tribal lands.
Demand for public transportation in rural America has risen steadily over the last four years in response to trends like rising gas prices and the higher proportion of rural Americans choosing to age at home.
So it makes sense that under MAP-21, we’ve boosted funding for rural programs by nearly 30 percent; doubled tribal transit assistance; and increased funding to enhance mobility for seniors. These increases come on top of FTA’s success in roughly doubling investments in rural transportation between 2005 and 2010.
This is great news for seniors, veterans, and hard-working families living in rural and tribal towns where transit is not a luxury but a lifeline—often the only way to travel to work, school, and other key destinations.
When I was in Sioux Falls, I met Cosette Fester, a local resident who was disabled in a car accident in 1997. Today, she depends on being able to call for a ride in a wheelchair-accessible van, known as paratransit, to get to work and to participate in her community.
I also met Sarah Jennings, the state director for the AARP in South Dakota. Ms. Jennings highlighted the essential role that access to transit—or the lack of it—plays in the lives of cancer patients in the region, many of whom travel up to 250 miles to receive treatment at a major cancer facility in Sioux Falls. Many South Dakota women with breast cancer choose treatment plans that require fewer visits for radiation—which in turn results in higher rates of mastectomies—because they simply do not have a reliable or affordable way to get to the center.
Fortunately, Ms. Jennings noted, with support from FTA, South Dakota is getting better at coordinating local transportation services, and strengthening local transit providers, to ensure that more people get access to the spectrum of care they need.
Under President Obama’s leadership, we’ve come a long way in helping rural and tribal communities introduce more good transportation choices into their communities. Secretary LaHood and I visited Pierre, SD, last year, where FTA’s investments have helped River Cities Transit expand to serve 11 counties and two Indian reservations, delivering express service to hospitals and job training centers on a 24/7 basis.
We’ve made progress, but there’s more to do. Too many rural Americans still lack access to affordable transportation. We will continue to work with our tribal partners, with transit agencies in rural states across the country, and with veterans' groups and others to ensure that residents in less populated areas benefit from our commitment to improving public transit.