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Featured: $719,000 in federal funding is being requested by the City of Edinburg, through Valley Metro, for two electric (battery-powered) bus trolleys – similar in design to this vehicle operated  by Laguna Beach Transit in California – that would serve Edinburg’s downtown area and increase business and commerce for dozens of retail shops, restaurants, and offices around and near the Hidalgo County Courthouse. 

Photograph Courtesy https://hometowntrolley.com/trolleys/villager

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City pledges $126,000 in bid to secure additional $719,000 from Federal Transportation Administration for downtown bus trolleys, Edinburg EDC announces

By DAVID A. DÍAZ
Legislativemedia@aol.com

A plan by the Edinburg City Council to establish a downtown bus trolley system, which would serve thousands of people who work, live, shop and own businesses in that key region, remains on the right road, the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation has announced.

On Tuesday, June 19, 2018, the Edinburg Mayor and City Council City Council approved committing $126,000 as a local match for an innovative federal program that through Valley Metro – if approved by the Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) – would provide an additional $719,000 to establish the first-ever downtown bus routes in the local community.

The $126,000 local match, which was part of a city resolution, is officially known as a letter of commitment required by the federal government, and would come from the FTA’s Low or No Emission (Low-No) Bus Program. The Low-No program supports projects sponsored by transit agencies to bring advanced, American-made bus technologies such as battery electric power and hydrogen fuel cells into service nationwide.

A decision on the city’s request for the $719,000 federal funding is expected to be announced later this summer or early fall. If fully-funded by the FTA, and combined with the city’s $126,000 local match, the bus trolley service would represent a total investment of $845,000.

The proposal calls for Edinburg acquiring access to two Villager (or similar) electric bus trolleys, valued at $740,000 (FTA award of $629,000, Edinburg match of $111,000), with an additional $105,000 (FTA award of $90,000), Edinburg match of $15,000) for support equipment and training

Valley Metro, which is part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council (LRGVDC), provides public bus transportation in Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Zapata counties, linking the major cities, as well as The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley campuses throughout the Valley.

The Edinburg EDC, of which Joey Treviño is the Executive Director, is the jobs-creation arm of Mayor Molina, Mayor Pro-Tem David Torres, Councilmember Homer Jasso, Jr., Councilmember Gilbert Enríquez, and Councilmember Jorge Salinas.

The Edinburg EDC Board of Directors is comprised of Councilmember Enríquez as President, Edinburg School Board Trustee Miguel “Mike” Farías as Vice-President, Councilmember Salinas as Secretary/Treasurer, and Mayor Molina and Mayor Pro Tem Torres as Members.

The idea of an inner-city bus trolley service was first brought up by Enríquez on Tuesday, February 27, 2018, during the regular monthly meeting of the Board of Directors for the Edinburg EDC, which was held at Edinburg City Hall.

Sonia Marroquín, Edinburg Assistant City Manager, has been helping spearhead the mayor’s and city councilmembers’ strategies to continue improving transportation and business in their hometown.

“Edinburg is committed to introducing electric trolleys in the downtown area, since this invitation supports Edinburg’s City Council’s vision for an Inner-City trolley bus service designed to increase prosperity for downtown restaurants and other businesses,” Marroquín stated on Friday, June 8, 2018, in her correspondence to Ron Garza, the LRGVDC’s Executive Director. “Please accept this letter as demonstration of commitment from the City of Edinburg in allocating budget funds in the amount of $126,000 for the 2018-2020 fiscal years. The funds will be utilized as local match towards the Federal Transportation (FTA) grant for the Low to No (Low-No) Program.”

The Edinburg Low Emission Bus Program would also ease congestion and encourage other modes of transportation, she added.

“The main purpose of the Low-No Program is to support the transition of the nation’s transit fleet to the lowest pollution and most energy efficient transit vehicles,” Marroquín explained. “The Low-No Program provides funding to State and local governmental authorities for the purchase or lease of zero-emission and low-emission transit buses, including acquisition, construction, and leasing or required supporting facilities.”

Late last February, Enríquez raised the possibility of the downtown trolley bus service, which would provide the large number of persons who gather daily at the Hidalgo County Courthouse, with a fixed route that would conveniently and affordably transport them back and forth to dozens of nearby businesses, which serve as the heart of the city’s downtown economy.

“There are a lot of people who work in the courthouse who don’t want to go to the parking lot, get their cars, then try to find parking where the restaurants are located, where they probably won’t find parking, and they can’t do all that within their lunch hour,” Enríquez illustrated. “One of the things I think would be beneficial would be to have some type of bus trolley system just for the downtown area. Since we  are soon going to open the Edinburg Transit Terminal nearby, could Valley Metro help our downtown residents and businesses?”

The Edinburg Transit Terminal’s location at 617 W. University Drive between 6th and 7th streets strategically places it near institutions, facilities, and businesses which draw thousands of visitors daily during the workweek from throughout deep South Texas.

The Edinburg Transit Terminal is tentatively scheduled to open later this summer or early this fall.

The 15,000-square-foot, two-story Edinburg Transit Terminal, which is being built on a 1.2 acre site donated by the Edinburg EDC, is located between The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and Edinburg City Hall. It will serve as a home for Valley Metro.

Enríquez shared his hopes with LRGVDC’s Ron Garza, which administers Valley Metro, and Tom Logan, Executive Director of Valley Metro, who during the Tuesday, February 27, 2018 Edinburg EDC board meeting were presenting an update to the Edinburg EDC Board of Directors on the Edinburg Transit Terminal.

“One of the things that we have had discussions a while back was having a trolley bus service for just our downtown square and area, where the courthouse is,” Enríquez reflected. “The logic behind that is to help the businesses, especially the restaurants around the courthouse, to survive.”

Enríquez was concerned that many courthouse employees and visitors are discouraged from dining or shopping at downtown businesses because of the high risk of losing their parking spaces, which are in high demand during the work week around the courthouse complex.

Garza said such a concept “is a great, forwarding-thinking idea,” and said he would instruct Valley Metro’s expert staff, under Logan’s leadership, to come up with ways to achieve such a goal.

“We would have to explore it, we could look at it,” Garza. “I think it is a feasible project. It just becomes to the administration of how we do it.”

Enríquez encouraged Garza and Logan to provide their expert guidance.

“If we can definitely look into it and just review it, and see if it is a possibility, because I think that’s something that can benefit the downtown area, especially all the businesses around the courthouse,” Enríquez emphasized.

“Yes, it sounds like it. I agree,” Garza replied. “We would call it a kind of ‘city looper’ – a dedicated service per your specs, for businesses, things like that.”

Garza added that Valley Metro, in coordination with the City of Edinburg and Edinburg EDC, would determine what would be the routes serving the downtown region, at what times, on what days, how often would those vehicles be in operation, how much would it cost, and how would money be generated to cover the costs.

“It starts with getting the scope of what you envision, then turning that into a proposal that goes in this transportation improvement plan. Once that gets approved, then we actually figure out the administration, that kind of thing,” Garza said.

Garza said there are buses made to look like the famous San Francisco Cable Cars so passengers know they will transport them within a limited area.

“The trolley facade (appearance) is just a way to communicate visually that it is an inner-city loop kind of route. That’s why usually they look different, so passengers are not worried about jumping on one and ending up 10 miles across town,” he continued. “By looking like a trolley, it tells you it is staying within a proximity.”

Grant applications for funding inner-city bus service using trolley buses for the downtown area are available, but at least one other option is available that could be put into place sooner rather than later.

“If we really wanted a sense of urgency, there’s other things we can do, and it might not actually be a trolley. We can use an existing route, and basically modify an existing route, same thing, calculate how much operations that would entail, and then customize an existing route,” Garza said. “That could be a short-term solution to actually getting the dedicated trolley system and that kind of thing.”

The Federal Transportation Agency, on its website, provides the following additional background on the  Low or No Emission (Low-No) Bus Program:

• Residents of cities and towns across the country deserve clean air and efficient transit options. America’s entrepreneurs and forward-thinking transit manufacturers have the knowledge and innovative spirit to make both a reality.

• Projects will be evaluated by criteria defined in federal law and in the Notice of Funding Opportunity, including the applicant’s demonstration of need; the project’s anticipated reductions in energy consumption compared to standard buses; and local strategy and capacity for implementing the project; and

• Eligible projects include purchasing or leasing low- or no-emission buses, acquiring low- or no-emission buses with a leased power source, constructing or leasing facilities and related equipment (including intelligent technology and software) for low- or no-emission buses, constructing new public transportation facilities to accommodate low- or no-emission buses, and rehabilitating or improving existing public transportation facilities to accommodate low- or no-emission buses.

“FTA is proud to support investment in the next generation of transit buses, which will help riders across the country get to work, school, and other important destinations more comfortably and efficiently,” said FTA Executive Director Matthew Welbes. “The Low-No program exemplifies FTA’s commitment to spurring innovation in public transportation.”

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For more information on the Edinburg Economic Development Corporation and the City of Edinburg, please log on to http://edinburgedc.com.

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