Shirley Blackener, a resident of Paris, Texas, for 43 years, is able to get around on “the legs God gave [her]” thanks to a knee surgery, but that doesn’t make the hour-long walk from her home into town any shorter or less arduous. She still sometimes uses a cane. Her sister, Vernitta Hale, uses a rollator and oxygen—for her, such a walk is not only time-consuming but nearly impossible. Fortunately, thanks to the city’s robust public transit system, they don’t have to walk. Their yellow disability cards allow them to ride the bus for free—though by now the drivers know them by sight. “It’s been a blessing,” said Blackener.
Since 2016, Blackener and Hale have been able to rely on the “Paris Metro” to provide a working fixed-route bus system running every hour on the hour, Monday through Friday, 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. The service makes Paris something of a unicorn among small cities in rural parts of Texas, where public transportation is often underfunded, leaving carless commuters with few options. Paris, prior to 2016, was one such public transit desert. Before the influx of the compact maroon-and-white buses that now make their way around town, locals had to schedule bus rides via the local rural transit district—the Ark-Tex Council of Governments Rural Transit District (TRAX)—24 hours in advance. TRAX covers a vast area spanning nine counties and a city in Arkansas, and it was ill-equipped to meet demand. By 2011, it was turning down about a thousand calls per month from Lamar County, where Paris is, said Sheena Record, who works for TRAX. She recommended more public transportation for the area to fill the gap. By 2013, she had involved community stakeholders and started applying for grants.
Record, now the Paris Metro transportation coordinator, secured funding through a federal 5310 grant, which awards money for public transportation serving elderly and disabled communities. The grant required a “local match” to round out the funding—thankfully, community stakeholders ponied up. The United Way of Lamar County, a local philanthropic group, pledged $25,000 a year for the first three years. Paris Junior College, Paris Regional Health, Texas Oncology–Paris, the City of Paris, and other stakeholders rounded out the $60,000 Paris needed to raise. The Metro also secured $165,000 in sponsorships from local entities, and in return for financial support, the Metro runs advertising on bus signs, in press releases, and on the buses themselves.
In its first year, the Paris Metro, run by TRAX, provided more than 50,000 rides in the town of 25,000. “[It was] very successful—full buses very, very fast,” said Record. “We’ve been going strong ever since.” The COVID-19 pandemic cut ridership in half, but the Metro never completely shut down. Now rides are nearly back up to their 2019 level.
More cash could soon be flooding into towns like Paris to further the cause. This summer, the Texas Transportation Commission awarded more than $95 million to rural and small urban transit districts. The money will be distributed across 79 agencies and transit districts.
Beth Osborne, director of advocacy group Transportation for America, said widespread support is the best way to get the government to fund public transportation. Now Paris receives grant money yearly because of the town’s demonstrated need and the success of the program, Record said. In the beginning, Record presented fifty letters of community support to the Texas Department of Transportation in addition to the statistics and evidence of financial support from the community. “It’s often a person or a group of people who are just relentless,” said Osborne. “They refuse to think their community can’t have what they think their community can have.”
But it’s hard for people to advocate for something they don’t know they need. “In rural America, most people haven’t had transit, so they don’t quite know what they’re missing,” Osborne said. “They start to think, ‘Well, if I don’t have transit, it must be because it’s not really for places like mine.’ ” Jenny Wilson, executive director of the United Way of Lamar County, said the Metro hosted trainings for the first few months to familiarize people with using a bus system. “If you’re not used to public transportation, it was really kind of scary to them,” said Wilson. “They’ve really overcome that.”
Since the early 1980s, federal funding for transportation in the United States has primarily followed an eighty-twenty split: 80 percent goes to highways and 20 percent goes to public transportation. Fewer people have cars in rural areas, the same areas where public transportation is scarce. “You’re leaving people totally marooned,” said Osborne. “It’s a little bit of a ‘let them eat highways’ position. ‘You don’t have a car to get where you need to go? Here’s a highway for you.’ ”
Outside the Walmart in Paris on a windy Friday afternoon, Felina Parks was waiting for the bus. Since her truck broke down, it’s how she gets around. She was returning from Walmart with cat food for the stray felines residing near her house. “Looks like you got a busload of people,” one of the passengers commented as Parks and other passengers boarded. Most of the regulars knew Parks by name. She said she “tries to say hi to most people and be nice.”
Texas Parisians view the bus network as a family, with the bus drivers invited to every reunion—“Especially those whose names start with a K!” declared one rider. The driver, Kevin, took down his microphone: “I know y’all ain’t talking about me back there.” Some elderly people ride the bus daily, not only to get from point A to point B, but also to see their fellow passengers; a man on the bus wearing yellow sunglasses and a cross necklace said that it’s how he socializes.
Heather Howard, a lifelong Paris resident, got on a bus an hour after Parks. The bus system helps the 42-year-old get where she needs to go when her car breaks down. But for the elderly population, she said, it serves as both a necessary transportation tool and a source of community. “Everyone’s so nice,” Howard said. “They literally just get on there to ride around.” At the next stop, an older man brightly greeted everyone as he boarded the bus. When it stopped for gas, he went into the station for a fountain drink and asked for orders from the other passengers before he went inside. “Have a blessed day,” he said to Howard as she prepared to deboard. “You too, baby,” she replied.
Wilson said she wished the Metro could do more. Industrial buildings in Paris, such as a facility that manufactures Huggies, sit outside the “loop” of road that encircles the city, so people who work in these facilities can’t take the bus to work. It would also be nice, the passengers agreed, if the bus could run on the weekends. They could understand why the buses didn’t run on Sundays—the conversation turned to whether or not everyone went to church—but Saturdays could help. Still, the buses travel pretty much everywhere they need to go except for residential areas and a “dead zone” of gas stations and a cemetery.
And the Metro’s presence in the city is growing. By the end of the year, what was once a Pizza Hut will become the service’s new office—a development Record said “shows a real commitment to our town.” The Metro plans to put in a new stop near Aldi after the office relocates. One passenger said she looked forward to the stop—currently, she thinks she could run across the highway, but she’d have to leave her grocery bags. She’d like to make it across town with her purchases still intact.
For now, Paris is an exceptional case—one that has proven difficult to emulate in other rural areas. Sitting just a little to the southeast, Mount Pleasant (population 16,000) serves as a stark reminder of that fact. Its local bus route stopped running in 2019 due to lack of funding.
Before TRAX ran out of funding for the route entirely, it undertook efforts to make it more sustainable. Mount Pleasant’s bus ran on a deviated route, meaning it could amble off its prescribed path to pick up people requesting a ride. Though convenient for some riders, of course, this type of route isn’t as effective on the whole because it makes the bus schedule unpredictable—so in 2017, the district tried to convert Mount Pleasant’s bus route to a fixed one, like the one in Paris, said Nancy Hoehn, a former transportation manager with TRAX. The district reached out to the chamber of commerce for its connections with other businesses and nonprofits in the town. But unlike in Paris, Hoehn said the district returned empty-handed after community stakeholders wouldn’t cough up the necessary cash. “Not that those entities didn’t support public transportation,” Hoehn said. “But we need the support. And that translates into a fair amount of money out of their budget. And it just did not happen in Mount Pleasant. I couldn’t tell you exactly why.”
While Paris’s situation is unique and difficult to create, it’s not unreplicable. In some ways, said Osborne, it can be easier to inspire change without the bureaucracy of urban areas. But a check alone won’t solve transportation problems. The town itself needs to come together to brainstorm the best and most effective transportation for its area and back it up with money to show its commitment. “A ton of it comes from lobbying a leader or a group of leaders that develop a joint vision with their communities,” Osborne said. “Don’t come and tell people what we’re going to do, but go into the community and talk about what barriers they’re facing and help everyone develop a vision.”