The National Rural Transit Assistance Program (RTAP) recently held a peer call on the topic of Tribal Transit Manager Overviews, with specific attention to capital management and federal programs. These calls, held bi-monthly on a variety of topics, provide an opportunity for transit professionals to share experiences in rural and tribal transit, including challenges other tribal transit programs have faced and solutions they have found effective. Participants are also able to pose questions during these peer-facilitated discussions. During a recent call, tribal transit managers from different regions shared some of the lessons they learned in starting tribal transit programs in their communities, as well as some of the challenges they faced and different resources they found helpful. We’ve provided a summary of some of those triumphs and challenges below, along with some examples pulled from case studies on other tribal transit programs.

Where to begin?

You’ve just been charged with managing your tribe’s brand new transit program. What do you do? Presumably some of the planning has already been done, including feasibility studies and community-needs surveys, and you may have already located some assets and funding sources. But it takes more than a few buses and some staff to start—and maintain—a successful tribal transit program.

Short-range planning is important to get up and running. What assets do you have? What do you need? What might you need five or even ten years down the road? The windows for grant opportunities can sometimes be tight—especially depending on how your tribal transit program is managed internally. Sometimes the turnaround on grant applications is as little as a month, and sometimes those funds get delayed. If, for example, federal funds become available for acquiring vehicles, you want to be ready with an up-to-date asset management plan. And federal funds often require certain plans in place besides a list of needs.

Developing and updating these plans can be daunting, especially if the program is being run by a small staff or single person. The good news: the consensus from experienced tribal transit managers is that existing transit programs are eager to help and share advice and knowledge—though you might have to be persistent to convince them you’re serious and committed. If you’re putting together an asset management plan, or any kind of plan for that matter, reach out for examples. Reach out to other transit agencies, set up meetings, talk about what works and what doesn’t. In some instances, transit agencies can reach agreements that are beneficial to all riders in the region, saving time, money, and resources.

What are some of the challenges?

The learning curve in managing a public transit program can be a challenge in starting up a new tribal transit program, as can the workload. For example, some tribal governments place the responsibility for running their transit programs on someone in the roads department or some similar department in addition to existing responsibilities. But this can make it hard for transit managers to keep current on industry news. Traffic laws on a reservation may differ from state laws, but if your transit program receives funds from the state, those state laws might still apply. Safety plans and asset management plans, discussed previously, also have to meet federal regulations to receive funding. It’s important to have one person managing the transit system as their sole responsibility so they can become knowledgeable of how transit systems operate, which regulations apply, and what responsibilities a tribe assumes in accepting state and federal funding.

Grant applications can also be difficult to navigate and can sometimes require certain match percentages from tribes that don’t have the same tax revenue as other state-run transit programs. These various funding sources also require careful records and reports, and requirements can vary by source. It’s important that there is a position dedicated to staying current on these and other requirements, and opportunities. Federal funding sources vary from year to year, and several tribes have noted unexpected denials or decreases for funding from previous years, and were rarely awarded the full amount they had requested when they did receive funding. It is important for a tribal transit system to have multiple funding sources in place to provide consistent, reliable service despite the bumps.

Apart from the learning curve, transit programs may face additional hurdles if they are not properly equipped. Factors like weather can even impact the lifespans of transit assets, and should be considered when developing an asset management plan. In LOCATION, for example, where Big Woods Transit operates, there is no car wash in the vicinity that has the capability of servicing buses. This means that in the winter, salt used to treat icy roads builds up on the vehicles, causing damage over time. This could in turn have an impact on a transit program’s asset management plan.

Many tribal transit programs are also challenged by the long distances between communities they serve. Other tribes have experienced challenges with low ridership initially. This was usually found to be due to misperception by the public. In some cases, community members associated the transit vehicles with services for the elderly, and were unaware that they could use the transit services as well. In other cases, despite advertising of the existence of the service, the community was not accustomed to having a public transit system, and did not know how to use the services.

What works?

Stable funding is essential for any transit system. How can a tribal transit program ride out the bumps? Tribal transit programs typically draw funding from a combination of sources, including state and federal grants, though navigating the requirements for monitoring and reporting for these various sources can sometimes present additional challenges. There is also the matter of tribal sovereignty to consider when accepting certain funding. Partnerships with state Departments of Transportation or neighboring public transit programs have helped some tribes. Other tribes have avoided the issue of tribal sovereignty by hiring private contractors, establishing separate transit agencies, or partnering with existing programs. (Such partnerships can also help ease burdens in staffing or paperwork.)

In the case of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal transit program, the tribe started a full-service gas station in 2007 with dining and laundry facilities to generate matching funds for grants. Standing Rock Transportation increased revenue by offering auto service and selling tires for local match funds. Partnerships with colleges and clinics and agreements to provide transportation in exchange for funding contributions have also helped tribes diversify funding.

The transit system on Pine Ridge has found that charging a fare for passengers, even if at a discounted rate for tribal members, has a positive impact on the reliability of tribal transit programs, which in turn also encourages more users. While some tribal transit programs offer free transit, a fare-operated transit system creates expectations on the part of riders that the transit will be reliable and on time. But flexibility and a service mentality are also important, and drivers will sometimes pick up passengers along the road who don’t have money, or will even pitch in money from their own pockets to the fare box for riders who can’t afford the fare from time to time. Indeed, the staff for the Pine Ridge Transit program has also been a driving force in the success of the program through their commitment and flexibility.

The challenge of low population density is one shared by many rural transit programs, and affect what kinds of services a transit program decides to offer. Some tribal transit programs have provided fixed-route, fixed-route with deviation, and demand-response. Some tribes, however, can also coordinate with local public transit programs, or have separate commuter programs for students and employees.

Big Woods Transit operates in Northern Minnesota, where its primary community is located 60 miles south of the Canadian border, and it takes nearly an hour to drive just about anywhere. The Big Woods Transit system offers rides for work, rides for community college, two park-and-rides, and several commuter routes, and utilizes 7 vehicles over 220,000 miles per year. In order for Big Woods Transit to operate successfully, versatility, flexibility, and allowance for route deviation have proven instrumental. Communicating an attitude of flexibility and service to the entire transit staff have also contributed to the success of the transit program. Big Woods Transit also works in partnership with Arrowhead Transit, a relationship that was built through perseverance.

The Takeaway

Some challenges are more easily overcome than other. Solving low ridership, for example, sometimes takes a little community engagement to inform community members about the services available and how to use them. Others, such as funding, are not so easy. The takeaway? Ask for help. Seek out industry experts, local transit agencies, points of contact for funding. And be persistent. Support from the tribe and community engagement are of course also critical. It is important to communicate how the benefits of a tribal transit program promote the entire tribe’s economic and social wellbeing.






Stoddard, Albert T. III, in association with David Sampson, Jill Cahoon, Ronald Hall, Peter Schauer, Valerie J. Southern, and Tangerine Almeida.  2012.  Developing, Enhancing, and Sustaining Tribal Transit Services: A Guidebook.  TCRP Report 154.  Washington, D.C.: Transportation Research Board. Pp. 118-160.

*If you’ve been tasked with developing a transit program for your tribe or community, check out the resources the Rural Transit Assistance Program has to offer at