The National Academies

NCHRP 08-131 [Pending]

Access to Jobs, Economic Opportunities, and Education in Rural Areas

  Project Data
Funds: $250,000
Contract Time: 18 months
Staff Responsibility: Lawrence D. Goldstein


Rural and remote areas often have limited transportation connections, contributing to isolation.  Intercity bus service to small cities is sparse, and rural road conditions are often less than ideal. Commercial and social services suffer from diseconomies of scale, leading to higher costs or a decline in service diversity.  Rural and remote communities are particularly disadvantaged.  Even moderate-sized cities with stable populations find retaining or attracting workers a challenge as trained workers, especially in technical disciplines, gravitate to large urban areas in search of broader and more lucrative opportunities and improved quality of life.  Lack of access and connectivity places rural and remote areas at a disadvantage.

Compounding this problem are economic trends impacting rural and remote areas.  More and more, employment is concentrated into a limited number of expanding urban areas, with manufacturing employment in rural areas continuing to decline.  Relatively speaking, manufacturing is more important to the rural economy than it is to the urban economy; and the decreasing number of manufacturing jobs is increasing the demand for access to alternative employment opportunities in larger geographic areas (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service).  Even when workers from rural and remote areas equip themselves with the skills required by the modern economy, they are often forced to travel or move to locations where jobs are concentrated and available.  In some cases, these pressures have created a situation where once vibrant small towns are losing population and suffering. 

In other cases, corporations are moving to rural areas to decrease costs, attracting professionals who are looking for an expanded range of services to support a different lifestyle.  Affected agencies—economic development, transportation, and land use—are seeking to find solutions to address these trends or at least provide rural and remote areas with the tools to help them participate more fully in the benefits of the global economy.  Considering access and connectivity during project identification and prioritization can help support positive economic development outcomes and improved quality of life.  Transportation agencies, in coordination with organizations charged with economic development, those providing social services, and private sector entities, need solutions to rural livability concerns. 

Transportation agencies are often aware of the isolation and access challenges their communities face but may not have adequate funding, needed data, analytical methods, or processes in place to respond when making investment decisions.  As a result, issues related to equity when it comes to investment in infrastructure improvements for rural versus urban areas need to be addressed.  Improved access and connectivity may be part of a transportation agency’s mission and vision, but rarely are investment priorities aligned with the objective of improving access to and mobility within rural and remote areas.  A strategic approach for including rural area access and mobility issues in the statewide transportation planning process would be useful in making more effective and equitable investment decisions.


The objective of this research is to prepare guidelines for state departments of transportation (DOTs) and other public and private organizations involved in rural development and the provision of transportation services.  These guidelines should address a range of components, building on a variety of examples of how agencies currently implement rural and remote access and connectivity programs:

  1. Reviewing existing methods to measure access and connectivity, the data available, the data required, and what is missing;
  2. Achieving equity in urban versus rural investment strategies;
  3. Measuring economic effects and return on investment as a function of right-sizing investment strategies;
  4. Developing a systematic approach to evaluating how rural communities are impacted by current investment in transportation, including difficulty in attracting and retaining economic activity and accessing employment, education, health services, housing, and other critical social and economic services as a measure of and contribution to quality of life; and
  5. Designing, maintaining, and implementing innovative funding, financing, and investment strategies; and
  6. Considering and evaluating institutional relationships, applications of new and emerging technologies, and partnerships needed to respond effectively. 


The research plan  (1) includes a kick-off web conference to review the amplified work plan with the NCHRP project panel, convened within 1 month of the contract’s execution; (2) addresses how the proposer intends to satisfy the project objective; (3) is divided logically into two phases encompassing specific detailed tasks for each phase that are necessary to fulfill the research objectives, including appropriate milestones and interim deliverables; and (4) incorporates opportunities for the project panel to review, comment on, and approve milestone deliverables.  

The research plan delineates tasks required to understand access and connectivity challenges in rural and remote environments, concentrating on attracting and retaining economic activity, employment, education, health services, housing, and other critical social and economic services.  The research plan should also include a review of other related studies in general and NCHRP, TCRP, Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), and FHWA research studies in particular.  The products of this research should provide state DOTs and others with reliable and valid approaches to help make rational decisions about transportation expenditures and investments that improve quality of life in rural and remote communities. 

To meet the objectives of this study, state DOTs and other transportation service providers and planning agencies need detailed guidelines to define critical areas of concern and how to identify, obtain, and develop information to support effective decision making.  At a minimum, these guidelines will address the following key areas of concern:

1.    Quality and availability of the supporting infrastructure;

2.    Funding and financial resources;

3.    Institutional structures;

4.    Impact of surrounding geography, economic conditions, and demographics;

5.    Community support; and

6.    Outcome evaluation metrics.

Phase I

Work in Phase I will include the following:

1.    A detailed review of the literature and other resources on existing approaches to identifying and resolving access problems and improving connectivity for rural and remote communities;

2.    Review and analysis of strategies for measuring how rural communities are impacted by investment in transportation, identifying tools and techniques for measuring returns on investment in programs to improve access for rural and remote communities;

3.    Case studies documenting selected state DOT, transportation service provider, and planning agency programs currently in use to enhance access in rural and remote areas to economic activity, employment, education, health services, housing, and other critical social and economic services in the context of changing demographics and land use patterns (the panel will have a role in helping to select the case studies);

4.    Strategies for coordinating efforts by federal, state, and local stakeholder organizations—both public and private—to develop plans and procedures for meeting rural challenges:

a.    What data and information is required to structure a successful decision-making process?

b.    What resources are needed?

c.    What are the barriers to successful outcomes and how to avoid them?

The work accomplished in Phase I will result in an interim report that describes the steps necessary to analyze and understand rural and remote area access requirements and  investment needs for access and connectivity improvements.  The steps delineated as a result of Phase I will be expanded into detailed guidelines in Phase II.

The interim report will include a refined scope of work for developing the required guidelines in Phase II.  The panel will meet with the research team at the end of Phase I to review the interim report.  NCHRP approval of the interim report is required before proceeding with Phase II.   

Phase II

Using the products of Phase I, work in Phase II will develop detailed guidelines for identifying procedures, methods, resources, tools and techniques for improving transportation access to rural and remote communities.  Work in Phase II will also include examples of effective collaboration efforts to share concerns and opportunities for access improvement with affected state DOTs, transportation service providers and planning agencies, and other stakeholders.

Final deliverables of Phase II will include at a minimum:

·         Guidelines for state DOTs, transportation service providers and planning agencies, and other transportation and development agencies on making effective transportation expenditures and investments and partnerships that improve access and connectivity for rural and remote communities, including how to define and measure access as input to prioritization and decision-making processes;

·         Communication and outreach material aimed at state DOTs and others that explain why the integration approach and supporting guidance are helpful and how they will be applied; and

·         A stand-alone technical memorandum entitled, “Implementation of Research Findings and Products” (see Special Note B).

The research plan should build in appropriate checkpoints with the NCHRP project panel including, at a minimum, (1) a kick-off teleconference meeting to be held within 1 month of the contract’s execution date; (2) the face-to-face interim deliverable review meeting to be held at the end of Phase I; and (3) at least two additional web-enabled teleconferences tied to NCHRP review and approval of any other interim deliverables as deemed appropriate.

Status: A contractor has been selected. Work is expected to begin by mid-August 2020

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