Chapter 1. Introduction
Rural states in the Midwest face unique transportation planning challenges. Their transportation circumstances and geographical, socioeconomic, and environmental characteristics differ greatly from states in the East, South, and Pacific Coast regions. The tri-state area of Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota could be characterized by sparse rural populations, large transit-dependent populations among the elderly and economically disadvantaged, vast land-locked transportation systems, and an economic base heavily concentrated in agricultural and other natural resources. For example, the states of Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota have 76.7, 55.8, and 65.4 percent, respectively, of the states' population that live in non-metropolitan areas, compared to the national average of 19.7 percent. The average population densities in these states are 6.2, 9.3, and 9.9 capita per square mile, respectively, compared to the average U.S. population density of 79.6 capita per square mile (United States Census The low population densities and considerable distances between towns have dictated an extensive road system infrastructure characterized by low traffic densities.
According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) for the year 2000, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota have 69,567 miles, 86,611 miles, and 83,471 miles, respectively. Montana has 157 lane miles of road per 1,000 people; North Dakota has 273 lane miles of road per 1,000 people; South Dakota has 223 lane miles of road per 1,000 people. Montana has greater population in the western half of the state, while North Dakota and South Dakota have the greater population in the eastern half of their states. The road requirements and available road resources differ throughout the states. However, several routine road needs are common, e.g., snow removal, maintenance, etc.
A common goal that all states share is improved customer satisfaction. This is evident by their Department of Transportation mission statements. The mission statements are:
An important part of identifying whether customer needs are being met is measuring customers' perception of the road factors: roadway elements, operational conditions, maintenance, and funding. This survey examines how the road decision makers and users in the tri-state area view the road systems in their respective states. All three states have many of the same challenges in meeting customer needs.
The tri-states of Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota are among the many states plagued by declining revenues for road budgets, increasing road user demands, and a deteriorating infrastructure. Decision makers are faced with difficult choices regarding the rural road infrastructure and allocation of limited resources. These choices are not likely to get easier in the future. Road users pay taxes and expect a safe and reliable infrastructure to move from one point to another. The following paragraphs briefly describe basic road financing as well as the role of decision makers and road users.
Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota have several categories of transportation decision makers and road users. Decision makers at the state, county, and local levels determine the quality and capacity of their respective transportation infrastructure. State road decision makers include legislators, the governor, the commissioner of transportation, and other DOT personnel. County decision makers include county road engineers, road superintendents, and county commissioners. Local decision makers involve township officers.
Most county road decision makers devise a transportation work plan to initiate and maintain the road network in the county. Generally, the work plan has several prioritized projects to be completed over a given number of years. The work plan is open for public scrutiny. Dissatisfied road users can write their county commissioners with recommended changes. Decision makers may face some difficult decisions developing the work plan and taking into consideration the needed road improvements. On one hand, they must consider that taxpayers contribute to the funds designated for roads and taxpayers have certain needs and expectations. On the other hand, they must be realistic and allocate the limited funds to the best possible uses. This may result in a creative tension between those who think they pay for the system and those directly responsible for developing and maintaining the system.
Several user groups of the rural road system including agricultural producers, school buses, tourists, and commuters have different needs and requirements. In the past, agricultural producers were the largest user group. They primarily needed roads that could move their products and farm machinery; the quality of the road surface was less of a factor. However, the agricultural sector has been in transition. There is a trend toward fewer but larger farms and larger equipment. The larger, heavier equipment places increased demands for wider, stronger rural roads. In addition, many farm families earn off-farm income either seasonally or all year around. As the purpose of rural trips has changed, priorities and needs perceptions also may have changed. For example, pavement surface conditions probably have become more important as farm families travel more regularly and frequently to nearby communities.
n addition to farmers, there is a growing segment of rural residents who enjoy living in a rural environment but commute to a nearby town or city for employment. They have concerns about the road system to ensure they reach their place of employment. Rural road users may have several other needs and these must be identified to assure "customer" satisfaction.
The interpretation of providers' perceptions and users' perceptions of road-related needs may be different. The ISTEA of 1991 and TEA-21 of 1998 required each state to adopt public participation (public input) while developing state plans and management systems. Even after the state plans and management systems are in place, it is important for decision makers to have continuous and ongoing public involvement regarding the rural road infrastructure. This participation results in a transportation system that is more consistent with the needs of users and allows the users to become more active stakeholders. Much of the public input has been focused at the state level and the metropolitan areas. This project was designed to take into consideration needs at the county and township level and could serve as a supplement to existing public input avenues.
After the rural road users' perceptions have been identified through interviews and surveys, more user needs can be considered effectively in transportation decisions. Furthermore, as decision makers are aware of users' needs and perceptions on a continuous basis, it will be easier to detect changes in perceptions and take the appropriate actions to respond to these changes. This will result in a more responsive transportation system overall.
A survey instrument was designed and sent to individual road users in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana to measure the difference in perceptions between decision makers and users on paved and unpaved roads. The specific tasks of the study were to:
The remainder of this report is divided into three parts. The questionnaire and methods used to examine the perceptions of decisions makers and rural road users are described in Chapter 2. The results of the questionnaires are presented in Chapter 3. Finally, the summary, conclusions, and need for further study are presented in Chapter 4.