Rural and Intercity Transportation


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. Distances between rural residences and necessary services exacerbate their transportation challenges. Forty percent of rural residents—including many older adults and people with disabilities—report living in counties with no public transportation options at all. 

Rural residents need access to local services and larger urban centers, where regional health and retail facilities are typically located. 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. Private intercity bus service helps address some of this need. Still, the nation’s largest carriers have been reducing their routes to small towns for decades. 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 injury or deaths (see also Insurance Policy Terms). 

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, provides unprecedented levels of funding for Amtrak and state-supported passenger rail service. The Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak will be key players in shaping this new program, and its application will vary greatly from state to state. 

Federal law requires buses engaged in interstate commerce seating more than 15 passengers to have a $5 million minimum financial responsibility. (Vehicles seating 15 or fewer passengers have a lower minimum: $1.5 million.) This amount has not increased since 1985. These requirements do not apply to all buses. Some Federal Transit Administration (FTA) grant recipients providing transit services are only required to meet the liability requirements of individual states in which they operate. Typically, they must meet the highest level. Similarly, smaller carriers partnering with Greyhound face a prorated minimum depending on vehicle size. And school buses, taxicabs, commuter vehicles, and contract carriers for school-sponsored trips are exempt. 

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). 

Section 5311: This program seeks to address rural residents’ needs for public transportation by providing capital and operating assistance to transit providers in rural areas with a population under 50,000. It can fund both rural fixed-route and demand-responsive public transportation. 

The Rural Intercity Bus Program is known as Section 5311(f). Fifteen percent of a state’s 5311 funding must be spent on this program. This program includes funding flexibility that has enabled states to restore some of the services lost as private carriers have focused investments on interstate routes. 

Passenger rail: 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. 

Transportation for Native Americans and Alaskan Natives: The availability of transportation is a concern for both the Native American and Alaskan Native communities. The federal government recognizes Native American tribes as sovereign nations. Still, they must go through state transportation departments to obtain federal transportation funding. The exception is for funding under the Tribal Transportation Program administered by the Federal Highway Administration and the Section 5311(c) Tribal Transit Program administered by the FTA. 



Community transportation resources

Policymakers and the private sector should develop and implement transportation programs and services to improve community transportation resources for older adults. Particular attention should be given to the needs of those living in rural areas. This includes creating innovative, sustainable transportation models for older adults and people with disabilities in rural communities. 

Private bus companies should be required to carry adequate insurance to cover their passengers in the event of a crash. This includes “intercity” buses (which can go across state lines), such as Greyhound, and charter buses (see also Insurance). 

States should use the flexible funding offered under the Section 5311(f) rural transit/intercity bus grant program, which funds bus services that connect rural communities to long-haul intercity bus and rail service. 

Governments should increase funding for the operating and capital costs of rural public transportation and provide for monitoring and evaluating such transportation to help identify improvement and expansion needs. 

Native Americans and Alaska Natives: Congress should increase funding for the Section 5311 rural transit program, including the Tribal Transit Program. Grant recipients of the Tribal Transit Program should be required to coordinate transportation services with Title VI Native American aging programs funded under the Older Americans Act. 

Congress should increase funding for the Tribal Transportation Program and encourage expenditures to be integrated with economic development, housing, and land-development plans. 

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. 

States should: 

  • ensure funding mechanisms for operating and capital expenses for rural public transportation, 
  • promote and monitor the coordination of transportation funding and programs in rural areas, and 
  • develop affordable public and private nonemergency medical transportation. 

Technical assistance: State departments of transportation should provide adequate technical assistance to rural areas to support effective, coordinated transportation planning. 

State departments of transportation should provide a full public outreach and education program to rural areas to ensure local governments are knowledgeable about all available federal funding for rural areas and programmatic (application) requirements. 

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 and seek to effectively implement planning and allocation of Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funds for investment in passenger rail and should support passenger rail systems that are integrated and coordinated with the nationwide passenger rail system. 

Congress should establish a dependable funding mechanism that ensures continuing broad-based nationwide passenger rail service, including high-speed rail. Congress should allow intercity passenger rail systems to be eligible for the broad flexible-funding provisions that govern the rest of the federal transportation program.