WESLACO, RGV – A legislative push to secure an additional $2 million to allow Valley Metro to expand bus services into the Rio Grande Valley’s largest colonias has failed.

The Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council had made the funding request one of its top two agenda items for the 84th legislative session. The RGV Equal Voice Network also pushed hard to secure the $2 million. Had the funding request made it into the state budget for the next biennium, the funding stream for Valley Metro would have doubled.

“I want to say a big thank you to the Rio Grande Valley delegation for all the hard work and effort they put in to legislation and budget recommendations to improve the quality of life in the region,” said Ken Jones, executive director of the LRGVDC, the council of government for Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties.

Ken Jones
Ken Jones

“Unfortunately, the rider to include $2 million a year for two years as a pilot project to expand bus services in the rural areas of the region and to expand inter-connectivity with education institutions was not included in the state budget. It is a blow but we will continue to work with our Valley delegation and others to seek potentially other sources of revenue to get this effort off the ground.”

Asked why the rider did not make it into the state budget for 2016-17, Jones said: “Anything to do with increasing the budget is hard to get passed these days.”

The other top agenda item for the COG was legislation authored by state Sen. Eddie Lucio to allow regional councils of governments, with the support of their respective local governments, to create regional 9-1-1 communication districts. This legislation was passed and has been signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott.

Currently, Valley Metro, which is administered by the LRGVDC, has an annual budget of about $2 million. Valley Metro Executive Director Tom Logan told the Rio Grande Guardian earlier in the legislative session that securing an additional $2 million in funding could have led to a doubling of ridership on Valley Metro buses.

“There is no doubt this is our No. 1 legislative issue this session. It would double our funding. It is huge,” Logan told the Rio Grande Guardian in early April.

Logan said the rider would have provided Valley Metro with an additional $2 million per year to extend the level of service for the current Valley Metro system, plus allow for the addition of more services to colonias and rural areas. He said the funds would also have allowed Valley Metro to inter-connect all the campuses of the universities and colleges in region, such as South Texas College in McAllen, Weslaco and Rio Grande City, UT-Pan American in Edinburg, Texas State Technical College in Harlingen, UT-Brownsville and Texas Southmost in Brownsville.

Providing bus routes into the Valley’s largest colonias has been a goal of Logan’s for a number of years. However, up until now he has not had the funding to do it.

“Serving the colonias has always been one of our target areas. If we get the additional $2 million we will be able to launch smaller buses for a demand-response or car-sharing program. We want to get very creative with this funding and make sure we address the needs of colonia residents,” Logan told the Rio Grande Guardian in April.

Asked which colonias he would be focusing on, Logan said: “We are looking at the bigger colonia areas in Hidalgo County – the ones with 500 or over homes or maybe 250-plus homes, such as those in Alton, Little Mexico and Tower. They do not have a direct service and we see the need for a direct service to those areas and linking it to the main routes.”

Providing a bus route into the colonias does not just help residents get to work. It also mothers to get to large supermarkets with a full array of fresh fruit and vegetables. Reporter Eli Saslow won awards for his coverage in the Washington Post of the Rio Grande Valley’s “food deserts.” His big feature was called “Too much of too little. A diet fueled by food stamps is making South Texans obese but leaving them hungry.”

Logan said providing a bus service will allow colonia parents to make it to a supermarket, and not have to rely on convenience stores, corner shops or mini marts for their groceries. “We will give them that bridge to get to those locations so they buy their groceries at the bigger establishments, the establishments they do not have in the colonias.”

Amber Arriaga-Salinas
Amber Arriaga-Salinas

RGV Equal Voice threw its weight behind Valley Metro’s efforts to secure an additional $2 million to expand its bus services between Valley colleges and universities and into the larger colonias. The group started a petition to secure thousands of signatures to show the Valley’s support for Valley Metro’s No. 1 legislative agenda item.

“The RGV Equal Voice Network believes that there is a great need for public transportation in our region. We serve so many families that live in rural areas and struggle with getting to work, school or even doctor’s appointments because they do not have safe and reliable transportation and this initiative will finally give some of our larger rural populations that option,” RGV Equal Voice leader Amber Arriaga-Salinas, told the Rio Grande Guardian in April.

Asked why Valley Metro’s legislative request was important, Equal Voice’s Arriaga-Salinas said: “Valley Metro’s current services are an amazing asset for the community; the college/university expansion brings us, especially families in rural areas one step closer to developing a full scale regional transportation system.”

Arriaga-Salinas added: “When I think back to the time I attended Pan Am, I know there were students who didn’t have a car, whose families shared one car or who didn’t have enough gas money to make it to class; this pilot program could change that and give students the opportunity to get to where they need to be.”

Editor’s Note: In the main photo accompanying this story, Valley Metro Executive Director Tom Logan is pictured with one of his buses.