By Howard A. Learner
Many Iowans, business leaders and public officials have celebrated the state’s success in winning the competitive $230 million federal grant to bring new passenger rail service from Iowa City and the Quad Cities to Chicago, and, next, to Des Moines, Council Bluffs and Omaha.
This is an investment in better transportation access and services for people in rural communities, not just in the cities. Here’s why:
Rural transportation has traditionally meant cars and pickups, highways, and Greyhound and Trailways buses. Although intercity buses are now fewer and farther between, that doesn’t change people’s needs to get from place to place.
Cars and trucks provide crucial mobility for many living in the country, especially for those seniors and disabled people who can no longer drive safely or easily. Moreover, with gas prices rising, some unemployed and lower-income people can no longer afford to drive much.
Recent population trends indicate the percentage of people over 65 living in rural America is expected to triple. For these important Iowans, mobility can be challenging and more safe transportation alternatives are needed.
Developing modern rail service is an important step to address this rural need. For example, there are almost 600,000 people living within 50 miles of Iowa City along the planned Des Moines-Iowa City — Chicago rail line. New rail service would provide rural residents with better access to Chicago, Des Moines and the other in-between cities.
Scheduled shuttle buses between Cedar Rapids, outlying rural towns and Iowa City could make this rail service even more accessible for meeting rural mobility needs.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it’s important for Iowa to seize today’s opportunity to gain federal high-speed funding, which is one of the Obama administration’s priorities. Let’s remember that the interstate highway system was built in segments and then connected over time.
The upcoming federal transportation reauthorization legislation presents an opportunity for new ideas and mobility solutions. Congress can help provide rural Americans with better access to government and medical services, education, jobs and visits with friends and families by making two important investments.
First, modern, fast, comfortable and convenient higher-speed rail service will help rural transportation access. Most people think about high-speed rail as linking big Midwest cities, but carefully chosen stops along the way can provide important new transportation services for rural residents.
The fast trains shouldn’t have a lot of stops, which would make them into milk runs. However, stops in places such as Iowa City, Davenport, Des Moines and Council Bluffs provide accessibility for people in outlying rural areas.
Congress will soon address transportation infrastructure and funding issues. Let’s seize this opportunity to gain benefits of higher-speed rail development for both rural and urban Midwesterners.
Second, advanced software, communications and GPS technology have enhanced scheduling for urban bus systems and air taxis. In Chicago, and just recently added in Iowa City and Coralville, people can check their BlackBerrys and iPhones to find out when a bus will actually arrive at their stop. This type of scheduling technology and Internet service can also be applied to make rural transit shuttle services more efficient, predictable and coordinated for moving people from place to place.
It’s time for new ideas for better rural transportation. Let’s seize the strategic opportunities to support new transportation solutions that improve mobility for people in rural areas and support more livable communities. All segments and populations of our country deserve the dignity that comes with mobility.
Howard A. Learner is the executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, a Midwest environmental and economic development advocacy organization with offices in Des Moines and six other Midwest cities. Comments: email@example.com.