Senate Hearing Shows Bipartisan Support for Rural Transit

While most recent infrastructure debates seem to be Republicans arguing for more highway funding and Democrats advocating for increased intercity rail and urban transit funding, rural transit stands in the crossroads of the partisan infrastructure debate. Many rural districts have small transit agencies that play a vital role in giving constituents who are elderly, low-income, disabled, or otherwise do not have access to a car the mobility they need. Supporting rural transit is hence a fairly bipartisan issue, which was evident at a Senate hearing this week.

On June 8, the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation, and Community Development held a hearing on “Rural Transit: Opportunities and Challenges for Connecting Communities.” Witnesses included:

All three witnesses agreed that the rural customer base and their transportation needs differ greatly from urban transit agencies. The most common users of rural transit, echoed among the three, are elderly, disabled, and low-income individuals. All agreed that the most common purpose of trips was for medical reasons. As McGeady noted: with three rural hospitals in her service area recently closing, medical facilities are being concentrated in urban areas, increasing the necessity for transit connections from rural areas to these medical hubs. Cline agreed that many trips from her transit agency are medical-related, such as dialysis or patient discharge.

The greater importance of these services was articulated well by Cline, who relayed that her service area has low-density, a high senior population, and no local clinics or hospitals. If residents want to age in place and keep these places from, in the words of Cline, “becoming ghost towns,” they need to have reliable transit to medical facilities that could be up to 150 miles away.

Witnesses also raised the concern of high costs of keeping agencies afloat. Aging fleets that travel long distances create significant wear-and-tear on the vehicles. Nurmi expressed his concerns for the antiquated fleets of many rural agencies. Arrowhead Transit, said Nurmi, serves much of Northern Minnesota but is barely meeting its customers’ needs with the existing fleet and cannot afford needed expansions. While the COVID relief funding has helped the agency catch up, he believes the bus formula must be revised so their vehicles are not “aging rattletraps.”In addition, Cline said a common problem was cuts to service levels because of a lack of funding. While these agencies would like to have seven-day-a-week service, many rural services are only able to offer five days (or in the most underfunded cases, two or three days).

While Nurmi said Arrowhead Transit made a few minor service cuts during COVID due to financial constraints, both Cline and McGeady said that even with lower ridership, their agencies kept similar levels of service. In rural areas where there are few mobility alternatives, these directors highlighted the necessity of serving their customers’ mobility needs.

While all the witnesses unsurprisingly argued for an increase in federal funding, they also agreed that another solution could be decreasing or removing the local match requirement, as was provided in the no-strings-attached funding from the three COVID stimulus packages. Witnesses also advocated for flexibility in federal funding, particularly through formula funds as states themselves can delegate as they see fit. Because rural transit agencies vary greatly in their service areas, fleet sizes, services provided, and type of customers served, formula-based funds allow for greater autonomy in serving a community or region’s unique needs.

In addition to formula funding, rural agencies also recognize the importance of competitive grant programs that fund innovative and creative trials. McGeady noted that Pelivan Transit, serving Northeast Oklahoma, created a program to help transport veterans as well as a regional on-demand ADA service, both done through a USDOT competitive grant programs. Nurmi told of Arrowhead Transit’s recent grant acquisition of two class-400 electric buses to test in the northern climate. Cline spoke of Prairie Hills Transit’s, serving the Black Hills area of South Dakota, use of the National Guard to drive van pools to high-demand areas. These programs serve as important trials, and if successful on the small scale, could easily be scaled up on the federal level.

While COVID hurt both urban and rural transit ridership, it also forced agencies to be creative with offering new services. When asked about the lessons learned from the pandemic, the heads of all the testifying agencies concurred that they would keep their new cleaning standards and driver training protocols. Cline noted the addition of an administrative leave policy for Prairie Hills employees and McGeady said that Pelivan was successful in implementing an account-based payment system, which has decreased passenger interaction with riders able to virtually add funds to their accounts. Nurmi spoke about how Arrowhead pivoted to utilize its transit buses to deliver food and groceries to rural locations, serving over 95,000 people with 2.9 million pounds of food, while also has providing free transportation for COVID testing and vaccines. McGeady also noted that Pelivan also delivered meals to homebound seniors and provide trips to get vaccines.

All Senators at the hearing were very supportive of rural transit, and their questions were mostly asking how these agencies fared during COVID, what specific challenges rural agencies face, and how as legislators they can best support the mobility of rural Americans. As Subcommittee Chair and ranking member, Tina Smith (D-NV) and Mike Rounds (R-SD) partnered together to introduced the bipartisan legislation S.267, Investments in Rural Transit Act of 2021, in which the federal government which would guarantee 80 percent of operating costs for transportation projects in rural areas with high transit dependency. Other members voiced their support for this bill, and in a time of infrastructure fervor along with an increasingly contentious partisan divide of transportation priorities, the topic of rural transit shines through with bipartisan support.

In Rep. Peter DeFazio’s (D-OR) recent unveiling of H.R.3684, the INVEST in America Act, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s surface reauthorization, there was little on rural transit, save for one amendment that would change the definition of a rural area to areas with over 75,000 people and another amendment that would set aside 10 percent of funds in the surface reauthorization for ‘rural’ areas over this threshold. It is unclear how rural transit agencies will be included in this as this 10 percent for rural areas is not transit-specific.

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