WESLACO, RGV – Valley Metro cannot create an integrated bus service connecting rural areas and colonias to the Rio Grande Valley’s biggest cities because it does not have a dedicated funding source.
This is the view of Tom Logan, executive director of Valley Metro, a transit agency administered by the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council that operates in five South Texas counties.
Speaking at an LRGVDC meeting that was held to consider the Council of Government’s next five-year strategic plan, Logan said the Valley is different to communities like Corpus Christi, Laredo and El Paso because they do have a dedicated funding source.
“We lack a dedicated funding source. The cities of McAllen, South Padre Island and Brownsville do provide funding for their transit services from the general fund but we are the only major metropolitan area probably here in the State of Texas that doesn’t have dedicated funding,” Logan said.
“You go to Corpus, you go to Laredo, you go El Paso, San Antonio, every other (transit) system has a dedicated funding source.”
Valley Metro has been operating in Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties for five years. Last year it started offering services in Starr and Zapata counties. Logan has led Valley Metro from the beginning. Before that he worked for the City of Brownsville for 17 years. Asked what the Valley as a region had before Valley Metro, Logan said: “Basically, nothing. Nothing connecting the Valley the way we are connecting it now.”
Logan said securing a dedicated funding source for Valley Metro is vital because the monies it receives from the federal government has to be matched with funds from local sources.
“The federal dollars we receive require a local match, 50 percent for operations and 20 percent for capital and planning. So, we are constantly having to go to every community out there, every organization and ask for a matching fund,” Logan said.
“We are not able to plan our system. We are not able to sustain. That is one of the strategies that we really need to deploy in the area. If we were able to obtain a dedicated funding source we would be able to increase our level of service, reaching out to the colonias, reaching out to the rural areas, connecting every entity in the Valley. We would be able to attain that. That has to be one of our main strategies for the Valley.”
Interviewed after the meeting had ended, Logan ran through the funding mechanisms that could be used to secure a dedicated funding source.
“There are different mechanisms to achieve a dedicated funding source. The most basic is through the sales tax. Corpus, Laredo, El Paso, San Antonio, they all have used the sales tax mechanism. In our case, the Valley is basically capped when it comes to using the sales tax. It would take special legislation to break that cap,” Logan told the Rio Grande Guardian.
“Another mechanism we could look at is a fee, like the 9-1-1 fee, like the emergency management fee. We could, for example, impose a fee on cell phone usage. Or, it could be part of real estate transactions. Everybody would benefit from an integrated bus service, either directly or indirectly. For example, with more buses we would have less cars on the road. That would benefit almost everyone.”
A dedicated funding source for Valley Metro could also mean taking a closer look at commuter rails. “We could have commuter rail across the Valley to connect institutes of higher learning and medical facilities that are spread apart,” Logan said.
Asked how big an improvement there could be in Valley Metro’s bus service, if a dedicated funding source could be found, Logan said: “Easily we could quadruple our service levels. We are far behind when we compare ourselves to other transit agencies nearby, or when we compare ourselves to communities with similar demographics. We could have more van share operations, more car sharing, more bicycles. You can start making the plans for the commuter rail people are asking for. Even if we simply plant the seed now for the next generation, they would have the planning document ready to go. We could make it real.”
Logan acknowledged that his job in coordinating support for a dedicated funding source is made more difficult because of the disparate nature of the Valley. In places like Corpus Christi, Laredo and El Paso, local government largely consists of one county and one city. “In the Valley we have over 40 municipalities we have to deal with. We have five counties. Workforce, metropolitan planning organizations, school districts – you name it, we have to deal with many different agencies.”
Asked where the greatest need for more bus services are, Logan said colonias and rural areas. “There are no funding sources in those areas to help us to get the transportation services to them.”
Just before the last legislative session started in January 2015, the LRGVDC reached out to the Valley’s state lawmakers and asked for an additional $2 million for bus services. This would have doubled Valley Metro’s operating budget. The delegation was not able to get it.
Asked if LRGVDC would be asking the Valley legislative delegation to help secure more funding in the next session, which starts in January, 2017, Logan said: “We will go again and request support from the delegation. Hopefully, we will be successful in taking transportation services to the next level. That $2 million would have put more buses out there, put more vans into the colonias and the rural areas.”
At every LRGVDC board meeting, Logan gives an update on how things are going with Valley Metro. He is like a broken record. He always reports that ridership is up. “The demand and the need is there. If we added more routes, more services, more people would benefit.”
Asked what his message to the general public is, Logan said: “We want the community to either use the service or promote it though their families and peers. Public transportation is here in the Valley. Reach out to us. We will find a way to help you.”