On September 7th, CM2 (Cooperative Mobility for Competitive Megaregion) Texas Southern University (TSU) researchers sponsored a full-day workshop in Round Top, TX with stakeholders from along the 290 Corridor to discuss increasing travel options for vulnerable communities in the Texas Triangle megaregion. Workshop participants included representatives from Brazos Valley Council of Governments, Bryan/College Station Metropolitan Planning Organization, Houston-Galveston Area Council, Harris County Rides, Capital Area Rural Transportation System (CARTS), and the Texas Central Bullet Train. The workshop began with CM2’s Assistant Director for Research, Lisa Loftus-Otway, describing CM2’s purpose and introducing attendees to its member institutions.
Dr. Carol Lewis, Professor and Emeritus Director of the Center for Transportation, Training, and Research (CTTR), and Dr. Gwendolyn Goodwin, Assistant Professor and Interim Director with CTTR, at TSU focused their Year-1 CM2 funded project along the 290 corridor that connects Houston and Austin. As a part of their project, “Creating a Framework to Determine Purpose and Need for Increased Travel Options in the Megaregion for Vulnerable (Environmental Justice) Communities”, they have been gathering data to define transportation gaps in non-urban areas.
Purpose and need for transportation funding are typically defined by some level of congestion or lack of safety. But how should decision makers quantify transportation needs in non-urban areas where congestion is not necessarily an issue? For vulnerable communities in rural areas, factors such as cost, accessibility, and lack of internet/web access will continue to be barriers for transportation. As Dr. Lewis put it, “it is difficult to prove purpose and need when the need is simply that people need to get around.”
To address this issue, Dr. Lewis and Dr. Goodwin are creating a rubric style tool to allow smaller, vulnerable communities to have a greater chance of receiving federal funding. Having this type of data will allow both academics and professionals in the industry to layer transportation options to address gaps in megaregional corridors.
At the workshop, Lisa Loftus-Otway also presented her research project, “Issues in Setting an MPO Process for Megaregion and Multi-Jurisdiction Planning in the Texas Triangle”. Ms. Loftus-Otway’s research maps out MPO planning processes and operating procedures to see where discrepancies may lie within the Texas Triangle megaregion. It also provides recommendations to enable MPOs to plan transportation investments on a megaregion scale, such as formalizing a megaregional planning focus between the MPOs and TxDOT during the next execution of planning agreements and using a megaregional framework to prioritize projects within the Metropolitan Transportation Plan.
Lack of rural transit options is a serious public health issue. As Dan Rudge from the Bryan/College Station Metropolitan Planning Organization pointed out, living far from medical care creates a number of problems. Not only does it hinder proper care but it also means that vulnerable individuals are paying the highest price for transportation to travel home when they are discharged. Increasing rural transit options could mean the difference between life and death for many vulnerable individuals. As Robert Anders of Harris County Rides explained, “[in the transportation industry] we may not save lives, but we take people to where they save lives.”
Transit agencies that serve rural areas want to address deficiencies, but can be limited by lack of funding that results from lack of data. As Michael Parks from the Brazos Valley Council of Governments commented, “the funding is simply not there for us to have the capacity we need.” On top of that, transit agencies are also having trouble keeping transit drivers throughout the state. But transit agencies are doing everything they can to serve their communities despite limited resources. As Dave Marsh from CARTS said, “what you have in the rural transit industry is a lot of people who care.”
Of course, the public sector does not need to go it alone. Michael Moore from the Texas Central Bullet Train discussed private sector interest in megaregion transit service. The Texas Central Bullet Train will provide high-speed rail access along the Dallas-Houston corridor. The corridor was chosen as the site of the first private high-speed rail corridor after a study of 97 city pairings, in which the Dallas-Houston pairing came out on top. High-speed rail between Dallas and Houston (including a stop in Brazos Valley) would offer a travel time of less than 90 minutes with departures every 30 minutes during peak periods of the day, offering Texas Triangle residents a convenient and accessible transportation option between these 3 major areas. It’s possible that this project could lead to increased private investment in other inter-city transit options.
The workshop concluded with a modified SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) activity, in which participants divided into groups and discussed SWOC (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and a call to action.) The call to action prioritized communicating with elected officials. Because most legislators represent rural areas, they are more responsive if you can tie transit issues to rural issues. Other action steps included outreach to the public sector, ensuring flexibility to move money to match transportation goals, and changing public perception of rural transit. Perhaps most importantly, participants agreed that there needs to be continued collaborative engagement between researchers and practitioners.
At the end of the day, workshop organizers asked those present if they felt there would be value to repeating the workshop in a year. The response was a resounding “Yes!”