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Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Bad Dogs & Bicycles - Why I Care About Rural Transit

It has been suggested that my passion for rural transportation issues (particularly my opposition to ETCOG’s handling of regional service planning) has something to do with me hoping to get some money out of this deal. In answer to that charge, let me tell a story.

In 1981 I had ended my career as a parochial school teacher and temporarily taken up my father’s work as a construction hand at Brown & Root. New to the trick of working in the heavy construction industry, we miscalculated our finances the first time I moved from one job to another, and we found ourselves broke and homeless. Our old car broke down and had to be hauled away. We found a cheap farm hand’s house for rent in the middle of nowhere in Johnson County. I rode my bicycle to town 5 miles away to get groceries and rode back on narrow county roads balancing two large sacks of groceries on my handlebars dodging dogs and pickup trucks. My wife was pregnant and sick staying home in the heat of summer with no air conditioning and with two small boys. I’d been working for a week for Brown & Root at the Glen Rose nuclear power plant and it was an 85 mile round trip commute to work. We couldn’t even afford a phone.

My day went like this. At 4:30 AM I got on a bicycle and rode through the pitch dark on back roads and Farm to Market roads for 5 miles into Joshua – dodging several large vicious dogs who found it amusing to chase the fool in the hard hat and work boots rattling past their turf with the big clanky lunch box balanced on his handlebars. There were two Rottweiler's that got particularly pleasure by streaking across the yard in absolute silence and then leaping the fence with a roar in an attempt to startle me and knock me off the bike. I assume they viewed my early morning passage as an opportunity to snag a light early morning breakfast (I was much thinner then, what with all the healthy early morning cardio-vascular exercise I was getting). There were long stretches of road that were pitch black (you couldn't see the rattlesnakes that like to stretch out on the warm asphalt at night - those big squishy bumps you'd go over in the blackness were a particularly thrilling element of the old daily commute). It was a frightening, exhausting and humiliating trip. Passing farmers laughed and pointed. It took me an hour to pedal to town.

In Joshua I chained my bike to a light pole and boarded an old school bus some guy had. We paid him $20 a week to share a ride. We rode for another hour or so to get to Comanche Peak. At the end of long, exhausting day of hauling steel plates and huge metal struts from the storage yard to the containment building, I got back on the bus rode back to Joshua, got on the bike, set out cross country, dodged the dogs and pickup trucks and reached home to find my wife sitting in the front yard, holding the kids and crying because she’d been alone for 13 hours and was too sick to be able to fix the kids supper. She'd come outside to wait for me because she heard the dogs going nuts up the hill and knew I was almost home.

A few weeks later, she had the baby. I left the hospital at 3:00 AM, walked from South Fort Worth to Burleson, hitchhiked to Glen Rose (48 miles) and turned around and came back the same way to sit with her in the hospital. When she got home, I went back to riding the bicycle until someone stole it while I was at work. It took two hours to walk to Joshua and two hours to walk back home (the dogs were even more of an interesting challenge on foot). Finally I bought an aged Ford Maverick that lasted just long enough for us to get on our feet again. I went to work for a nonprofit organization the next year working in my field of expertise once again and have been working in the nonprofit/human service field ever since.

So, when I hear stories of little old ladies hitchhiking to Wal-Mart, colonia’s families handing over $80 worth of food stamp purchases to predatory van drivers for a trip to the grocery store and elderly couples being told they would have to build a circular drive in order to qualify to be picked up by rural transit I see a little red. When a small town council member tells me how desperately families in her town need rides to work and can’t get them and then a certain rural transit district manager tells me deviated fixed routes and commuter bus services are not practical/not doable and then I meet a provider in another region of East Texas who tells me they’ve been successfully doing deviated fixed routes for more than a year……

When a certain rural transit director stands up in a public meeting and says, “We don’t have to make our customers happy, they have to make us happy in order to get a ride!”.....

When we work for 5 years to get a JARC grant that a certain rural transit director told us would be useless and unusable and then, despite predictions, we actually get it and it’s usable after all and we realize we could have got a similar one for our rural counties with a little cooperation from that same rural transit district…

And when ETCOG spends 9 months working on a framework for regional service planning without inviting a single consumer side representative to the table effectively blowing a priceless opportunity to do regional service planning right, appoints itself lead agency without a general consensus, issues a premature self-serving RFP, and in the process endangers the brand new transit funding we all worked so hard to get for them by scoring zilch on their performance measures….

Well, I get just a teensy bit NUTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

You can see why I have an interest in transit issues now!

It’s not because of any money I hope to get.

It's not about contracts.

It’s about those damned dogs!

Tom King

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