Small farm-to-market roads that once primarily took farmers to town and their children to country schools are now bustling with traffic, and the state's transportation agency is developing a plan to serve the increasing needs of rural Texans.
TxDOT released the state’s first transportation plan for rural areas last week, intending it to serve as a “blueprint” for the development of future transportation projects and services in rural areas through 2035 as more funding becomes available.
"That little, two-lane FM roadway that used to just be for farmers and ranchers is now carrying thousands of people a day coming from subdivisions, going from work, going to school," said Will Conley, Capital Area Regional Transportation Planning Organization chairman and Hays County commissioner.
According to Census data released this year, Texas has the largest rural population of any state, more than 3.8 million people. But Texas has been becoming less rural since 2000, according to the office of the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, as more Texans move to urban or suburban areas. (Texas also has the second-largest urban population, with about 21.3 million people.)
While state law does not require a rural transportation plan, TxDOT spokesman Bob Kaufman said that increasing population in the state and growing economic opportunity created the need for a long-range plan.
“More than 1,000 people are moving to Texas every day, and it's our responsibility to work with partners to find creative ways to finance new projects not only in the big cities but in the rural areas,” Kaufman said.
The Texas Rural Transportation Plan, which is part of the Statewide Long Range Transportation Plan 2035, focuses on connecting the entire state. It analyzes needs for various modes of transportation such as automobiles, planes, railways and public transportation. Rural areas are defined as those outside of the Metropolitan Planning Organizations, which are legally required to develop their own transportation plans.
Notably, about 600 rural highway projects were evaluated and ranked with two primary goals — congestion relief and connectivity. Of the top 15 projects, four were in the Lufkin area, which also ranked second-highest in attendace at public meetings hosted by TxDOT to discuss the plan.
The plan estimates that meeting the needs for both regional highways and interstates in rural areas will cost at least $3.5 billion through 2035.
Walter Diggles, executive director of the Deep East Texas Council of Governments, said he was "very pleased" to see a portion of I-69 in his region receive high-priority status. He said that I-69 provides relief for traffic on I-35 and said the plan gives "proper" recognition to the high volume and key safety issues in the area.
Kyle Ingham, local government services director for the Panhandle Regional Planning Commission, said he felt the transportation plan was beneficial, but wished greater attention had been focused on the needs of his region. He said that some communities in the Panhandle "will fall off the map if they don’t have access to rural highways.”
Other transportation demands included improving airports and passenger rails. An estimated $251 million will be required over the next five years for the 67 "business/corporate" airports statewide to meet the standards of business jet traffic.
While many areas lack access to bus services, rural public transportation operating expenses for the state are projected to increase by $324 million between 2008 and 2035, according to the report. Among several trends noted, the plan highlighted that the number of people above age 65 years is projected to increase by more than 3.4 million. That trend will be particularly prominent in rural and small counties. As a result, more public transportation and improved driving conditions will be needed.
The plan does not indicate which projects should be funded first, but serves as a framework for discussing future rural transportation needs, Kaufman said.