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T4 America’s rural and small town partners take their transportation message to Capitol Hill

Arkansas Square Originally uploaded by whiteknuckled

Tuesday’s Congressional lobby day hosted by Transportation for America on the needs of rural and small-town America displayed a growing urgency for transportation options, livable communities and good access to jobs and opportunity — as great as one would find in any of our nation’s urban and metropolitan centers.

Though the specifics may take a different form compared to big coastal cities, the values these participants described in a morning briefing and then in dozens of meetings with members of Congress didn’t sound all that different from residents of anywhere else in America, small or large.

Americans from big urban areas all the way down to rural communities and small towns want good access to job opportunities. We want roads that aren’t cracked and crumbling and bridges that don’t fall down. We want our town or city centers to be vital places to live, work and shop. We want safe places to walk and bicycle. We want options other than long car trips for absolutely everything. Call it “livability,” or call it something else.

The dozen-plus participants who came to Washington, D.C. from small communities in Virginia to Arkansas to Northern California and places in between expressed their hope that a new federal transportation bill can help address these needs in rural communities across America.

The “fly-in” kicked off with a Hill briefing, followed by dozens of meetings on Capitol Hill with the participants and their Senators and Representatives about how transportation policy impacts smaller communities.

Participants came from all corners of America and hit many of the same notes when discussing the challenges facing their friends and neighbors. Billy Altom hails from North Little Rock, Arkansas, where he serves as executive director of the Association of Programs for Rural Independent Living (APRIL). Terry Suphahn runs his own consulting firm in rural Northern California, working closely with Native Americans. Barbara Bayes splits time between urban Charleston and her farm, helping low-income West Virginians with access to transportation. Carol Miller heads an organization focused on heavily rural frontier communities — her own New Mexico county is so sparse, she must travel to the neighboring county just to vote and use the post office.

All participants talked about helping their neighbors back home access the basics — groceries, health services and jobs. They also talked of spurring economic opportunity so people can find a job in the same place they grew up. Many felt their towns, tribes or counties were ready to move on innovative projects that improve access and quality of life, if only federal policy would give them a little nudge. Far from asking Washington to tell them what to do, they were asking for resources to make change for themselves possible.

Kathy Moxon (left) and Terry Supahan from Northern California Originally uploaded by Transportation for America
Kathy Moxon and Terry Supahan from Northern California posed behind the Capitol for a picture after a day of meetings with members of Congress. Kathy shared a powerful story of a rural community in Northern California that took matters into its own hands. The town transformed a wide highway through the middle of the community into a more suitable main street to help preserve the area as an enjoyable place to walk and live.

Carol Miller of New Mexico, a panelist during the morning briefing, put it well: “We believe good ideas come from the community, that there’s creativity there, but there hasn’t been a channel to bring those ideas up through the system.”

Washington needs to “make doing the right thing easy,” added Kathy Moxon, another panelist.

Billy Altom, the rural independent living director from Arkansas, rounded out the panel by discussing the transportation challenges facing older Americans and people with disabilities. He called on audience members to no longer see those with unique transportation needs – whether due to reliance on a wheelchair, inability to afford a car or age-related limitations– as an “us versus them” situation. Getting transportation right is not just about changing public policy, Altom said, but “changing public perception.”

John Robert Smith, the former mayor of Meridian, Mississippi and co-chair of the Transportation for America campaign, served as moderator for the panel.

Rural fly-in briefing panel 2 Originally uploaded by Transportation for America
Billy Altom, left, Carol Miller, John Robert Smith, and Kathy Moxon all spoke at the briefing at the Capitol Visitors’ Center.

Participants visited the offices of Senators Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Barbara Boxer of California, Max Baucus of Montana, Robert Byrd of West Virgnia and Mark Warner of Virginia, to name a few. Congressman Mike Thompson of California and Senator Jim Webb, along with a handful of others met personally with their constituents to hear their concerns.

Although connecting constituents with their representatives is critical, what happens next matters too – making sure Congress follows-through on a transportation bill that helps Americans from smaller communities get where they need to go and connect to a better life.