On Track: How States Fund and Support Public Transportation


Executive Summary

The role states and particularly state legislatures play in supporting and funding public transportation typically is not a well-understood dynamic. This report highlights the many successful state efforts to provide high-quality transit options, with an emphasis on state legislative actions. Many states use common funding sources to support transit: motor fuel taxes, state transportation funds, general funds and automobile-related fees or taxes. Many states are taking further steps to create alternative funding and finance mechanisms for public transportation. While the most common state-level support for public transportation comes in the form of funding, other types of program support exist.

State actions are organized into five categories in this report:

  • Organizational/Structural
  • Funding
  • Finance
  • Polices
  • State/Local Nexus

Throughout the report, specific state programs and initiatives are examined in detail to explore traditional, innovative and emerging methods of state support for public transportation.

Metro Bus TransitIntroduction

Public transportation is a critical aspect of America’s transportation network, serving Americans in every state throughout the country. Without access to public transportation, millions of Americans would be left with fewer transportation options, potentially leading to higher transportation costs, longer travel times and, in some instances, an inability to travel at all, forcing them to forego possible employment, health and social opportunities.

Public transportation systems in the U.S. recorded 10,753,151 individual trips in 2014, up nearly 1 percent from 2013. These trips represent riders from every state, race and socioeconomic class. Although public transportation typically is regarded as serving those Americans living in large metropolitan and urban regions, more transit agencies actually serve rural areas than urban ones.

Americans across the country see public transportation as an important public good and a benefit to their cities, municipalities and communities. A 2014 survey conducted by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) asked respondents about their feelings on funding for public transportation. Nearly 68 percent of respondents supported increased federal spending, and nearly 74 percent agreed that tax dollars should be used to create, expand and improve public transportation. A 2014 study found that even non-users support transit at the voting booth due to public transportation’s public benefits to society.


The National Conference of State Legislatures first and foremost thanks the Rockefeller Foundation for the support and vision that made this report possible. A critical source of information about the state role in public transportation was state department of transportation transit contacts. This report would not have been possible without their graciously taking the time to respond to our questionnaire, adding to their already full plate of responsibilities and duties. Their answers informed the entire report and helped construct a rich examination of the state role in public transportation. These DOT contacts were provided to us, in most cases, by Shayne Gill, the Passenger Rail and Aviation Programs manager with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). Gill’s participation was imperative in collecting the state responses for this report, and we extend our sincere thanks for his assistance. We also would like to thank Sharon Edgar, the administrator for the Michigan Department of Transportation’s Office of Passenger Transportation. She provided a number of timely and helpful suggestions for our survey and the overall report. The report also benefited enormously from the contributions, suggestions and input of many state legislators, state agency staff and other knowledgeable stakeholders. Our deepest gratitude goes to this multitude of experts who provided interviews and quotes, fact-checked and edited the case studies, and offered their insight about innovations in the states. Too numerous to be named here, their efforts immeasurably strengthened the final product.

Our thanks also to

  • Art Guzzetti and Rich Weaver with the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) for providing helpful assistance and research.
  • The Federal Transit Administration and the U.S. Department of Labor for their support of NCSL’s  ongoing  research into human service transportation coordination efforts.
  • American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) for partnering on the groundbreaking Transportation Governance and Finance 50-state report and our many joint presentations on the latest in transportation funding and finance.
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for its ongoing support that allows NCSL to comprehensively track traffic safety legislative trends across the nation.
  • Finally, NCSL staff assistance was an important part of writing, reviewing and editing this report. Of particular note, Leann Stelzer was instrumental in editing and formatting the report.