McALLEN -- On February 21, something remarkable happened in McAllen. Seven new buses began their travels around the streets of McAllen, bringing a new logo and a new sense of dignity to all involved, including the citizens of the city.
Deciding to take a bus ride to finish research on this story, I headed out for a nearby bus stop, wondering what the adventure would bring. Much to my surprise, climbing on at a stop were members of Camp University, friends of mine.
“The buses are state of the art. They have air conditioning, beautiful seats. They’re clean,” said Lena Carrera, Director, Camp University, an organization providing unique opportunities and life lessons to young adults with special needs. “The other buses were a little run down, no air conditioning and not even the seats worked. We’ve seen many people in their wheelchairs get on these buses with the lift and hook in for safety. More and more we’re seeing different people on the buses.”
Taking the bus has become a regular means of transportation for this active group and bus riding even gave them a lesson.
“The very first time we rode last March there was a gentleman who must have been in his 60s with Down Syndrome with his uniform and lunch box. He was a janitor at Our Lady of Sorrows,” said Lena, animatedly. “It was a blessing to see him, at his age, being able to be independent. That told us what we were doing was the right thing - teaching the students to be as independent as possible.”
Much has happened to the McAllen Express Transit (MET) since the city took it over in 2005.
“The first day we ran the service we had bumpers which were tied on to the bus with plastic bags from the previous agency which was managing it,” said Elizabeth Suarez, transit director. “It’s been an uphill battle for the last five years.”
That day in February brought out the “pride” in everyone - city staff, chamber staff, bus drivers and citizens.
“I’m very proud of this development with the city. It’s probably the happiest day that I ever had in my life,” said Geraldo Rodriguez, transit operator, sitting in the driver’s seat of a new bus in their new uniform. Working for Greyhound Bus Line for 30 years, Geraldo has worked for McAllen Transit for three years and likes it. “And now I’m going to like it even more!”
The new buses are a major step in upgrading the current metro system.
“We talk about high congestion on our roads,” Suarez said. “Getting 40 people out of 40 cars and on a bus is a way to alleviate traffic congestion, get cleaner air and help them save money from the high cost of gas.”
Currently, they are working on decreasing their headway time - from point of origin to point of destination. Currently all buses hub - a center point where buses meet - out of the downtown station causing up to a 50 to 60 minute headway time. Planning new hubs in the north end of the city would help them bring that time down to a 30 minute headway time with an ultimate goal of enough hubs to have a deadhead - point of origin, out and back - time of 15 minutes. Easily, this could create great incentives to taking the bus.
Another reason for getting more hubs established is a long term goal of local rail. First, however, bus routes need to carry 3,000 people daily.
“We need to be able to put ruber out on the streets before you can put tracks to work,” she said with emphasis.
“Our system is still in its early stages,” said Suarez. “However, there are so many people here with need, it’s incredible. There are people in the restaurant industry, service industry, moms with their kids going to the doctor, the elderly riding the transit.”
One area the transit department isn’t slack in is their program for those in need.
“We offer extensive service to people on dialysis and chemo. We have a specialized vehicle which goes to their home and picks them up right in front. We’ll take them to radiation or dialysis for 50 cents. We will allow them to sit with us and plan their medical treatments for the next month - what we call Prescription Service. This could also be if they are disabled and have to work and they’re in a wheelchair and have a schedule to meet. We have zero denial on that system which makes us very proud.”
Available for the elderly is a program for them to register on the ADA, Adults with Disabilities Act. With about 400 people registered, they offer between 25 to 35 trips daily, using the bus, their paratransit van or administrative car.
“We have those on medical care on the service. When they’re weak after treatment, we make sure there is someone there to pick them up on time and take them home. It costs us $3 each trip a passenger takes with gas prices, maintenance costs, insurance costs, driver’s salary and benefits,” she said.
The department makes cuts when they can. The new electronic fare boxes have helped.
“I don’t have to have clerks dedicated to counting actual tickets and reconciling that with cash, a four hour job. Now two clerks come in and process the days work in one hour.”
“Basically the fare box validates coins and bills,” Mario Delgado, transit manager, said. “The machine will read the coins or bills and tell the passenger how much they’ve inserted and whether they’re short on their fare or not. Fare evasion will be minimized.”
Suarez likes to tell of a lady who works for Noreste Bus Company, one of the 11 bus companies working out of the McAllen terminal.
“She always said the U.S. bus companies had the ‘Greyhound Disease.’ When I asked about that she said, ‘Everybody in the U.S. bus business is bitten by that disease. They’re late. They’re dressed down. They’re very nonchalant. The passenger needs them and they don’t need the passenger. In Mexico we don’t have that bug. There’s so much competition. You’ve got to stand out. You have to be better than the rest to really get the business and the traveler’s understand that.’”
Making a “new” start with their modern buses they’ve changed their name to the McAllen Metro and have a dynamic organization.
“We’ve been able to put a team together who is passionate about this. Our drivers are coming in every day since they have this electronic system. ‘Today we had 1700 riders. Tomorrow we want to have 1720!’” Suarez said, grinning.
Fares are being evaluated with daily, weekly and monthly passes being discussed. Currently the $1.00/ride with a 50 cent ride offered to seniors 60 and over, students and disabled. The United Way has purchased vouchers and passes them out to the health and human services centers around the city for those who meet the requirements.
Telling stories of riders, being in the midst of their clientele, gives Swarez pause.
“We struggle on a daily basis dealing with the people and their stories. It’s a tough world. You’ve got to straddle the two different worlds in this industry,” she said. “There’s a very emotional side attached to this business and then there’s a business.”
Striving to upgrade - the terminal will be re-landscaped this year - Suarez takes it all in stride and loves her job.
“We are the only department in this whole city which enjoys the gratitude that comes with having a job like this. We’re the only ones that, throughout the day, can walk out to the front of our building and watch the lives that this system gives to so many people."
“The independence that it gives to moms that don’t have cars, people that don’t have ways of getting to their medical appointments, people in the retail or restaurant industry who don’t have cars. We’re the only ones that have that luxury of saying, ‘We make a difference!’”