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Reconnecting Small-Town America by Bus: New Federal Transit Rules Spur Investment

Posted by Content Coordinator on Monday, June 23rd, 2014


Millions of rural residents have lost access to scheduled intercity bus service in recent years as the nation’s largest private carriers have focused on profitable, longer-haul interstate travel. This Spotlight on the Issues illustrates how one state has created a successful public–private initiative to restore service to its rural communities. What Washington State has accomplished serves as a model for other states looking to take advantage of alternative local match requirements.

Small towns across the United States have lost their intercity bus service, leaving many rural residents with no choice but to drive to regional medical facilities, airports, or homes of relatives and friends in neighboring towns and cities. Therefore, a growing number of older adults who no longer drive have even fewer options. Many must rely on family or friends or must stay home. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, between 2005 and 2010, 8.4 million rural residents lost access to scheduled intercity bus transportation as private bus companies withdrew service from bus depots across America.This downward trend in service began as early as the late 1960s. The problem was exacerbated by deregulation of the industry in 1982 and by industry strikes in 1984 and 1990. In 2004, Greyhound Lines, America’s largest intercity bus company, completed a network transformation that focused on profitable, longer-haul interstate travel, resulting in further loss of service to small-town America.

In response to this trend, the states, the private sector, and the federal government are working together to restore intercity bus service to rural America and to make long-distance travel by public transportation convenient, even when transfers to other carriers are required. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) leads the way with its model Travel Washington program (box 1).

Connecting Communities: The Travel Washington Program

Travel Washington connects rural communities to major transportation hubs and urban centers through an intercity bus service (see figure 1) that is operated by local private carriers under contract to WSDOT. Grape Line service between Pasco and Walla Walla began in 2007. By 2010, three additional feeder bus lines were operating. A fifth line has been planned and could begin service if funding is identified. In total, the bus companies operating those current four lines provided more than 50,000 passenger trips in 2012. More than two dozen towns in the state have seen their intercity bus service restored along 400 route miles. Now the bus companies provide one, two, or three roundtrips every day of the year. Residents and visitors to Washington State take advantage of the service for various reasons. Military veterans on the Olympic Peninsula ride the Dungeness Line to their medical appointments in Seattle. Residents of Port Townsend take the bus to Seattle–Tacoma International Airport for domestic and international flights. Canadian tourists roll their bikes off the ferry in Port Angeles and load them onto a Dungeness Line bus en route to the lavender fields around Sequim. An older couple, both of whom can no longer drive, boards the Gold Line in Kettle Falls to visit grandchildren in Spokane. With the purchase of a single ticket, seasonal agricultural workers from as far away as California can travel to orchards in north-central Washington through interlined service5 between Greyhound and the Apple Line.

The Travel Washington program is a partnership involving the WSDOT, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), and the private sector. FTA’s grant program under 49 U.S.C. § 5311(f) provides half the money for Travel Washington and requires a 50 percent local match. In Washington State, the private sector provides this match through an innovative funding arrangement that allows the state to count in-kind contributions by Greyhound to meet the local match required by FTA. The following description of the Travel Washington program details the alternative match requirements.

Figure 1. Travel Washington Statewide Intercity Bus Network Map

Download full version (PDF): Reconnecting Small-Town American by Bus

About the AARP Public Policy Institute
“The Public Policy Institute (PPI) is the focal point of public policy research, analysis and development at AARP. Led by AARP Senior Vice President Susan Reinhard, PPI’s staff works to design policies that have a significant impact on improving economic security, health care and quality of life.  Founded in 1985, PPI publishes staff research and analysis regularly throughout the year. Publications from 1998 to the present can be found on this site.” 

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