Rural and Intercity Transportation

Background

Nearly one in four older adults lives in a rural area. Rural residents are at risk of becoming isolated without adequate transportation opportunities. Those who do not drive are particularly vulnerable. Rural residences may also be far from necessary services, exacerbating transportation challenges. Well-designed and adequately funded public transportation can help fill this need. In 2020, public transportation served 83 percent of America’s counties, but only six states had service in every county.

Older rural residents are especially likely to need public transportation to get to medical appointments. Travel for medical purposes has skyrocketed over the past three decades. Rural residents, who must travel farther to gain access to healthcare, are among those most affected by changes to the delivery of medical care. New advances in technology, such as telehealth, offer the potential to offset this increased travel demand (see also Telehealth).

Local public transportation options: In rural areas, public transportation is typically provided through a so-called demand-responsive system. Rural residents schedule service online or by phone from one destination to another. They do not rely on a fixed public transportation route, such as that provided by a bus line. In this way, rural transportation providers are able to offer services in areas not populous enough for fixed-route service. Computer algorithms are often used to determine the most efficient routes to drop off and pick up passengers from various locations. However, these programs may offer limited hours of operation, and advance scheduling may not work for those with unpredictable schedules or urgent appointments.

Regional transportation options: Rural residents do not just need access to local services. They often need to travel to larger regional or urban centers for health and retail facilities, as well as jobs. Private intercity bus service helps address some of this need. However, the nation’s largest carriers have reduced routes in favor of interstate service. Furthermore, some private bus companies may carry inadequate levels of liability insurance. Crashes can result in high damages above what is covered by liability insurance policies. This is particularly the case for crashes that cause serious injuries or deaths (see also Insurance Policy Terms).

Passenger rail provides essential service to many rural communities. It is also an important contributor to economic development. With increased frequency and shorter travel times, high-speed rail could provide a competitive alternative to both auto and air for travel between metropolitan areas within 500 miles of one another.

Funding: Rural transportation systems have suffered from persistent underfunding. Lower population density results in fewer tax revenues. This means fewer funds are available to create, repair, and maintain transportation systems. As such, rural transportation infrastructure is deteriorating disproportionately and needs costly repairs.

Lower tax revenues also mean that rural communities rely on the federal government for much of the funding for transportation infrastructure. Much of this funding comes from the federal Formula Grants for Rural Areas program. This is sometimes known as Section 5311. This program provides funding to states to improve rural public transportation systems. Its grants support capital, planning, and operating expenses for public transportation systems in communities with under 50,000 people. It can fund both fixed-route and demand-responsive public transportation in rural communities.

The Rural Intercity Bus Program is a flexible funding program that helps connect rural residents with regional or urban hubs. It is also known as Section 5311(f). This program includes essential funding  flexibility that has helped communities restore intercity bus service as private carriers have increasingly shifted to interstate routes. Fifteen percent of a state’s overall 5311 funding must be spent on Section 5311(f).

Transportation for American Indian and Alaskan Native (AI/AN) people: The availability and quality of transportation options are especially concerning in AI/AN communities. The Bureau of Indian Affairs owns thousands of miles of roads on reservations. These roads are among the most unsafe and poorly maintained in the country. Lack of public transportation options and aging infrastructure combine to limit the mobility of people living in AI/AN communities.

AI/AN nations face hurdles to getting federal funding. Although the federal government recognizes their sovereignty, tribes cannot receive federal transportation funding directly. Instead, they must go through state transportation departments to obtain such funding. The exception is for funding under the Federal Highway Administration’s Tribal Transportation Program and the FTA’s Section 5311(c) Tribal Transit Program.

RURAL AND INTERCITY TRANSPORTATION: Policy

RURAL AND INTERCITY TRANSPORTATION: Policy

Rural community transportation programs

Policymakers and the private sector should develop and expand convenient and affordable community transportation programs in rural communities. Such programs should connect all rural resident with regional and urban centers, including those otherwise underserved by the transportation system such as older adults, people with disabilities, and people living on tribal lands. Programs should also test new and innovative models for enhancing mobility options.

Policymakers should monitor and evaluate transportation needs and options to help identify improvement and expansion needs. This includes developing and funding affordable public and private nonemergency medical transportation options for rural residents. 

States should promote and monitor the coordination of transportation funding and programs in rural areas.

Funding

Policymakers should increase funding for the operating and capital costs of rural public transportation. 

The Department of Transportation and the Administration for Community Living should provide funds to state and local governments to initiate innovative, sustainable transportation models for older adults and people with disabilities in rural communities.

Technical assistance

State departments of transportation should provide adequate technical assistance to support effective, coordinated transportation planning for rural communities. They should ensure that local governments are knowledgeable about all available federal funding for rural areas and programmatic requirements.

Insurance for private bus companies

Private bus companies should be required to carry adequate insurance to cover their passengers in the event of a crash (see also Insurance). 

Passenger rail

Policymakers should support broad-based nationwide passenger rail service, including high-speed rail. Service should be integrated and coordinated with regional, state, and local passenger rail. 

States should establish dependable funding mechanisms. They should invest Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funds in passenger rail.

Congress should allow intercity passenger rail systems to be eligible for the flexible funding provisions that govern the rest of the federal transportation program.

Tribal transportation programs

Congress should increase funding for tribal transportation programs. 

Policymakers should streamline the process of obtaining tribal transit funding. 

Expenditures should be integrated with economic development, housing, and land-development plans. 

Grant recipients of the Tribal Transit Program should be required to coordinate transportation services with Title VI American Indian aging programs funded under the Older Americans Act.