There is an urgent need to update and refine guidelines on the state’s role in administering the Section 5311(f) program of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). The recent passage of the The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act Act, which provided funding to the states to address the crisis in ridership, revenue, and funding for transit services resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, presented many states with an obligation to follow the requirements of the Section 5311(f) program with regard to the 15% set-aside requirement, including the need for a federally compliant consultation process. The requests to the states by the intercity bus carriers for financial aid during this pandemic have raised major questions about the role of the intercity bus service; the unsubsidized network and how it relates to Section 5311(f) funded services overseen by the states; the FTA program and its requirements (and flexibility); the state role; the consultation requirements; the in-kind match and how it works; and the planning, performance evaluation, and options for program management. Many state departments of transportation are interested in knowing what other states are doing and what works.
However, many of the key reference documents regarding the state role and intercity bus service were completed decades ago and need to be updated. Since the key reference documents were created, an entirely new model for intercity programs has developed, initially in the state of Washington, changing the role of the state to that of a grant recipient contracting for specified services and using the value of connecting unsubsidized intercity bus service as the match. Initially, this was an FTA Pilot Project, which began in 2007, but the in-kind match has since been codified, and the value of each connecting mile increased to 100% in the Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act. This change has allowed many more states to implement rural intercity bus programs and has changed the options for program design, as it requires a high degree of connectivity with the unsubsidized network because of its requirement for supportive documentation from the carrier operating the unsubsidized service being valued as the match.
Various states are now expanding this role with branding and marketing for state-funded or state-operated services and developing models that include both contracted services and grants to rural operators for feeder routes. At the same time, the industry has changed significantly, first with a major restructuring of Greyhound routes in 2005-06, then with the growth of “curbside” bus companies operating point-to-point services between major cities and university towns, then with a decline in ridership associated with low gasoline prices, and now finally with the major impact on ridership and revenue resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. The intercity bus network is on the verge of being reinvented and the state program managers need to fully understand all options available to them and have tangible examples of successful scenarios and best practices.
The previous research efforts need to be updated to address a number of key questions that states are now asking:
- The certification alternative—what is the process, how does it relate to the consultation, and when is it appropriate?
- How to conduct the FTA-required consultation process to obtain useful information for program planning and development?
- Alternative models of program management—providing grants to carriers to operate services they define, granting solicitations for particular services, the state as grantee issuing RFPs for third-party contractors to operate particular services, or some combination?
- Regarding in-kind match—what are the FTA requirements, how does it work, and how to develop projects using this form of match?
- How to plan for a connected intercity network? How to identify existing services, recognize unmet needs, estimate potential ridership, and prioritize investments?
- What is the national intercity bus network and how should services be designed to maintain these needed connections?
- Alternative intercity service designs, such as intercity services, feeder services, regional routes—how to make meaningful connections with the national intercity network and how to meet regional needs?
- How to develop and apply performance measures to ensure cost-effectiveness?
- Branding of services, and marketing—what have other states done, and what works?
- Program management and oversight—contracts, grants, compliance, contractor oversight.
This research project would involve a review of the FTA program requirements, a comprehensive survey of the states regarding their intercity programs, a compilation of an inventory of both the program attributes and the services funded, analysis of their responses, and development of recommended models.