El Paso, Texas, holds a number of distinctions: the state’s only major city in a separate time zone, the only city that borders both a foreign country and another U.S. state, and perennial bragging rights as one of the nation’s safest cities.
But when it comes to public transportation, the El Paso region is pretty much like anywhere else. The county’s transit agency faces increasing demands from a rapidly growing population, including older and disabled residents impeded by long travel distances to medical care and social services.
County officials have explored the feasibility of a seamless countywide transit system and assessed the potential to improve service for access to jobs, health care, education and other personal needs. Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) researchers supported the county by looking at service, funding and governance options.
El Paso County Transit bus routes link the many communities across the region, and all routes connect with transfer centers for Sun Metro, which serves the city of El Paso. In 2017, service on six county bus routes provided about 135,000 rides annually. A vanpool service is also available, along with intercity service between El Paso and Las Cruces, N.M. Slightly more than half of the county’s rural population currently has access to transit.
“The County of El Paso has advocated for regional transit service for over 15 years,” says Vince Perez, El Paso County commissioner for Precinct 3. “However, the lack of research data often prevented the region from having a dialogue to discuss partnerships related to such a critical service. Since the findings were presented to the county, we have been meeting with all of our region’s municipalities to take significant steps to establish a formal partnership for regional transit service by fiscal year 2020.”
Unincorporated areas of El Paso County are growing at a rate far faster than the rest of the region, so the demand for transit and other services is growing quickly as well, according to TTI Research Scientist Michael Walk.
Walk and the research team employed a robust public involvement process, using a series of open houses to collect input on transit connectivity and opportunities to help inform policy recommendations. Participants completed surveys, wrote comments on wall posters, and offered opinions on current service levels and areas of the county that needed additional service. TTI researchers also visited local transit transfer centers and universities to collect additional feedback.
Common themes emerging from public feedback included needing more dedicated bus stops, concerns about fares and transfers, access to schedules, needs of elderly riders, and preference for a single, consolidated transit agency rather than two. Researchers also collected feedback on how future open houses could be more productive, convenient and accessible.
“Benefits of improving regional transit service extend beyond those who actually use the service,” Walk says. “Local businesses, employment centers and health care providers stand to benefit as well.”
Researchers determined a transit need index based on four demographic factors: population over age 65, population below the poverty level, households with a disabled person, and households with no vehicle available. A transit supply index was based on the percentage of geographic areas with transit coverage, average bus trips per stop, days of service, and hours of operation. Researchers also established transit service guidelines to address routing, frequency, transfers and other priority considerations.
“The need is there,” Walk says. “So it’s important for the service to work better for the residents of the county.”
Researchers developed six countywide service scenarios and presented potential funding options that could draw from federal and state sources, fare revenues, or other local government funds. Walk says that county officials and other local leaders are now collaborating to determine the service scenario funding and governance framework that best fits the region’s requirements.
“The partnership with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute has proved invaluable to the County of El Paso,” says Jose M. Landeros, the county’s director of planning and development. “The findings in the report provide an example of the high-quality product multiple agencies, including the county, have come to rely on for a variety of transportation needs. The county now has a significant opportunity to create discourse on the importance of regional transit.”