Like virtually all major transportation systems, public transit services are supported by federal funding. In fact, according to the Congressional Research Service, these funds accounted for 16.5 percent of transit revenues nationwide in 2017. Exactly how much annual federal funding comes to a given area in the United States hinges, in part, on the outcome of the U.S. decennial census.
Federal funding allocations are driven largely by formulas based on population and other census-related metrics. The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) allocates urbanized area program funds using formulas that consider an urban area’s classification as small or large. (Large urban areas are defined as having a population of 200,000 or more people.) Rural program funds flow through a statewide entity, which in Texas is the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), which has its own formula to allocate funds to rural transit systems. The urban and rural programs constitute the bulk of FTA’s formula-based funding programs.
In a project sponsored by TxDOT’s Public Transit Division, Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) researchers, led by Research Scientist Michael Walk, recently estimated the projected impacts of America’s decennial head count on transit funding in Texas. TTI researchers were assisted by the Institute for Demographic and Socioeconomic Research at The University of Texas at San Antonio, which produced the 2020 population projections.
The projections show the Lone Star State’s forecasted population will grow from 25.15 million a decade ago to 29.9 million in the new census — a 19 percent jump. That growth is one factor in determining federal apportionments, but it’s not the only one, Walk explains.
“Holding all other factors constant,” he says, “it’s Texas’ increase in the share of the U.S. population in a given area type that drives increases in the state’s share of federal funding for that area.”
Current outlooks point to Texas’ share of the nation’s urban population growing slightly, to 9.3 percent, compared to the 2010 census, in which Texas had 8.5 percent. The large urban population share is set to grow to 9.7 percent, with small urban share falling to 7 percent. The rural population share is projected to increase to 7.7 percent.
Based on the population projections, TTI forecasted the resulting funds from FTA’s urban and rural formula programs. Forecasts indicate annual increases in both of the programs: the total allocation for rural systems should increase to $51.7 million, up by 8 percent from the current level. State-funded urban systems (those small and large urban systems that receive some funding from TxDOT) may see a total of $65.6 million available post-census, an increase of 9 percent. These forecasts assume no changes in the total national amount of funding available in each FTA program.
The various factors in the federal funding formulas produce a range of forecasted impacts for individual systems in Texas:
- Nearly all rural transit districts are set to receive funding increases post-census; the exceptions are the Southwest Area Regional Transit District and the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council, both of which will move to the small urban designation due to population increases (thereby reducing their population classified as rural).
- Overall funding for state-funded large urban transit districts will increase too, although three districts that will move to the large urban designation will see a decrease in federal funds. Those are the districts in Amarillo, College Station–Bryan, and McKinney.
- Every small urban transit district except one will see a modest funding boost due to relatively fast population growth. The exception is Wichita Falls, where population is receding.
Formula-funding allocations are based on available funds, Walk says, and any changes in those available amounts would necessitate an update in TTI’s funding forecasts.
“TTI’s work contributes greatly to our understanding of potential funding changes for critical mobility programs in Texas,” says TxDOT Director of Public Transportation Eric Gleason. “Strategically, having this information now allows us to make decisions in advance of these changes to anticipate and, in many cases, mitigate impacts on services, particularly in the rural and non-metropolitan urbanized areas of Texas.”
As mentioned earlier, all of the impacts are based on projected population tallies. Those forecasts will be replaced by actual census results, which are expected in 2022. Rather than waiting for those official counts, TxDOT and local transit system agencies are using TTI’s projections to prepare for anticipated shifts in funding.
“In some cases those shifts can be dramatic and difficult, and it’s critical for Texas to be ready,” Walk says.