States ‘Drive the Bus’ for Rural, Small Urban, & Specialized Transit… Not Just Literally!

While they do not usually operate transit, state departments of transportation (DOTs) certainly “drive the bus,” metaphorically speaking. DOTs ensure rural and small urban communities have critical transit and mobility services available as a safe, cost effective, energy efficient mode, especially for those with specialized transit needs, such as older adults and people with disabilities. 

Through federal formula programs (Section 5310, 5311, 5307, 5339 and others), the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) provides a framework for establishing local level transit services. While this federal-state partnership is critical to the transit industry and passengers overall, DOTs “drive the bus” as direct federal funding recipients and navigate transit program complexities for local agencies. Among the many DOT leadership examples, here are few:

Transit Funding

The AASHTO Survey of State Funding in Public Transportation, an annual report first published in the mid-1980s, provides a snapshot of state and federal investments in public transportation and highlights how DOTs utilize funding and tax mechanisms to support transit operations and capital projects. Since the mid-1990s, the survey reports that states lead the way on investments in public transportation, exceeding federal formula grant funding. During some years, the difference is marginal but recently, state public transportation funding significantly exceeds federal formula funding. 

For this year’s survey, this difference is significant. Using FY 2020 financial data, DOTs report approximately $20.9 billion for public transit funding while federal formula funds totaled $10.5 billion. Moreover, despite the pandemic and the significant loss of transit ridership, twenty-five DOTs report increasing public transit funding by a total of just under $1.4 billion in FY 2020 over FY 2019 levels.

The pandemic and emergency relief funding from Congress skewed public transit’s financial picture.  In the 2020 AASHTO survey, states reported that due to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act, “federal public transit formula funding increased by 236.5% ($24.7 billion) for FY 2020.” In addition, over the next few years, public transportation funding from the federal government will likely show similar results due to additional emergency relief funding measures, like in the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA) and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). But once transit’s emergency relief funding is fully expended, DOTs should resume the mantle of funding leaders for state managed transit programs.

Mobility Management

Because states oversee the FTA Section 5310 program—a program for seniors and individuals with disability—mobility management is another important aspect of DOT leadership. The National Center for Mobility Management (NCMM) defines it as “creating and managing mobility options, at both the systemic and system-to-customer levels, to improve the reach, efficiency, and affordability of public transportation services.” According to NCMM’s Statewide Mobility Management report, DOTs are instrumental to mobility management networks, “comprised of the agencies, organizations, and/or participants who lead efforts to improve integration and coordination across mobility options.”

While empirical data is unavailable about the extent of state-led mobility management networks, NCMM believes a plurality of these networks are indeed led by state agencies, such as transportation and health/human services. State agency participation also strengthens the network. Judy Shanley, NCMM’s Partner Director, says that state-led mobility management networks are “highly active (holding regular meetings, shared activities, etc.) with strong governance and decision-making processes that provide longevity and sustainability to networks.”

The Coordinating Council on Access and Mobility (CCAM), a federal interagency council coordinating funding and providing expertise on human services transportation, helps create the federal framework for mobility management networks in states, providing another important federal-state partnership example. Ohio DOT’s Office of Transit leads Mobility Ohio; a multistate agency partnership modeled after the CCAM and designed to improve human services transportation coordination at the regional/county level. NCMM encourages states to implement the CCAM with cross-agency activities, like in New Hampshire

Transit Planning

Before rubber meets the actual road, transit planning is important and represents another DOT leadership example. That is according to Community Transportation Association of America’s Assistant Director Chris Zeilinger, who advises states and transit agencies on planning projects, including statewide transit planning. In fact, Zeilinger says “DOTs use their abilities, expertise and vision on statewide transit planning, helping transit agencies better manage change and transformation.”

A good example of DOTs leading locally driven, transformational projects is in Idaho. With CTAA’s help, the Idaho Transportation Department and City of Idaho Falls recently restored public transit services to the city after a three-year hiatus. In June,  Idaho Falls cut the ribbon on the Greater Idaho Falls Transit (GIFT) On-Demand point-to-point rideshare service. 

On statewide transit planning, Maryland Transit Administration announced a transformational 50-year Plan.  According to Administrator Holly Arnold, this plan achieves a “bold vision by detailing actionable, measurable strategies, and uniting projects and investments across the state’s counties, cities, and towns” and it reflects “the diversity of Maryland’s landscape and unique needs across all its regions.”


Nationwide, transit agencies are suffering immensely from the pandemic. From ridership losses to supply chain issues, purchasing transit vehicles, buying equipment, and replacing transit facilities is seriously compromised. Workforce/driver shortages are especially problematic. 

According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), about 92 percent of transit agencies report having difficulty filling open positions, with bus operations positions being the most difficult. While DOTs are not literally “driving the bus,” many report anecdotally that rural and small urban transit agency executives drive transit vehicles as part of regular service due to driver shortages. For example, Michigan DOT reports at least 19 of its rural and specialized transit agencies where directors/supervisors drove at least once, if not multiple times, transit routes due to driver shortages.

Overall, DOTs are good stewards of transit programs and funds, managing and overseeing funding from state and federal governments, including the historical increases through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021. This role is growing. It includes many critical aspects of transit agency capital, operations and maintenance services and more, such as human services, equity and civil rights goals, supporting transit and mobility access, and providing transit infrastructure to help transit agencies offer fast and reliable services for all passengers.

DOTs are proven public transportation leaders that “drive the bus” on transit in your state.

Richard Price has an extensive professional career with experience in government and government relations, public policy, communications and grassroots advocacy.  Currently, Richard serves as Program Manager, Transit Policy and Technical Assistance for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (commonly called AASHTO). In this capacity, he oversees the legislative, regulatory and policy work of the AASHTO Council on Public Transportation and the AASHTO Multi-State Transit Technical Assistance Program (MTAP), including outreach to USDOT, FTA, other government agencies and Congress, internal and external communications, transit research, and creating educational forums on state transit policies and programs.

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