As we work to develop a bill this year on transit funding, I want to work with the committee to address the needs of rural states like South Dakota. While the transit program will and should always have a considerable focus on big cities, rural transit is an area that needs more attention.
Transportation is a fundamental concern in rural America. In every aspect, including highways, public transportation, freight movement, air service and other needs, the vitality of rural areas depends on viable transportation infrastructure.
The focus of transportation in states like South Dakota is centered correctly on highways and roads. But rural states have unique transit concerns that are not fully addressed. Rural states do receive funding guarantees. However, while 32% of the nation's population lives in rural areas, only 4.2% of the Federal Transit Administration's annual budget is devoted to rural transit.
South Dakotans rely heavily on transit. When the populations of Sioux Falls and Rapid City are taken out of the equation—about one quarter of South Dakota's population—2.1 million people use rural transit in my state annually. For a state with such a small population, this is an astounding number. When Sioux Falls and Rapid City are added in, itdemonstrates the importance of transit in South Dakota. We have some very low density areas in our state and yet they need adequate transit service, particularly for senior citizens and the disabled.
Currently, all of the longstanding pressures on rural transit are being compounded by higher fuel and insurance costs. The State of South Dakota came up with over one-half million dollars to fund rural transit last year in addition to the one-half million already committed by the State. With a drought and a slow economy, South Dakota does not have the resources to do that this year.
An adequate investment is required to provide service to meet essential needs. In particular, an adequate level of service is required to provide transit for senior citizens and the disabled to run errands, go to the doctor and attend to other daily routines. Providing sufficient transit needs would allow residents to live in their homes, remain independent, and not feel forced to go into assisted living. To address this, I am interested in providing each state with a specified minimum level of funding for key programs. It should be considered in a transit reauthorization bill, so that the unique needs of rural areas are met.
Last year, I cosponsored S.2884, which provided a reasonable floor per state under the funding level for the rural program, for the elderly and disabled program, and for small metro areas. Senators Allard, Crapo, Hagel, and Enzi are members of this Committee who also cosponsored that measure. That bill also clarified the ability to use elderly and disabled program funds for operating assistance and would increase the Federal match for operating costs in the rural program. Western states do not have transit match parity with highways, as the highway match in western states is over 80-20 due to the Federal lands adjustment in the highway program. This adjustment should also apply to the transit program, at least for the rural program, the elderly/disabled program, and small metro areas like Sioux Falls and Rapid City.
S. 2884 did not address overall funding levels or how funds should be divided between urban and rural areas. I want to work with Chairman and Ranking Member on this matter. I believe that the key concepts I and others advanced last year should and can be accommodated into our work this year, including: creating reasonable per state minimums for the rural, elderly and disabled, and small urban area programs; and modernizing the transit matching ratios to address operating and Federal lands issues.
I look forward to working with all my colleagues to improve rural transit as part of this important legislation.