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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

History of the Bus Testing Program

Section 317 of the Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act (STURAA; Public Law 100-17) of 1987 provided that no funds appropriated or made available under the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964, as amended, were to be obligated or expended for the acquisition of a new model bus after September 30, 1989, unless a bus of such model had been tested at a facility to be established in Altoona, Pennsylvania to ensure that the vehicle “will be able to withstand the rigors of transit service.” The purpose of the testing was not to set a standard or grade the performance of the buses, but to provide performance information to the transit authorities that could be used in their purchase or lease decisions. 

STURAA required the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to establish a bus testing facility to test new bus models purchased with Federal funding. In initiating the process to establish this facility, the FTA issued a Bus Testing Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) on May 25, 1989 (54 FR 22716). One of the key issues identified in the proposed rule was the definition of “bus," which determined the vehicles to be tested at the facility. The agency proposed a comprehensive definition ranging from large buses to small vans. The term "bus" was defined as "a rubber-tired automotive vehicle used for the provision of mass transportation service by or for a recipient." This definition required essentially any new model of a vehicle to be used in mass transportation revenue service and purchased with FTA funds to be first tested at the Bus Testing facility. Thus, any new model of a vehicle from the smallest-sized van to the largest heavy-duty articulated transit bus would have to be tested at the bus testing facility if it was to be purchased or leased with FTA funds obligated or expended after September 30, 1989. 

Industry comments on the NPRM were deliberated and on August 23, 1989, the FTA issued its first Bus Testing program interim final rule (54 FR 35158). The interim rule notified the industry that compliance with the rule would be implemented in phases starting with the larger buses, specifically buses with a service life of 12 and 10 years, and purpose-built 7-year buses. 

The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA; Public Law 102-240) amended section 317 of STURAA in three significant ways. First, it explicitly added alternative fuel buses to those required to be tested. Second, it authorized FTA to pay 80 percent of the costs of bus testing.  Both changes were addressed in the modifications to the final rule discussed below. Third, ISTEA added braking performance and emissions to the set of tests to be performed at the Bus Testing facility.

Following the 1989 interim final rule, the FTA issued a series of modifications to the rule dated October 9, 1990 (55 FR 41174), March 13, 1992 (57 FR 8954), July 28, 1992 (57 FR 33394), May 26, 1993 (58 FR 30213), and November 3, 1993 (58 FR 58732).  The main purpose of these modifications was to integrate the smaller buses into the program, but they also served to make changes to the rule to address program issues. These minor program adjustments were based on operational and testing experience gained in the early years of the program. The July 28, 1992 modification, however, addressed one issue with far greater significance to the program and consequence to industry: manufacturers substantially modifying a previously-tested model.  

In the July 28, 1992, amendment, FTA introduced the concept of partial testing as a means to reduce the testing burden on manufacturers while complying with the intent of the Bus Testing regulation. Partial testing was intended to address previously-tested bus models that had subsequently undergone major modifications. The concept allowed these buses to undergo only those tests in which the data would be expected to be substantially different from the original test data.

The FTA published in the Federal Register (58 FR 30213, May 26, 1993) a notice of availability of a draft document titled, “Testing Requirement Guidelines for Five- and Four-Year Buses; and Partial Bus Testing Procedures for All Bus Categories.” A final version of the 1993 Guidelines was never published, however FTA regularly consulted the draft Guidelines in making partial testing determinations. An updated version of the Partial Testing Guidelines is now available on this website.

The service life categories specified in the November 3, 1993 Interim Final Rule included all the service life classifications currently used in the program. These service life categories are:

  • Buses with a minimum service life of 12 years or 500,000 miles, typified by heavy-duty large buses, approximately 35-40 feet in length as well as articulated buses
  • Buses with a minimum service life of 10 years or 350,000 miles, typified by heavy-duty small buses approximately 30 feet in length
  • Buses with a minimum service life of 7 years or 200,000 miles, typified by medium-duty and purpose-built mid-size buses approximately 25-35 feet in length
  • Buses with a minimum service life of 5 years or 150,000 miles, typified by light-duty mid-size buses approximately 25-35 feet in length
  • Buses with a minimum service life of 4 years or 100,000 miles, typified by light-duty small buses, cutaways, and modified vans approximately 16-28 feet in length

After the fourth and final interim final rule, FTA released a Dear Colleague letter dated June 13, 1994, with an attachment titled, Bus Testing Program Status and Regulatory Requirements. In this document, the FTA announced its policy that bus testing requirements would not apply to prototype vehicles. The FTA defined prototype vehicles as the first five pre-production/new technology demonstration vehicles incorporating a major new design or major new components. The 1994 Dear Colleague letter also stated that the bus testing requirements did not apply to battery-powered electric buses until further notice. The FTA determined that this policy was warranted because there were a limited number of battery powered vehicles being produced, they were in early development phases, and until configurations stabilized, testing would create an undue and preclusive burden on the bus manufacturer if every design had to be tested. The FTA also determined that testing requirements did not apply to trolley bus type vehicles powered by electricity supplied by overhead catenary wires. Such vehicles were not subject to the testing requirements because they did not possess a self-contained power source characteristic of an automotive vehicle, and thus did not meet the program's definition of a "bus."

The FTA released a second Dear Colleague letter dated May 6, 1996 (another letter with the same content dated May 10, 1996 also exists) revising certain bus testing requirements. In this letter, the FTA determined that battery powered electric drive buses without an internal combustion engine (ICE) were subject to the requirements of the Bus Testing Regulation. This rescinded the temporary exemption provided in the June 13, 1994 Dear Colleague letter. The 1996 letter affirmed that the following ICE powered electric drive buses were subject to the requirements of the Bus Testing Regulation:

  • Hybrid buses combining an ICE with an electric drive system incorporating energy storage capability.  This included an ICE powered by conventional or alternative fuels
  • Buses combining an ICE with an electric drive system without energy storage capability.  This included an ICE powered by conventional or alternative fuels

Both the 1994 and 1996 Dear Colleague letters are no longer in effect. Battery-electric and hybrid-electric (and fuel cell) buses are now subject to the same testing requirements as other buses. The FTA’s Prototype Vehicle Policy has also been updated.

In the early 2000s, FTA led a series of public and internal discussions regarding whether changes were necessary to accommodate specialized vehicles being proposed for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service. The FTA determined that vehicles meeting the existing definition of a “bus,” which included almost all vehicles that had been proposed for BRT systems, remained subject to the requirements of the Bus Testing Regulation, and furthermore, the existing regulation, test procedures, and facilities were adequate to test such vehicles. The FTA also determined that the existing policies regarding prototype/new technology demonstration vehicles and partial testing requirements were adequate to address vehicles intended for use on BRT systems.  

On April 1, 2003 (68 FR 15672), FTA officially finalized the Bus Testing Final Rule by adopting the November 3, 1993 Interim Final Rule without changes.  

On October 5, 2009, FTA published a revised Bus Testing Final Rule (74 FR 51083) announcing the phase-in of the Braking Performance and Emissions tests and other program updates.  

On March 14, 2011, FTA published a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (76 FR 13580) proposing to amend the Bus Testing Regulation to change the average passenger weight assumed in testing from 150 pounds to 175 pounds to more accurately reflect the weights of average Americans, and make related changes in test procedures.  This proposal was withdrawn on December 14, 2012 (77 FR 74452).

The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) directed FTA to make major updates to the Bus Testing Program in the form of a new pass-fail scoring system for newly-procured buses to meet minimum thresholds in key areas such as safety, reliability, and performance.  

The “Pass/Fail (Bus Testing Regulation)” Bus Testing Final Rule implementing the MAP-21 requirements was published on August 1, 2016 (81 FR 50367), with an effective date of October 31, 2016. Existing procedures used by the FTA Bus Testing Facility largely remained intact, but data generated was now applied to a new 100-point scoring system. Under the Pass/Fail scoring system, a bus model that fails to meet one or more minimum performance standards will “fail” its test and, thus, be ineligible for purchase with FTA financial assistance until the failures are corrected and validated through testing. The Pass/Fail rule also included a new provision that requires a bus manufacturer to submit information about a bus model it seeks to have tested, and requires FTA to review this information and issue an authorization letter before the manufacturer may contract with the Bus Testing Center to test that model.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018 authorized two new additional bus testing facilities at the institutions of higher education selected pursuant to 49 U.S.C. § 5312(h) (which previously authorized the Low and No-Emission Component Assessment Program, or “LoNo-CAP,” these institutions are Auburn University and The Ohio State University). These new facilities were authorized to test only low or no-emission (“LoNo”) bus models. The Act provided $2 million to stand up the new testing facilities. The FTA awarded this initial funding as well as supplemental Fiscal Year 2019 and 2020 appropriations for LoNo Bus Testing to both universities, and worked with them to plan and create their facilities. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021 rescinded the authorization for these institutions to conduct testing of full buses, and made funds previously made available to these institutions for bus testing eligible for LoNo-CAP activities under § 5312(h).   

In March 2022, FTA introduced an online Bus Testing Portal, which is now the expected way for bus manufacturers to submit requests for Bus Testing requirements determinations and/or authorizations to begin testing. The Portal clarifies and streamlines the manufacturer request and FTA response procedures, providing numerous benefits compared to the previous email-based procedure.