Upon meeting him, he told me about his plan to hold public town halls on the buses of El Paso, Texas. He said, the people riding buses in his community generally do not have time to engage their government and attend his events, so he decided to meet his constituents where they were at, on the buses crisscrossing his hometown.
At Americans for Transit we focus on educating and organizing riders across the US. Congressmen O’Rourke is doing just that from his position as a U.S. Congressman. Well Congressmen O’Rourke, we love it and say thank you!
Interview Transcription with Congressmen Beto O’Rourke TX-16th, El Paso
From Sept. 27th, 2013
Andrew Austin, Americans for Transit: You recently did a Congressional Town Hall on the bus right?
Congressmen O’Rourke: Yes we did!
AA: How did you decide you wanted to do that?
BO: I was on city council for six years, and every Monday I held a district meeting, so anyone could come to the Village Inn restaurant in the middle of my district. On Monday mornings at 8am folks would come and go over the weeks’ agenda and the votes we took the week before. So when I campaigned for Congress I campaigned on accountability and transparency and said I would host monthly town hall meetings and quarterly veterans town hall meeting, both of which we’ve done.
So we were around the office saying, these meetings are great, we get a lot of people at them and great questions, are reaching a lot of people, but what’s the next step? How can we do better?
We came up with the idea of taking the town hall to a population that typically do not show up to our regular town halls, and these are the customers on our public transit system. In El Paso, unlike some other communities, people who ride the bus do so, for the most part, because they can’t afford a car. Unlike DC or NYC or Boston, there are no parking issues, but it (public transit) is really an affordability issue. I felt like this was a population that was very underrepresented in our town halls and I wanted to have a chance to reach them. So that was the impetus.
AA: How did you actually do the transit town halls? What was the mechanism?
BO: We called Sun Metro and asked them what their busiest routes were. Turns it is route 59, an express route from Downtown to the Eastside Transit terminal, and then we took a local from the transit terminal back downtown. That whole process, including spending sometime at the Eastside Transit Terminal, was 2-2.5 hours. I got on the 59 going out and it was packed, every seat was taken. Every place to stand was taken and I just conducted it like a normal town hall. I opened it up thanked everybody, told them what we were working on in DC, the government shutdown and how to avert it, the healthcare law, and then talked about federal issues that are specific to El Paso, like our long wait times to cross into Mexico. Another unique part of our bus ridership is many of the riders begin their day in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. They have to wait sometimes hours to cross the bridge into El Paso even though our cities are connected. Then they are on a bus for quite some time (to get to work.)
Another unique dynamic is that all of the town halls on the bus were conducted almost entirely in Spanish, because that is the language the riders prefer to speak.
Then I would open it up and people would just ask questions and I’d answer for them.
During the portions of the route that were less busy I had a chance to sit down and introduce myself to each rider, ask them if there was anything we could help them with, and we got a lot of takers. There was a woman who is a US citizen, was born here, her mother is not, but her mother has been living here for 35 years. She wanted us to help with her mother’s citizen application process, which we are very happy to do.
The bus town hall worked just like you want a town hall to work. I think people were really struck that we were taking it on to meet with them, ask them how they felt about things, and involve them in their government.
AA: At Americans for Transit we work with people who are doing rider organizing all the time and we find that riders, by and large, want to be engaged, they are open to it.
BO: Yeah, and I think people really appreciate hearing from us. There is no ask on my part, we’re not asking for votes or anything, we’re just saying, “how can we help.”
AA: A lot of folks have long commutes, what other major issues did you hear about on the buses, whether they were transportation related or not?
BO: Immigration reform was the top non-transportation issue, also heard about the affordable care act. People were also concerned about what was going to happen if the Government shuts down.
The largest transportation issue really had to do with the bridge wait times. Person after person brought it up. El Paso is literally connected to Ciudad Juarez and our economies and our entire way of life is so interdependent. There are 6 million crossings every year. Many El Pasoians begin their day on the US side and work in various occupations in Juarez. Many Juarez residents begin their day over there and come to El Paso to work, shop, and visit family. It is a unique and interesting part of being on the bus, talking to people who started their days very very early. They are customers of our bus system and customers of our international ports of entry and they want better service.
One woman said, “I’m from Juarez, I come over here to shop to spend money in your community, and the fact that I have to wait so long to cross the bridge and get a bus, just doesn’t seem right.” I couldn’t argue with her. I certainly understood we needed to hear better in those areas, but there is nothing like hearing it directly from the customers that you’re serving.
AA: You mentioned before that there used to be an international streetcar that crossed the border?
BO: Yeah, we were one of the last cities to have a functioning streetcar system and it was an international system. The routes crossed back and forth between Juarez and El Paso. In a brilliant move by the taxi cab drivers, they occupied the bridge with the trolley running on it for a number of days. There was a clause is the original streetcar agreement that if service was suspended for so many hours or days, then the contract between the two countries would be nullified. So that’s what happened.
There was a long and proud tradition of great public transportation in El Paso. After the 1970s when the taxi cab bridge occupation occurred, it has taken a really long time to get back up again. But El Paso is really turning the corner. We’re implementing bus rapid transit (BRT) routes along 4 major corridors, that will be very competitive with auto commute times. In some cases they’ll have dedicated lanes, boarding platforms, pre-paid fare stations, and signal prioritization. It will be like being on a rubber wheeled train. It looks like we might also bright back trolley service in El Paso on a limited route and eventually reconnect with Ciudad Juarez. So El Paso is coming back!
When I first was on City Council in 2005, the transit system was in bad shape. You couldn’t rely on the bus to get there on-time, they broke down a lot, and the wait times in between connections were hours. We went from that to in 2011 when APTA named us the best medium sized transit system in the country. It was a big turnaround by focusing on transit and by listening to the riders. We turned it around but we still have a ways to go.
AA: What’s old is new, and we’re really getting back to what we had in a lot of cases in terms of public transit in the US. I’m glad it has gotten better.
BO: You’re right and in terms of building a high quality of life, which in El Paso we realized is key for us to be a successful and competitive city. It is attracting and retaining talented, young, bright people, and those people want to live in communities where they don’t have to depend on a car. Where there’s a great transit system, walkable neighborhoods, it’s safe to be on your bicycle, there are good parks, all of the things that we used to do without a second thought in the first part of the 20th century. Starting in the 1950s we really lost our way and didn’t create those neighborhoods that attract and retain people, so we are getting it back.
AA: We try hard at A4T to remind elected officials that public transit should not be a partisan issue, do you think that the bus town hall model is something your colleagues might try in other communities across the country and what tips for them would you have if they wanted to do bus town halls?
BO: Interesting question because one of the big surprises after doing the bus town hall was how much media interest there was in it. There was a great Spanish language package on it, Telemundo followed us the entire day. It is the right thing to do to reach a part of your constituency that may not be showing up to your town hall meetings and may not otherwise be engaged in government. So it is the right thing to do and part of your job, but there is an added benefit that it will draw attention and publicity in a positive way to outreach that you are doing in the community. When I got back to DC and went to vote, I can’t tell you how many members came up to me to tell me they’d heard about my town hall on the bus and that they wanted to do it in their district. So I think they interest is already there and replicating it makes a lot of sense.
To some degree traditional town halls have become so scripted now on the Congressperson’s part and in some cases the audiences’ part. There is a little bit of theater to it. On the bus it was just more real, honest, and engaging. It was a great positive experience.