Overview of the Rural Transit Assistance Program

Program History and Mission

Since 1979, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has provided grants to states under the Section 5311 Program (formerly the Section 18 program) for transportation systems in communities with fewer than 50,000 people. The Rural Transit Assistance Program (RTAP) was initiated in 1987, and is funded through a 2% takedown from the 5311 program funds. Of that 2% (in 2016, the amount was is $10.5 million altogether), 85% is directed toward state RTAP programs, and the remaining 15% funds the National RTAP program. 

The mission of the RTAP program is to “make grants and contracts for transportation research, technical assistance, training, and related services in rural areas” (US Code 49 Section 5311). Program objectives include promoting delivery of transportation services, offering technical assistance and training, disseminating training and technical assistance materials, providing peer-to-peer networks and connections, coordinating public, private, specialized and human service transportation, and maintaining the Rural National Transit Database. Exact wording can be found in Chapter IX of the 5311 Circular (FTA C 9040.1G, 10/24/2014). 

Program Funding

The RTAP funds are awarded on a formula based on 2010 Census data regarding the size of the state’s rural area population. Each state (including Puerto Rico) receives at minimum $65,000, with $10,000 going to Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands. Additional funds left over are distributed via the rural area population formula. All RTAP funds are available for the fiscal year they are allocated plus the next two years. 


The 5311 program falls under the umbrella of grant programs reauthorized under MAP-21 legislation (Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act). The surface transportation reauthorization bill was signed in July of 2012 by President Obama. Under MAP-21 reauthorization, no changes were made to the RTAP program. For more information about MAP-21 and changes to other FTA programs, visit the FTA's MAP-21 page, or view the FTA’s 5311 Program Fact Sheet. On December 4th, 2015 the Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act was signed into law, reauthorizing surface transit programs through Fiscal Year 2020. Details about the FAST act are available directly from the FTA.

Pooling Funds

In the RTAP section of the 5311 circular, FTA encourages states to pool funds with nearby states to support training activities or projects that would have a greater benefit for a wider target area. Types of activities that could be undertaken with pooled funds include regional workshops, training courses, technical assistance, and peer-to-peer activities.


Eligible Activities

RTAP funds can be used for a variety of sanctioned activities and program components, including training, technical assistance, research and related support services. The purchase of equipment to support these is also allowed. The funds may also be used to cover a state’s membership in the Multi-State Technical Assistance Program (MTAP). See page IX-1 of the 5311 Circular (page 90 of the PDF).

RTAP funds do NOT cover administrative expenses in relation to the program (you can use 5311 funds for this), and provision of food for training activities allowable by some state DOTs, is not by others (this is up to your state). Transit agencies or other groups may provide food for training sessions for states that don't allow this expense. 

Important Circulars and Guidelines

RTAP managers should be familiar with a range of FTA circulars, Federal Register notices, and guidance, including the following:

5311 Circular

Third Party Contracting Guidance

Title VI Requirements and Guidelines

Grant Management Requirements

Environmental Justice Policy Guidance

Formula Grants for Other Than Urbanized Areas

Also see the National RTAP Transit Manager’s Toolkit FTA Circulars page