Reconnecting America People * Places * Possibility

Distance, Dispersion and Poverty Make Difficult Choices for Public Transit

This is another in our series of expert blogs on TOD highlighting work and research that experts and advocates are doing in the field. Rodney Gomez is program administrator and Luis Gerardo Guajardo a planner with the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council's Valley Metro. William L. Turk is director of Public Administration at the University of Texas Pan American.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas is located in the very southernmost region of the continental U.S.  This area is composed of three counties with 3,643 square miles which contains a population of over 1.2 million inhabitants.1 This land area is larger in square miles than two states (DE and RI), and has a population larger than eight states (WY, VT, ND, AK, SD, DE, MT, RI). If the distances weren’t enough of a problem for transit providers, there is the dispersion of the population over those 3,600 square miles. Dispersion occurs as a result of small, very poor housing communities called colonias.

Colonias are areas of clustered substandard housing usually lacking basic infrastructure such as paved roads, sewage lines, drainage systems, and utilities.2 Because they are located in unincorporated areas, they lack access to basic municipal services such as water, electricity, and waste management and educational attainment is relatively low. Other characteristics of colonias include a persistent language barrier (most colonia residents speak Spanish exclusively), numerous health issues (diabetes and heart disease rates in colonias are among the highest anywhere in the U.S.), and lack of access to social services.3 Jurisdictionally, colonias usually fall under the purview of county governments, but their locations are scattered throughout rural areas of the lower Rio Grande Valley, making service delivery a constant logistical concern.

Residents of colonias are often the most in need of public transportation. They typify the ‘transit dependent rider’ who, but for the presence of public transit, would have no other mobility options except walking.4  Colonias have low rates of car ownership, have high disabled and elderly populations, and are economically impoverished.5

Ironically, these populations of highest need lack access to the bus route system, which limits their ability to reach social services, employment locations, and other sources of assistance.

The utmost need for public transportation in this region cannot be overstated. Cameron, Hidalgo, and Willacy Counties are among the poorest counties in the United States. Bus riders average per capita income below $10,000 and are overwhelmingly disadvantaged in other ways, such as lack of educational attainment. Without bus service, these individuals would be left immobile or highly mobility-impaired. This group includes the elderly and disabled, including the 10% or so of the armed services veteran population.

Public transportation is provided in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas by three6 transit agencies that operate in Cameron, Hidalgo, and Willacy Counties. There is urban service in McAllen (City of McAllen-Metro McAllen), Brownsville (City of Brownsville-Brownsville Metro), Harlingen (Valley Metro), and over 15 additional cities (Valley Metro). Rural service is also operated in the outlying areas (Valley Metro) of the Lower Rio Grande Valley to 48 small towns and villages.7 These transit systems serve most of the major population centers in the area, but connectivity between them is still lacking. Connectivity with regards the smaller communities and to colonias is sparse to non-existent.

The service area also abuts the country of Mexico, which has a large impact on ridership. Daily travel patterns indicate that Mexican nationals not only account for a significant part of the local economy, but also serve as a significant source of daily passenger trips for the region’s transit systems.8

Service is offered by buses operating on fixed routes, flexible/deviated routes, and ADA paratransit service. Over 2.5 million passenger trips were provided in 2010, with a per capita ridership of 2.2, far below the national average of 34.9 A primary reason for the low ridership relates to the dispersion of the primary socio-economic class of potential riders. The large distances between cities, and the limited funding dedicated to public transportation in the area, has a deleterious effect on service frequencies (currently at an hour or more), making the service inconvenient for passengers. A basic standard of service in a transit system of similar population size in other parts of the country would demand frequencies of 30 minutes or less.10

There are several social service programs in the area that are designed to empower individuals to support their families, improve their educational status, and obtain employment. These programs take on a disproportionate importance because of the area’s demographic profile. However, they cannot be accessed without an expansive public transportation system with high service frequencies. Over 70% of all riders use public transportation for access to work or school – precisely the sorts of activities that would benefit local communities.11 As previously noted, the current transit system is not sufficient to meet these needs – even corridors of highest use have service frequencies of no better than one hour with one bus per route. Moreover, the expansive service area has necessitated spreading service area coverage rather than increasing service in particular focus areas. Additional revenue is needed to both meets the needs of a large service area and increase service.

As is true with most transit systems of similar size, a lack of revenue constantly constrains the growth of transit operations. Currently, service in Hidalgo County is entirely subsidized by local, state, and FTA Section 5316 funds. Service in Cameron County is subsidized by local, state, and various federal dollars. Willacy County service is subsidized by state rural funds. There is not enough revenue to maintain current levels of service, much less any expansion of service to areas of high need, such as the colonias. Moreover, the fiscal rigidity of federal Section 5307 funds in the McAllen urbanized area, and (soon) in the Brownsville urbanized area prevent these funds from being used for general operating expenses. Annually, hundreds of thousands of dollars in FTA funding are unused because local transit agencies do not have the ability to draw them down to match local contributions to subsidize operating expenses. Instead, those funds are restricted to capital expenses.

Local contributions in the Lower Rio Grande Valley are already at their breaking point. The three largest cities in the area— McAllen, Harlingen, and Brownsville—all subsidize the public bus system through their general funds, but local contributions have remained stagnant or increased only minimally in the last five years. Eleven smaller cities provide yearly contributions that must be re-evaluated and renewed every year. This annual re-appropriation leaves the definite potential that funding may not be renewed in future years, which would necessitate service reductions. Moreover, transit service has not kept pace with population growth. From years 2000 to 2010, population in the three-county area grew 32%.12 Despite the fact that demand for public transportation has grow concurrently with this increase, local funding has not.

The State of Texas provides some funding assistance for transit, but this amount has also remained unchanged for the last several years, with no leverage for service expansion.13 Currently, funds for public transportation are drawn from fuel tax revenues. In a paradoxical twist, the more cars that are driven on Texas roads, the more money that flows into public transit coffers. But public transit cannot grow if people decide to drive cars instead of using buses. In addition, fuel tax revenues are projected to decrease in future years as more fuel efficient vehicles take the road. Although this will be an environmental boon, it will result in a decrease of available funding. Local revenue options must be considered to offset any decreases.

Possible solutions to this seemingly insoluble dilemma which will allow transit providers to both survive and expand focus on a dedicated source of revenue is needed to subsidize operations in the region. A dedicated source of revenue would also ensure stability for planning purposes and allow long-range growth for the transit network. This can be accomplished in numerous ways:

  • Section 5307 funding dollars that are currently inaccessible should be available to match operations. Transit agencies should have the flexibility to determine internally whether these dollars are best used for capital or operational projects.
  • The state sales and use tax is currently at a ceiling of 8.25%. This ceiling could be raised in order to allow local jurisdictions to fund public transportation. There is evidence to suggest that voters would be willing to entertain raising the tax rate for public transportation, since transportation expenses currently account for the 2nd largest percentage of consumer spending per household (usually between 9% in transit rich areas to 25% in suburbs).14
  • Those cities not currently funded through their general funds should add a public transportation line item to their budget. The funding amount should be based on population to ensure fairness of contribution.
  • A vehicle license fee (VLF) specifically for public transportation should be considered. A minimum funding amount, either as a specific dollar value or a percentage of the total amount of all fee revenues, could be raised through this fee specifically for mass transit.
  • Additional sources of statewide funding assistance should be directed specifically at aiding local jurisdictions in ensuring that federal match is not lost. These local transportation assistance funds (LTAF) could be collected at the state level and disbursed on a local level depending on socioeconomic need. A potential source of LTAF could be the state lottery, such as a dedicated scratch-off game solely for transit purposes.
  • Texas law allows local jurisdictions to establish various forms of regional transit authorities in order to coordinate service and determine local allocation of dedicated funds. Policy makers should explore the feasibility of establishing such an authority in the region.

The most promising approach would combine one or more of these solutions in order to maximize revenue. Since state-wide initiatives have less likelihood of success by virtue of the geographic scope involved, local initiatives should take precedence, with local transit agencies forming partnerships among themselves and the people and organizations in areas of highest need.

Valley Metro is currently pursuing a path of establishing effective partnerships with local stakeholders to impress the region’s needs upon local decision-makers. Valley Metro is the lead agency in the Rio Grande Valley’s regional public transportation coordination plan, which will identify regional projects and programs of greatest efficacy and with the most promise. In addition, it is actively engaged in developing projects with local nonprofit agencies and municipalities such as Migrant Health Promotion (travel training program) and the City of Edinburg (ADA walkway enhancements). These relationships not only build trust, but unify efforts to serve many different constituencies.

At the same time, Valley Metro has managed to use grant funds to increase its span of service, service hours, and geographic coverage without requiring additional local revenue. This has resulted in a doubling of service available to colonia residents and others from fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2012. This maximization of resources signals decision-makers and funding agents that public transportation can make efficient use of local dollars.

The difficulties are great and the prospects for solutions are small in this southern area of Texas. The need is tremendous and revenues are stretched thin to provide the best service possible for people in this widely dispersed area. Nevertheless, the local transit agencies are employing creative solutions to remain cost effective and provide service as efficiently as possible. As the need for public transit grows, so will the opportunities for failure. The next few years will tell the story of whether this large geographic area’s public transit can avoid that fate and adopt lasting solutions.

Endnotes

1 U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 Census.

2 Texas Attorney General’s Office, 2011.

3 Texas Health and Human Services Commission, Office of Border Affairs, 2011

4 Rio Grande Valley Regional Transit Coordination Plan, Demographic Needs Analysis. KFH Group Inc., 2011.

5 Rio Grande Valley Regional Transit Coordination Plan, Demographic Needs Analysis – Colonias. KFH Group Inc., 2011.

6 A fourth transit system, The Wave, operates on South Padre Island, but this system is unlike the others in that it serves a relatively affluent area, there are only two real routes that operate along one avenue in a north/south direction on the Island, and there are no fares charged for the service. This means that the system is essentially a tourist shuttle that does not provide access to jobs, medical centers, education institutions, or other services that people of low-incomes would desire to reach.

7 U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 Census.

8 Rio Grande Valley Regional Transit Coordination Plan, Demographic Needs Analysis – Overall Need by Density. KFH Group Inc., 2011.

9 Rio Grande Valley Regional Transit Coordination Plan, Transportation Resources Inventory. KFH Group Inc., 2011.

10 Rio Grande Valley Regional Transit Coordination Plan. KFH Group Inc., 2011.

11 Annual Rider Survey, Valley Metro, FY 2010 & 2011.

12 U.S. Census Bureau, 2000 & 2010.

13 State of Texas Transportation Improvement Program(s) Transit FY 2006 – 2014.

14 The Affordability Index: A New Tool for Measuring True Affordability of a Housing Choice, The Brookings Institution, 2006.