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
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

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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