There are approximately 12.5 million people with disabilities living in rural areas of the United States, six million of who have a severe disability (Seekins, 1995). People with disabilities and disability service providers in rural areas cite the lack of transportation as one of their most significant and persistent problems (Arcury, Priesser, Gesler, & Powers, 2005; Arnold, Seekins, & Nelson, 1997; Bernier & Seekins, 1999; Gonzales, Kasnitz, & Seekins, 2000; Jackson, Seekins, & Offner, 1992; National Council on Disability, 2005).
In general, the lack of rural transportation has been a defining problem for both rural communities and people with disabilities (e.g., Burkhardt, Nelson, Murray & Koffman, 2004; Gillis, 1989; Rucker, 1994). Federal public transportation funds have historically been inequitably allocated between urban and rural areas--an inequity with a particularly significant, deleterious impact on people with disabilities and disability service providers in rural areas (Bernier & Seekins, 1999). This discrepancy translates directly into the experience of individuals. For example, the Rural Transit Assistance Program (1995) reported that urban public transportation provided an average of 955 trips annually--nearly 20 rides each workweek--for urban households without a car. In contrast, people living in rural areas who don't own a vehicle average only about 38 publicly-subsidized rides per year, less than one ride per workweek. Obviously, this discrepancy can limit participation in community life, and make living and working independently relatively more difficult in rural areas.
The 2005 re-authorization of the Transportation Equity Act (P.L. 109-59) increased the total funding for public transportation from $3.8 billion to $4.2 billion, increased the funding for rural transportation from $241 million to $448 million, and increased transportation funding for the elderly and individuals with disabilities from $90 million to $190 million. Still, the discrepancy between urban and rural transportation allocations remains significant. About 89% of transportation funds subsidizes transportation for the 75% of the population living in urban areas, while only about 11% goes to support transportation for the 25% of the nation's population living in rural areas. The magnitude of this discrepancy suggests why transportation has been a consistent problem in rural areas.
Section 5311 of the Transportation Act provides funding to operate rural transportation systems. To be eligible, a community must organize a transportation agency and develop means to match Federal operating funds by 50%. This is typically done through rider fees and local taxes. Presumably, as a public program covered both by the ADA and other national and state legislation, these services provide accessible transportation to people with disabilities. Still, Rucker (1994) reports that one out of thirteen rural households doesn't own a private vehicle and 41% of rural residents lives in the nation's 1,200 counties with no public transportation at all. He reports that 11.9 million people with disabilities living in rural areas are classified as transportation-dependent and one million of those are also classified as poor. Clearly, the need for innovative rural transportation options for people with disabilities is great.
Despite the significant lack of transportation options for people with disabilities living in rural areas, there are few reports of appropriate models for delivering such services. Kidder (1989) described a "brokered" or "cooperative" rural transportation model for people with disabilities that forged transportation cooperatives among agencies with federally-funded vehicles. For example, a senior citizen program, a mental health center, and a developmental disabilities service provider might form a community transportation cooperative by combining their vehicles and transportation budgets to serve all people with disabilities--not just each agency's clients. …