WESLACO, RGV – Valley Metro buses will offer free fares starting March 1 for a six-month duration, the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council has announced.
The council of government for Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties has taken the decision in order to enhance awareness of regional public transportation and to analyze rider trends for future service changes.
In an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, LRGVDC Executive Director Ron Garza said move will also provide business advertisement opportunities and will help promote a free mobile app by Double Map where riders can track buses in real time.
“We are really excited, we are going to start capitalizing and utilizing more advertisement space,” Garza said.
“We want to analyze where riders will rise or decline potentially, to then meet with city leaders and discuss the potential of where we need to invest in more routes.”
Garza said the project will be analyzed at the four- or six-month mark to determine if free public transportation should be part of the Valley’s future.
“If it proves to be successful, if it’s something we can sustain, that may end up being the future: public transportation, for free.”
Garza also told the Rio Grande Guardian that discussions about a ‘light rail system’ for the Valley have begun in earnest. However, he said this can only be successful if a public transit system with buses is well established in all the areas that need public transportation.
“That’s what we want to do first, ensure that our infrastructure of buses is as efficient as possible and to lay down the framework. We refer to it as that spine through the Valley between Brownsville and McAllen,” he said.
“But then Valley Metro really connects through those arteries, we really need to go further, we need to go into the colonias and into the rural areas, so hopefully this will help.”
Garza said Valley Metro’s leadership has looked at VIA Metropolitan Transit in San Antonio and Corpus Christi’s Regional Transportation Authority for inspiration. He also said Valley Metro has started meeting on a monthly basis with other Valley public transit providers to ensure single-link transfers for riders and to potentially have the other service providers adopt Valley Metro’s system. Those other providers are the cities of Brownsville, McAllen, and South Padre Island.
“If you need to go from one end of the Valley to the next, the rider will potentially hop on different providers,” Garza said.
“It is good that we have different service providers but from a messaging standpoint we need to be seamless, as one.”
Garza added that a five million-dollar fund request from Valley Metro that is currently before the 85th Legislature still stands, as the money will be used to invest in the future of transportation in the region. State Rep. Armando Martinez, D-Weslaco, vice-chair of the House Committee on Transportation, is carrying the legislation. If the funding is appropriated, Garza said, bus services that connect higher education institutions in the Valley can be expanded.
“We want to ensure that with any fund request, we maximize everything, with everything that we have now and hopefully later in the future,” Garza said.
“The money does not just go to one entity, wherever you put those funds it is going to have a ripple effect to all the entities because we are going to ensure that they are seamless.”
Garza said it was difficult to begin the process of expanding public transit services.
Nonetheless, he said he now has full support from key stakeholders throughout the Valley.
“Public transportation is key. When we started the regional road coalition we had some folks that maybe weren’t ready for that discussion,” Garza said.
“But once they came to the understanding that it is a progressive process and we want to make sure that we start at the foundation, people saw that and said ‘we can support that’.”
Valley Metro’s investment in services the western end of the Valley was recognized at the Starr County State of the County 2017 address by County Judge Eloy Vera on Tuesday evening.
Vera said: “Starr County was able to broker almost free transportation with Valley Metro for anyone needing transportation to the Valley, especially our STC students, students from Roma and Rio Grande City campus, where they can continue on to the McAllen and Weslaco, campuses, so they are able to take classes anywhere and not have to worry about transportation.”