Impact Feature Issue on Meeting Transportation Needs of Youth and Adults with Developmental Disabilities

Federal Transportation Policy and People with Disabilities


Jennifer Dexter is Assistant Vice President, Government Relations, with Easter Seals Project ACTION, Washington, DC.

The federal government has a long history of investing in improving access to transportation for people with disabilities. Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 and the transportation provisions that established a right to public transportation for people with disabilities, there has been even more interest. Being a transportation advocate in your community is an important part of increasing the ability of people with disabilities to live, work and play independently. People with disabilities are disproportionately reliant on public transportation, so any change in resources available to support public transportation disproportionately affects people with disabilities.

The ADA and Transportation

In 1990, Congress passed the ADA. This legislation addressed for the first time the civil rights of people with disabilities. The law includes major sections that address access to transportation, such as requirements that new bus and rail purchases be accessible, public transportation providers must provide a comparable service to individuals unable to use a fixed-route system, over-the-road buses must be made accessible, and all transit facilities must be built to be accessible. The implementation of these provisions over the last 15 years has greatly increased the ability of people with disabilities to access their communities and live independently.

Current Federal Programs Aimed at People with Disabilities

There are several programs and funding sources currently administered by the federal government that are of interest to people with disabilities. All provide some unique resources that help improve transportation options. They are:

  • 5310 Program - Elderly and Persons with Disabilities
  • 5311 Program - Nonurbanized Area Formula Grants
  • Job Access and Reverse Commute Program
  • Over-the-Road Bus Accessibility Program
  • Easter Seals Project ACTION

The Elderly and Persons with Disabilities program, or 5310 Program, provides funds to nonprofit agencies to help increase transportation options that connect the elderly and people with disabilities directly with needed services. Nonprofit agencies do not receive funding directly from the federal government; instead, states apply on behalf of private non-profit agencies. Currently, the funds can only be used for capital projects and almost all funding is used to purchase vehicles. There is a match in this program, which means the federal government pays 80% while the nonprofit must provide (match) 20% of the funding. The funds are allocated to the states based on a formula that considers the number of elderly and people with disabilities within states. States’ departments of transportation then make decisions about how that money is distributed to nonprofits. In fiscal year 2005, funding for the 5310 program was $94,526,689.

The Nonurbanized Area Formula Grants, or 5311 Program, provides funds to enhance transportation services in rural areas. For this program, state and local governments as well as nonprofit organizations are eligible recipients. The program is not specifically aimed at people with disabilities, but increasing access to transportation in rural communities is a critical need for this population. These funds can be used for capital, operating or administrative purposes. The match is 80% federal and 20% local, the same as the 5310 Program. The match is higher for the local portion when funds are used for operating assistance. The funds are allocated by a formula based on census figures to areas with populations below 50,000. For fiscal year 2005, funding for the 5311 Program was $249,635,140.

The Job Access and Reverse Commute (JARC) program is designed to connect welfare recipients and other low-income individuals with job opportunities, particularly in suburban areas. Local government and nonprofit agencies are both eligible recipients of these funds. This program is also not specifically aimed at people with disabilities, but since its inception has proven to be a valuable resource in connecting people with disabilities to employment. These funds can be used for capital and operating expenses. There is a 50/50 federal/local match. Although there is an authorization to distribute these funds via a competitive grant process, members of Congress have earmarked all of the JARC funds in past years for specific projects. For fiscal year 2005, funding for the JARC program was $123,702,400.

The Over-the-Road Bus Accessibility program provides funds that are used to assist over-the-road bus (tour bus) providers in meeting the Department of Transportation ADA guidelines issued in 1998. The only eligible recipients for these funds are private operators of over-the-road buses. The funds can be used for capital improvements including adding lifts and other accessibility components, and are allocated on a national competitive basis. The match is 90% federal/10% local. For fiscal year 2005, funding for the Over-the-Road Bus Accessibility program was $6,894,400.

The final program is Easter Seals Project ACTION. Project ACTION was initiated by Congress in 1988 to foster collaboration between the disability and transit communities to promote accessible transportation. Easter Seals administers the project through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Transit Administration. The project provides training, technical assistance, and a full catalog of resources to the disability and transportation communities. For fiscal year 2005 the funding for Project ACTION was $3,000,000.

Recent Federal Action Affecting People with Disabilities

In July of this year, Congress made changes in transportation policy by passing the reauthorization of the legislation that authorizes all federal transit and highway programs. The needs of people with disabilities and seniors were a significant issue in the debate over the future of transportation policy, and there is growing interest in meeting the needs of these two populations.

Some of the provisions that affect people with disabilities included in the new bill are the following. Congress revised existing programs to make them easier to manage for grant recipients and also to help encourage coordination of different transportation programs. Changes that will help achieve this include a demonstration program in seven states that will make 5310 funds available for operating expenses and allowing for flexibility in the match. There is also recognition that there is still a need to provide new services to people with disabilities who still are not accessing transportation. To that end, Congress set aside funds that will be available to local transit authorities to provide transportation services to people with disabilities above and beyond what is required under the ADA. This is part of the President’s New Freedom Initiative, a comprehensive set of proposals to increase services and supports for people with disabilities.

In the area of seniors and transportation, there has also been increased interest, both from Congress and from aging advocacy groups. This interest has resulted in some issues that are specific to seniors in addition to those listed above, which will also help seniors. The primary new program in this area is the creation of a national training and technical assistance center on senior transportation. The work of this center will be modeled after and build upon the work of Project ACTION, but be targeted more directly at seniors. Congress set aside funds for this center in fiscal year 2005, and the inclusion of the program in the reauthorization bill will create it as a permanent program. Also of interest to seniors, and people with disabilities as well, is language that will increase the accessibility of pedestrian environments by encouraging talking signs, accessible placement of bus stops, and other changes that will make it easier for people to navigate pedestrian areas.


It is a watershed time in transportation for people with disabilities. The potential addressed in the ADA is finally beginning to be realized as the importance of transportation for people with disabilities is recognized by decision-makers. That is not to say that we do not still have a long way to go. There is still tremendous unmet need in the area of transportation for people with disabilities. It is also a critical time for people with disabilities and others to be advocates for transportation in their local communities. This activity at the federal level will not work if it is not fully implemented and supported at the local level.