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Maria Arelleano (center) and Jackie Ortiz (right), exit a VIA bus at the intersection of Huebner Road and N.W. Military Hwy. The women, who have worked as housekeepers on the city's North Side for over a decade, have to take three buses to get to this intersection where their employers pick them up for the remainder of the trip to work. The daily journey takes up to two hours each way. Photo by Mark Greenberg
VIA leaves working women behind

Araceli Herrera has worked in the Queen's Forest subdivision for more than a decade, but lately the 43-year-old has been reluctantly considering a career change from housekeeper to community activist. Since August 4, when the new VIA Community Service Plan went into effect, Herrera has had to walk 40 extra minutes each day to catch the bus that takes her to and from work. Route 97, which traversed George Road and Lockhill Selma on the city's Northwest Side, was among those eliminated when the new city-wide plan was implemented last month. Along with the route went the only reliable work transportation to the area.

Herrera isn't alone. Dozens of women who support their families by cleaning houses and caring for elderly residents in the neighborhood are trying to adjust to lengthy increases in their commute time. The new bus service leaves an area of residential neighborhoods more than four square miles without service. Combined with the longer walk, the reduced bus service has added burdensome hours to the women's schedules and reduced time at home with their families. As a result, some of the women have lost their jobs because they couldn't keep the schedule their employer required. Others have quit to look for a job that won't require as arduous a trek.

Sylvia Bonilla, also 43 and recovering from a major operation, has worked in the subdivision for seven years. "VIA is making everybody suffer, not just us," says Bonilla, who is legally blind and must now learn all new bus stops.

"We talk every day in the different buses and we hear people say this is not a good change," adds Herrera.

Last February, when she first heard rumors about the proposed elimination of the 97, Herrera and fellow riders attended a public meeting to tell VIA that the route was critical for workers in the area. VIA replied that the 97 was underused. In response, Herrera collected signatures on her daily trips and presented the bus company with the names and phone numbers of more than 50 people who rode the George Road leg daily for work. Herrera says that some of their employers also called and e-mailed VIA to express their opposition, but to no avail.

VIA spokeswoman Priscilla Ingle says that VIA is not insensitive to the women's dilemma, but that the Community Service Plan adopted last December originally called for the elimination of all bus service to that area. Ingle sees it as a victory that they were able to preserve service at all along NW Military and DeZavala.

Due to a drop in sales tax revenue, VIA's newest budget, adopted last month, is $2.9 million less than the prior fiscal year, and a 4 percent reduction in service is anticipated. As a result, Ingle says, service can't be restored to the George Road leg without eliminating service somewhere else in the city. "That just moves the problem around," she asserts.

VIA reportedly based its decision on which routes to axe on recorded boardings and departures, with priority service given to commercial corridors. Herrera conducted her own one-woman field study and claims that ridership along the portion of NW Military that still has bus service is much lower than that along the George Road leg used to be. Ingle disagrees: "That doesn't mean that further along the route there aren't more riders, or riders who disembarked before she got on."

A stated goal of VIA's new service plan is increasing the number of passengers who use public transportation. According to Ingle, restoring even limited one-way service to the women's employment area would require reductions along NW Military Highway where the Jewish Community Center, an elementary school, and retail area are considered potential sources for new riders.

But Herrera and Bonilla think that VIA should operate more like a public service and less like a commercial business. "The VIA bus is my legs and my hands and my eyes," says Bonilla.

Herrera and her fellow riders requested in a letter dated September 9 that VIA provide them with a cost analysis for restoring limited service to George Road, even offering to pay an increased fare. Ingle says that VIA's report should be ready this week, but, "We just don't have the resources."

Herrera, Bonilla, and their fellow bus riders say they have been waiting for some kind of response since May 26, when 250 people voiced their opposition to the citywide changes in front of the VIA board. "We are waiting until September 26," says Herrera, and then they will begin organizing what they believe to be a large number of unhappy VIA customers to draw more public attention to their dilemma. They can't take no for an answer because, as their letter to VIA explains, it "is like asking us to change our livelihood and find new jobs." •

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