Overview of the Rural Transit Assistance Program

Program History and Mission

Since 1979, the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) has provided grants to states for transportation systems in communities with fewer than 50,000 people. The Rural Transit Assistance Program (RTAP) was initiated in 1987 by the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA) of U.S. DOT; UMTA was renamed the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) in 1991. The RTAP program is now funded by FTA. In Fiscal Year 2021, $14,265,993 in funding was allocated for the Section 5311(b)(3) Rural Transit Assistance Program (RTAP), with $2,139,899 (15% of the total amount) allocated for National RTAP and $12,126,094 (85%) allocated to State RTAP programs. 

The mission of the RTAP program is to “make grants and contracts for transportation research, technical assistance, training, and related services in rural areas” (49 U.S. Code Section 5311 – Formula Grants for Rural Areas). Program objectives include promoting safe and effective delivery of public rural transportation services, improving the quality of information and offering technical assistance and training, disseminating training and technical assistance materials, providing peer-to-peer networks and connections, supporting the coordination of  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). 

Program Funding

The RTAP funds are awarded on a formula based on U.S. Census data regarding the size of the state’s rural area population. Table 9 of the FTA Apportionments Tables shows the allocations for States and U.S. Territories for Rural Transportation Assistance Program Allocations. 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 fiscal 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, and then reauthorized through Fiscal Year 2021. Details about the FAST act are available from FTA.


Pooling Funds

In the RTAP section of the 5311 Circular, FTA encourages states to pool funds within a region 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, development of technical assistance information, 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 American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) 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 (agencies can use 5311 funds for this), and provision of food for training activities is allowable by some State DOTs, is not by others (this is up to the 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:

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


Updated April 21, 2021