WESLACO, RGV – TxDOT has asked the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council if it could expand its Valley Metro bus service into Starr and Zapata counties and the council of government has said “yes.”
TxDOT stepped in after being notified that the non-profit Community Action Council of South Texas, based in Rio Grande City, could no longer continue to run its Rainbow Line bus service.
The Rainbow Line ran “demand-response” and “fixed route” services in Starr, Zapata, Jim Hogg and Duval counties. While Valley Metro will pick up the slack in Starr and Zapata counties, the service in Jim Hogg and Duval counties will now be taken on by REAL (Rural Economic Assistance League) Transit out of Alice, Texas. REAL currently operates in Jim Wells and Brooks counties.
The switch in contractors starts June 1.
“Our initial call came from TxDOT saying they had this dilemma. They were losing the provider and they were looking for transit agencies around the area that would be interested in providing the service,” said Tom Logan, executive director of Valley Metro. “The last day for Community Action Council of South Texas to operate their service will be May 31. We will take over on June 1. I want to assure passengers there will be no interruption in service.”
Logan said he has no plans to change the scheduled service in the short term. “Initially, for a three-month transition period, we will run the same buses and the same lines. During this time we will evaluate the service and see how we can improve upon it. We will also start informing the public about a rebranding over to Valley Metro.”
Logan said Rainbow Lines has 32 buses and 30 employees – drivers, dispatch and administration staff. “It is a demand-response service for the most part, Monday through Friday, 8 to 5.”
Valley Metro currently operates close to 50 buses in Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties. He said the bus company will get reimbursed by the state for operating a service in Starr and Zapata counties. “It is formula funded, based on population and demand. Come September we will get a new budget, a new allocation to provide a full service in Starr and Zapata counties.”
Asked if he could ever have imagined Valley Metro running a transit system in Starr and Zapata, counties that have a different council of government, Logan said: “No, I never imagined we would do this but we welcome the opportunity. I think it is something the general public needs. The people of Starr and Zapata counties need a bus service for medical, for work. We put our users at the forefront.”
Asked if the service in Starr and Zapata counties would be temporary, just to cover an emergency situation, Logan said no. “We are in this for the long haul, until TxDOT tells us not to. There is a big demand from the workforce, not only from Rio Grande City but also from Roma into the McAllen urbanized area. We heard from Judge Vera, he mentioned veterans. He said veterans are having to come from his county all the way to Harlingen for medical services. They are having to pay a huge amount right now for transportation. Once we start inter-lining and creating the seamless transportation they will have a good way of getting to Harlingen at a reasonable fair. The veterans are going to get looked after.”
The Judge Vera Logan was referring to is Starr County Judge Eloy Vera. “We are not only going to go to Rio Grande City, which is already connected to McAllen, but to Roma also. We want to incorporate Roma into the Starr County connection, all the way to McAllen,” Logan said.
As for Zapata County, Logan said this bus service will be in “Part Two” of Valley Metro’s planning. “We want to work with our private partners, who run the coaches in the Valley, to see if we can increase the level of service. Right now the only provider is Greyhound, which provides one trip from Brownsville to Laredo and it is close to $35 each way and it is only on offer once a day. There are already three vans assigned to cover Zapata County. They are going to continue to operate. We are going to look for room for improvement, if there is any there, to maximize the resources that are being spent. We want to make it easier for the user – that is the main objective.”
With Valley Metro set to run a bus service stretching from Brownsville to Zapata, it is not a stretch to think of a Brownsville to Laredo service. Logan agreed. “We are going to be visiting with the folks in Laredo, letting them know that we are now running the service and that we want to coordinate the service between the communities down the Rio Grande,” he said.
Logan added: “We are very pleased to providing a service to Starr and Zapata counties. It is an excellent opportunity to provide an even better service. We will continue to market the service, inform the public about what is coming and hopefully they can help us pass the word that there is service up and down the Rio Grande all the way into Starr and Zapata counties.”
Rose Benavidez, president of Starr County Industrial Foundation, said she knows Starr County Judge Vera has been working closely with Logan and the LRGVDC.
“We are very pleased Valley Metro is going to be operating in Starr counties for a number of reasons. People here rely on public transportation for their medical needs and for work. Our veterans need the service and we are also tied in to having our residents use the service to move from campus to campus at South Texas College,” Benavidez said. “I know the discussions on behalf of the county were not only to ensure that services were not interrupted but that there would be a way to keep the costs as affordable as they have been. I know it was very much appreciated by the entire county and the leadership. We are looking forward to building a relationship (with Valley Metro and LRGVDC) and looking into this next budget year to see how, potentially, the service can grow.”
Benavidez said Rainbow was providing an adequate service. “I think the challenge was more related to the umbrella company they were tied into. This opens up a much larger line that allows public transportation to come further into our county. That opportunity was not there before,” she said.
Asked if communications between the Valley and Laredo would be enhanced with Valley Metro moving into Starr and Zapata counties, Benavidez said: “Absolutely. We are always looking at ourselves as a region and giving people an opportunity to go from Brownsville to Laredo will help. In a rural area it will open up a lot of opportunities for someone who is trying to go into a larger city for different services that might not be available to them at home.”
Benavidez reiterated that Starr County leaders were determined not only to not lose their bus service but also to expand opportunities. “I know the Judge and the Commissioners’ Court were very active in ensuring that we found a partner that would not just continue with the service but grow it.”
Benavidez, who is also a trustee at South Texas College, said there was more good news on the bus service front for Starr County.
“With South Texas College’s JAG Express, we are going to add a stop in Roma, which we did not have before. That will bring students from Roma to the campus in Rio Grande City and then there is a stop in the eastern part of the county and from there they can go to Pecan, Nursing, Tech or Weslaco. They will have the option to go to every one of our campuses. I have already heard from a number of people who would rather ride the Jag Express and use that time for studying and last minute preps. More importantly it will allow them to save some dollars. It will really help those families that only have one car.”
Benavidez said she expects the extend JAG Express service to start it in the summer.