Senators push government watchdog to study barriers to access rural and tribal transit services for older adults and people with disabilities
About 1 out of 4 older adults live in a rural area, many face physical isolation and barriers to accessing health care
Washington, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging Chairman Bob Casey (D-PA) led a letter to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) concerning access to rural and tribal transit services for older adults and people with disabilities. As federal agencies begin to distribute tens of billions of dollars for public transportation from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), Chairman Casey and his colleagues ask the GAO to identify and examine accessibility gaps in rural and tribal transit service so that Congress and the federal government can eliminate barriers to public transportation for older adults and people with disabilities in rural communities.
Fellow Aging Committee members Senators Mark Kelly (D-AZ), John Fetterman (D-PA), Raphael Warnock (D-GA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) joined Chairman Casey in sending the letter.
“Older adults and people with disabilities are more reliant on public transportation to socialize, shop, and access critical services, such as health care… Rural transit that is accessible for older adults and people with disabilities can therefore provide a vital link for maintaining the mobility of those populations. Without transportation options, older adults in rural and tribal communities may not receive medical care and are at risk of social isolation, depression, and malnutrition,” wrote the Senators.
Roughly one quarter of all older adults live in rural areas, and rural communities have higher populations of people with disabilities. In their letter, the Senators note that the vast majority of older adults wish to age in place, yet they typically outlive their ability to drive, leading to increased need for public transit for older Americans living in rural areas. Understanding how to best support these communities is critical to implementing federal, state, and local solutions to improve transit for populations that have historically had limited access.
Read the letter here and below.
The Honorable Gene L. Dodaro
United States Government Accountability Office
441 G Street NW
Washington, DC 20548
Dear Comptroller General Dodaro:
We write concerning access to rural and tribal transit services for older adults and people with disabilities. In 2021, President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which authorized up to $108 billion for public transportation through new and existing programs. Evidence suggests there may be a particular need to support transit in rural and tribal communities. Roughly one quarter of all older adults live in rural areas, and rural communities have higher incidences of people with disabilities. Older adults and people with disabilities are more reliant on public transportation to socialize, shop, and access critical services, such as health care. We seek your assistance to understand how rural and tribal communities are expanding access to transit for those populations, and the challenges they face to doing so.
Demographic and geographic realities highlight the need for rural and tribal transit. Over the past four decades, the population of older adults has increased disproportionately in rural areas compared to urban areas. The vast majority of older adults wish to age in place, yet they typically outlive their ability to drive. Rural counties, meanwhile, have the highest incidences of people with disabilities in the United States. Rural transit that is accessible for older adults and people with disabilities can therefore provide a vital link for maintaining the mobility of those populations.
Without transportation options, older adults in rural and tribal communities may not receive medical care and are at risk of social isolation, depression, and malnutrition. For example, roughly 15 percent of tribal members must travel over 100 miles to access basic services, making transit essential for older American Indians and American Indians with disabilities who cannot drive. Likewise, people with disabilities in rural communities view health care and other services as less accessible compared to their urban counterparts.
In light of those facts, it is unsurprising that many rural and tribal communities are seeking to expand their transit services. One Pennsylvania transit service has implemented micro transit that can be used via an online app, or by calling in for service. A tribal transit service in Arizona, meanwhile, told Congress in 2019 that it would like to add more routes, but that it was challenged by the funding system. Transit providers also are interested in developing “same day” shared ride services for older adults and people with disabilities. This approach could help people with disabilities, as they will often schedule a trip when they feel healthy, only to cancel when they feel ill the day of the trip. Other states have expressed a similar need for expanded access to rural transit services. In Georgia, for example, annual investments of $158 million are needed to meet the state’s rural transit demand and eliminate an annual unmet rural trip need of 5.8 million trips. It is important to understand how federal policy can support these local attempts to expand and innovate.
The IIJA increased funding for rural transit to more than $4.58 billion through the Rural Area Formula Grants program. That includes increased funding for the Public Transportation on Indian Reservations Program and the Appalachian Development Public Transportation Assistance Program. The Department of Transportation (DOT) plans to use IIJA funding to improve transit for communities that have historically had more limited access. As DOT begins to distribute this funding, we seek your assistance in identifying the gaps that exist in rural and tribal transit service for seniors and people with disabilities. We also seek your assistance in identifying additional actions Congress and the federal government should take to shore up those gaps. Therefore, we request that the Government Accountability Office examine and report on the following issues:
- What types of transportation are available to rural communities, including communities on tribal and Native lands and other communities of greatest social and economic need, as defined by the Older Americans Act? To what extent do those communities face challenges in ensuring that people with disabilities and older adults have access to transit, including challenges related to affordability, comprehensiveness, and reliability? What new challenges for providing those services do those communities anticipate over the next decade?
- What strategies and innovative solutions have rural and tribal communities used to address challenges and meet the accessible transit needs of seniors and people with disabilities? To what extent do those communities promote cooperation between governments and across agencies, including with local Area Agencies on Aging, to meet those needs?
- What are the primary funding sources through the federal government, including the IIJA, to improve the accessibility of transit services in rural and tribal areas for older adults and people with disabilities? What challenges do rural and tribal communities face in accessing these federal funds, or using them to expand accessible transit? Has federal support for other types of infrastructure, such as rural broadband, benefited rural and tribal transit services, including support through the IIJA?
- To what extent has DOT effectively communicated these opportunities to rural and tribal communities and established policies to ensure these funds equitably serve people with disabilities and older adults in those communities?
- How do rural and tribal communities measure the success of local transit programs that benefit older adults and people with disabilities? Do their measures contrast with how the federal and state governments measure success for the same programs?
- The Older Americans Act requires state governments that receive certain federal funds to develop State Plans on Aging. How often do State Plans on Aging address rural transportation services for older adults, including those with disabilities? How often do those State Plans address the role of accessible transit in supporting family caregivers for older adults?