By Chris Zeilinger

Transit and the Census: It Matters. A Lot.

If you receive, or hope to receive, or think you have colleagues who’ll receive, formula-based funding from the Federal Transit Administration now or anytime in the foreseeable future, the 2020 census is of critical importance. I summarized all of this in a “Pecha Kucha” presentation at the recent CTAA Expo. If you weren’t there, well, you sure missed something. Here, in a longer format with more detail, are my three key points, followed by some practical advice for you.

1. Being in an urbanized area makes a difference.

census_2020_1This is familiar territory for most FTA recipients, but the funding streams, the size of these funding streams, and the ways in which funds are allocated, are quite different, depending on whether you’re in an urbanized area of more than 200,000 population, in an urbanized area with a population between 50,000 and 200,000, in an area that’s not urbanized, or in a non-urbanized federally recognized tribal nation. When looking at how FTA’s formula-based funding for transit operating and capital assistance breaks out among population cohorts in FY 2020, here’s what we see:

  • Large-urbanized areas (those with populations greater than 200,000) are authorized to receive about 84 percent of all FTA formula-based transit funding (this includes formula-based funding distributed through Sections 5307, 5310, 5337 and 5339, encompassing both bus- and rail-based formula funds).
  • Small-urbanized areas (those with populations between 50,000 and 200,000) are authorized to receive slightly less than 8 percent of all FTA formula-based transit funding (including not only Section 5307, but also the small-urban portions of Sections 5310 and 5339).
  • Non-urbanized areas (those areas that are not part of any urbanized area) also are authorized receive slightly less than 8 percent of all FTA formula-based transit funding (including both Section 5311 and the “rural” portion of Section 5310).
  • Tribal nations in non-urbanized areas are authorized to receive one-third of one percent of all FTA formula-based transit funding, through Section 5311(c)(1)(B).

As a couple of important asides, note that:

  • FTA does not make formula grants specifically for fixed guideway systems (such as rail transit or bus rapid transit) in small-urban or rural areas, and
  • FTA does not make tribal transit formula grants to tribal nations in urbanized areas.
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2. Urbanized area determinations are critical

Every ten years, part of the census process is to determine urbanized areas. The Census Bureau does this by examining census tracts and blocks with high population densities, using some specific numerical criteria. Specifically, wherever there are contiguous tracts of at least 1,000 persons per square mile, these tracts, with all surrounding blocks of at least 500 persons per square mile, are labeled as “urban” areas. Urban areas with populations below 50,000 are called “urban clusters,” and those with populations above 50,000 are called “urbanized areas.” Census does not consider local political boundaries when identifying these urban clusters and urbanized areas. If you want to learn more about how Census approaches urban/rural classification, there’s a wealth of information here.

Nomenclature has meaning. In the current Census scheme, urban areas can have populations as low as 2,500, but an urban area has to have a population of at least 50,000 – i.e., be urbanized – before it’s eligible for urban transit formula grants from FTA or the urban grants from some other federal agencies. That’s why, strictly speaking, the FTA Section 5311 program is defined as being for non-urbanized areas, even though it’s colloquially called a program of “rural” transit grants. In another vein, even though the terms “urban” and “metropolitan” sound similar, they mean quite different things in federal policy and programs. The Office of Management and Budget determines metropolitan statistical areas on a county-by-county basis; these metro/non-metro distinctions are useful for analysis and policy-setting purposes, but are not the same as urbanized area determinations.

Speaking of nomenclature, the Washington Post recently published an article on how some of these classification schemes affect our views about the current rural reality. It’s a great story, but with a huge fault: it conflated “rural” with “non-metropolitan” definitions. I’ll remind you that there are many rural areas within metropolitan statistical areas, and a lot of urban clusters are located outside metropolitan areas. Nonetheless, you may find the article worth reading; it’s here.

source data used in fta formula allocations

source: fta

How Fta formula spending authorizations are distributed

source: fta

3. What you do matters most of all

When you look at how FTA calculates its formula-based apportionments to states and urbanized areas, it’s helpful to recall what data are used to make these calculations. In its annual apportionments and allocations of formula funds, FTA turns to two data sources: its own National Transit Database, and the Census. Here’s a summary of how these data sources affect the transit program:

Transit Supply

as reported through the NTD - accounts for about 61 percent of FTA's formula allocations. Rail and bus vehicle revenue miles are the primary factor in allocating large-urban Section 5307, 5337 and 5339 funds, and fixed-guideway directional route miles are a key factor in allocating Section 5337 and the rail service tier in Section 5307. Bus vehicle revenue miles are the basis upon which 75 percent of tribal transit formula grants are allocated, and they also play a small role in the allocation of Section 5311 grants.

Population and geography

Drawn from Census sources - account for about 34 percent of FTA's formula allocations. Population alone is a leading factor in allocating both Section 5311 and 5307 funds to states and urbanized areas. Section 5307 allocations also factor in population density, whereas Section 5311 uses non-urbanized land area as a secondary factor when making allocations to states. To varying degrees, low-income population numbers are used as factors in awarding small portions of urban, rural and tribal transit formula funds, and the populations of older adults and individuals with disabilities are the sole basis upon which Section 5310 funds are awarded to states and urbanized areas.


Including various calculations based on ridership, operating efficiency, etc., accounts for about 5 percent of FTA's formula allocations, and even then, performance only is used for calculating some slivers of Section 5307 funds to urbanized areas, whether through the STIC tier in the small-urban element of the Section 5307 program or the performance based rail and bus tiers in the large-urban element of Section 5307. There is no performance-based element to the award of Section 5311 or Section 5311(c)(1)(B) formula grants to states and tribal nations. Ridership alone is not a factor that FTA uses when making any of its formula funding allocations to urban or rural areas.

With some input from FTA, I presented a CTAA webinar on this topic last summer, which you can access via Since then, I’ve looked across all of FTA’s formula-based programs, incorporating details of both rail and bus mode formulas (the previous webinar looked only at bus-related programs), and drew on FY 2020 authorized numbers to create the bullet-point estimates above, so the numbers look a bit different from what you may have seen previously.

Can you maximize your share of FTA formula funding?

Formula-based grants are effective when there’s general agreement that the funds are being distributed equitably. FTA’s formula grants are structured in ways that make it very difficult to game the system in your state’s or urbanized area’s favor. But if you want to be sure you’re getting your fair share, here are two pieces of advice:

  • Report all your reportable service data, especially your vehicle revenue miles, to the NTD. Service data are the basis for 75 percent of tribal transit funding, and are the basis for 72 percent of large-urban transit funding. While most small-urban transit systems don’t receive funds on the basis of service data, high-performing small-urban systems receive bonus funding through STIC; those funds are determined on the basis of NTD data. If you’re a large-urban, rural or tribal transit operator, and you have contractors, open-door vanpools, or other services that rack up a lot of vehicle-miles, be extra-certain you capture and report their data, as every additional revenue vehicle-mile means more money in your allocation. Small-urban transit providers who’ve been “reduced reporters” to the NTD might want to think about whether that’s in their best interest; if filing as a “full reporter” earns you one or two more STIC factors, your FTA allocation could increase by nearly $400,000, which might just make the added burden of full NTD reporting worth the effort.
  • Make sure everyone in your service area is counted in next year’s census. An accurate population count is essential for assuring a fair allocation of nearly a third of FTA’s formula funding, including 75 percent of rural transit formula funding, and population data account for 100 percent of FTA’s non-STIC small-urban transit formula funding.

If small-urban transit’s your thing, re-read that last line, and let the value of those words sink in: Population data account for 100 percent of FTA’s non-STIC small-urban transit formula funding.

In Conclusion

  • Every transit system in the U.S. receives a considerable amount of funding based on population data reported to the decennial census.
  • If you’re an FTA recipient, your financial future depends on a complete and accurate population count in next year’s census.
  • Act accordingly.

The Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA) and its members believe that mobility is a basic human right. From work and education to life-sustaining health care and human services programs to shopping and visiting with family and friends, mobility directly impacts quality of life.