By Katherine F. Turnbull
For all of the contrasts that distinguish urban and rural Texans, one thing that unites us all is the need for reliable transportation. Exactly what that reliable transportation looks like depends on where we choose to live. Regardless of that choice, certain interests and challenges are commonly shared.
Safety and mobility are at the top of that list.
Of the state’s traffic fatalities, nearly half — 45 percent — result from single-vehicle lane departure crashes, with cars and trucks simply running off the road. Some 60 percent of those crashes happen in wide-open spaces where only about 12 percent of Texans live. When crashes occur in remote areas, the travel distances to the nearest hospital often result in longer emergency response times that compromise survival chances. Maintaining rural highways and access points help improve those chances.
The term “mass transit” for most people brings to mind visions of high-capacity buses and sleek commuter trains in major cities. Thanks to the 37 rural transit districts, 29 urban transit districts and 9 metropolitan systems, residents in all but two of the state’s 254 counties have access to some type of public transit service.
The rural transit systems face increasing demands from a growing population of older and disabled residents impeded by long travel distances to medical care and social services. Texas Department of Transportation data show that rural transit districts statewide saw an increase in ridership from 2016 to 2017, providing about 5.4 million trips.
Say “airport,” and the first image for most of us is probably the 737 we took on our last vacation. Most people would be surprised to know that Texas has more general aviation airports than it has counties — 264, as well as numerous private landing strips.
More than half of general aviation facilities are in rural areas, providing access for air medical services, agricultural operations, oil and gas production, and recreational activities. These small airports support more than 48,000 jobs statewide, 54 percent more jobs than in 2011. For example, aerial applicators in Texas help produce and protect billions of dollars worth of crops each year, including cotton and wheat. About 90 percent of the state’s rice crop is planted by air. Most of these airports rely on state and local funds for improvements and maintenance.
And then there’s the issue of traffic congestion, which can have different meanings depending on where you call home. In vast, energy-rich regions of the state, far more, and far heavier, vehicles routinely travel along narrow two-lane roadways, exceeding normal wear and tear on stretches originally intended for far lighter and less voluminous traffic. At some remote road intersections, it’s not uncommon for vehicles to be backed up 50 or more at a time, replicating big city-style gridlock in the middle of nowhere.
The impact of these challenges falls mostly upon the people who live in the affected areas, but we should remember that the value of the rural transportation system extends far beyond farm and ranch country.
For example, the distinction of a farm-to-market (FM) road still has literal meaning, facilitating the transport of many agricultural products to those of us who buy them, and fueling a $20 billion annual statewide industry. The condition and operation of FM roads therefore can affect delivery efficiency, influencing the price of those products for all of us.
Remote highways that serve the energy industry support roughly 200,000 jobs and help to ensure we all have reliable sources of gas for our cars throughout the state.
Small non-commercial airports enable 5.7 million takeoffs and landings annually, serving vital needs that include support for law enforcement and aerial firefighting.
Rural transit districts ensure every day that non-urban citizens have access to preventive medical services, which helps to contain the overall health care costs borne by the broader population.
All of these modes, along with railroads, motor boats, sailboats, canoes, kayaks, hike and bike trails, and other facilities provide access to national and state parks, recreation areas, hunting and fishing locations, and cultural sites for residents and visitors alike. Transportation is critical to the close to $70 billion travel and tourism industry in the state, much of which supports the economic well-being of rural areas.
These are but a few of the benefits we all draw from a mobility network we may rarely see or directly use. And like some other things in life, we wouldn’t know how much we need that network unless we suddenly lost it.
Barely one in ten citizens can be counted as a rural Texan, but ensuring the safety and vitality of the rural transportation system is a quality of life imperative for all of us.
Katherine F. Turnbull is the executive associate director of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
This article was originally published in the Dallas News, December 26, 2018.