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When a regional council of governments has an “information meeting” on its transportation services for seniors and handicapped – as it is required to do periodically — only a handful of people show up.
So officials of the Ark-Tex Council of Governments were stunned Friday afternoon when about 30 people responded to a hurriedly put together plea from a group of Paris leaders and overflowed a small sitting room that had seats for six people.
Their message to Ark-Tex COG was plain: Paris needs more than TRAX vans that have to be scheduled 24 hours in advance. Paris needs a citywide public bus system.
“To see this today is, whoa, pretty eye-opening to me,” transportation analyst Bennett Powell told the 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. gathering at Northeast Texas Opportunities Office (N.E.T.O.), at 3605 NE Loop 286, Suite 1800, in Paris.
The posted agenda for the meeting was: “Inform the public on the availability of current transportation services in the Lamar County area. I was going to talk to you about TRAX. We went completely off the rails,” Powell said.
“We didn’t really get many questions about TRAX. Mostly, it was declarative statements that better transportation is needed in Paris. Most of the people who showed up today were people talking about human services issues, medical issues.
“They knew what TRAX was and what services they provided, and they were looking for a higher level of service on behalf of their clients,” he said.
“Everyone wanted to know what if we had a typical bus system that had stops on the street, rode along fixed routes. There was a groundswell of support for something of that nature. That’s all anyone really wanted to talk about,” said Powell, who is out of Austin. “There were a lot of people here today who are pushing for this and who hadn’t necessarily had a way to express their concerns about it until now.”
As a transit professional, Powell said, coming into a city like Paris “and seeing the scale, the density, the amount of people that live here, the amount of services that are in the town, this is a city that is ripe with demand for a higher level of transportation service than currently exists.”
Powell encouraged the crowd.
A couple of other cities in Northeast Texas – Texarkana and Mount Pleasant – have city bus systems.
“Paris is big – not big like Texarkana, which has its own city bus service – but from what I’m hearing today, you would have no problem showing you have the people to justify a bus system,” Powell said.
“This city is big enough for a good bus system. The more people you have in the public who come out and voice their concerns about what a transportation system in Paris would mean, the more likely it is to get done,” he said.
One of the attendants said he would be going to Monday night’s meeting of the Paris City Council and would address the council during the Citizens’ Forum at the start of the 5:30 p.m. meeting.
He encouraged everyone who could to be at the meeting in a show of support for a call for citywide bus service in Paris.
“We will make a request to have this put on the agenda for a future date, for discussion,” he said.
One by one, Powell heard complaints that the TRAX service is not good enough.
Connie Stauter, Coordinator for Community Services for the Paris-Lamar County Health Department, said she had a meeting last year with nurse practitioners “and we were trying to find out what they thought were the barriers to health care. The answer was transportation – people trying to get to doctors or the pharmacies.”
She was surprised, Stauter said.
“I thought they were going to say the biggest problem was the cost of medical care, but it was not. It was transportation,” she said.
Pat Cochran, who has been involved in numerous community initiatives, said: “Transportation is the No. 1 priority for health care access and also a key component of economic development. We know that we will have the support of the government entities to move this forward as quickly as possible. I’m very excited and very willing to support it however possible.”
Kristi Martin, speaking for Paris Regional Medical Center, said those who are brought to the hospital by TRAX vans frequently spend a lot of time at the hospital, either after they arrive or when they’re ready to go home, because of having to schedule trips 24 hours in advance.
April Carl, executive director of United Way in Paris, said of a maid disabled with arthritis: “I’ve seen her walking in the road, and I’ve stopped and picked her up and taken her places because just a two-mile trip to the grocery store costs her $15. That’s her week’s worth of groceries.”
Having city buses that make regular routes through the city “would really impact her life and others like her. It would improve the quality of life, just helping people get to the grocery store, going to doctor’s appointments, going to the movies, applying for jobs. I get a call probably once a week from someone who is needing to get to a doctor’s appointment,” Carl said.
Hank Betke, director of the Red River Region Business Incubator (R3bi), said a “significant number of people” in west Paris “are being precluded from jobs because they have no way to get to jobs, or even getting to a job interview.”
The business incubator has periodic job fairs, Betke said, “but if you don’t have a way to get there, how do you participate in a job fair?”
John Wright, mayor pro-tem of the Paris City Council, said Friday evening he remembers, back in the 1940s, “when we had buses. Nance Bus Lines, and Philip Nance, the guy who used to be principal over at Crockett. I guess it was his granddad that had the thing. I know it cost a nickel. You could ride it, and they had different routes. One would cover each section of town and go to certain areas, and there were bus stops around the town.”
With the price of gasoline, “it might be conducive to have public transportation,” Wright said. “A lot of people can’t afford cars, even if they have them.”
Stauter and Cochran were responsible for the big turnout at Friday’s meeting. They generated a 24-hour e-mail blitz urging people to go to the meeting and lobby on behalf of a citywide bus system.
To announce the periodic TRAX “information meetings,” the Ark-Tex Council of Government places legal notices in newspapers, as they are required to do.
“Pat is the one who actually saw the legal notice in the paper, and it’s the kind of thing that can get overlooked. She and I had been talking about a city bus service. I had been telling her I ride the bus in Mount Pleasant. It’s a neat thing, and I think we need it. It would be very beneficial to our community,” she said.
Carl disseminated to her United Way mailing list information about the Friday meeting, adding her encouragement for various agencies to have representatives present.
“A big turnout developed overnight. That’s really all the time we had to do it,” Cochran said. “I think for us to have this level of participation on a Friday afternoon, in summer, on less than 24 hours’ notice is outstanding, on something that could easily have been overlooked. So we’re excited.”
By CHARLES RICHARDS