Bus stop: Pasadena transit service grinding to a halt

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by Doug Miller / KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on August 7, 2012 at 7:37 PM

Updated Tuesday, Aug 7 at 7:40 PM

HOUSTON -- A couple of years ago, Edward Escamilla finally began engaging in what he considered a luxury, an activity a lot of people either dread, or just take for granted:  At long last, he started riding the bus.

“I get on the bus right across the street from where I live at,” he said.  “And then from there, I go to the Shell Federal Credit Union and then the Walmart.  I do my banking and a little shopping.”

The bus line that began running through Pasadena almost two years ago has been a vast improvement over pedaling around the streets on his bicycle, Escamilla said.  But within a matter of weeks, his easy ride will come to an end.

Pasadena plans to drop the contract that keeps the buses on the road, once again, leaving the city of about 150,000 people with no mass transit system.

“I don’t know why they would do that because every year there’s been more and more people riding on it,” Escamilla said.

That sentiment is echoed by others who’ve come to depend on the nascent bus service.  Hundreds of them crowded into a public hearing, at which Harris County officials listened and empathized, but ultimately said their hands were tied by Pasadena’s city government.

“I have one grandson who has autism,” said Molly Lang, who brought her two grandchildren to the meeting.  “And this is his independence.  He’ll never be able to drive.  And there are other young men in our neighborhood that have disabilities that this is the only way they have to get around.” 

Pasadena sits in a large swath of east Harris County that opted out of Metro, which provides mass transit for Houston and many of its surrounding communities.  But in January 2010, Pasadena teamed with LaPorte and San Jacinto College to pay for bus service run by Harris County Transit, a little known branch of the county government.  Since then, a small fleet of buses—actually, they look more like airport vans—has attracted a steadily growing base of riders that now numbers around 3,800 a month.

The service originally cost the communities $495,000 a year, county officials say, but federal grants dropped the projected cost for next year to $290,500.  Pasadena’s share of that cost would have amounted to about $150,000 a year.

Still, Pasadena decided to drop the contract, reasoning that the ridership didn’t justify even the reduced cost.

“We checked ridership,” said Sarah Benavidez, the city’s planning director.  “The county provides us ridership.  And looking at the numbers, the cost and the feasibility of continuing the service just didn’t exist.”

Riders who came to the meeting—many of them on buses provided by a local interfaith ministry group—argued that the city government should find the money to keep the small transit system running.  Some of them even citied statistics, pointing out that county officials said the ridership grew 76 percent from 2010 to 2011.

“There are people who ride it to doctors’ offices and things,” Lang said. “And Pasadena, for many years, has needed a bus service.”

Harris County Transit officials agreed and told people in the meeting they needed to contact their mayor and city council members.  They also pointed out that they sent Pasadena officials a letter advising them that federal funds might basically pay for the bus service, offering them $2 in street funds for every $1 they spent on the bus service.  In the end, they advised, Pasadena could get free buses and make another $1.5 million for public works projects.

“That was not a guarantee,” Benavidez said.  “It was a possibility that could happen.”

Unless Pasadena’s city government changes its mind, the city’s bus service will come to a halt on Sept. 1.

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