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In Need of Dialysis, but Stuck in Oilfield Traffic

The Southwest Area Regional Transit District helps shuttle people who cannot otherwise get to their medical appointments. But a rush to the Eagle Ford Shale is clogging that lifeline. This story is part of our Shale Life project.

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Video: Take a ride on the bus route

CRYSTAL CITY — With much of the town sleeping, Tino Mendoza walked across a moonlit bus yard on a recent morning, preparing for his first trip of the day. While inspecting bus No. 32, he surveyed the latest casualty of this region’s newfound oil and gas economy: a small but growing crack in the windshield.

“We just replaced this one a month ago,” Mendoza said. “Some of the roads, they just take their toll on it.”

Medical centers in rural South Texas have always been few and far between, and getting care is especially difficult for those who cannot drive. The Southwest Area Regional Transit District, a 33-year-old organization financed largely through state grants, has used drivers like Mendoza, 28, to help shuttle people who cannot otherwise get to their medical appointments.

But a rush to the Eagle Ford Shale — the oil-rich fields that have brought prosperity to many here — is clogging that lifeline. Roads are crumbling under the weight of oil tankers blowing out tires, breaking axles and cracking windshields. And 18-wheelers crowd the roads, contributing to accidents and long waits in traffic. As a result, bus drivers must start earlier, and some patients must wait longer for rides home from their appointments. Such conditions are common across parts of South and West Texas, where a drilling bonanza has transformed life for better and for worse.

“We literally start our routes in many areas as early as 2:30 in the morning,” said Sarah Hidalgo-Cook, the transit district’s general manager. “It does pose more expenses on our part — the fact that we have longer hours.”

High-paying oilfield jobs are also siphoning workers from the local talent pool, making it hard to find mechanics and drivers. As a result, Hidalgo-Cook said, the district has been forced to shrink coverage in the eight-county region it serves.

Mendoza, who frequently gets recruiting calls from oilfield service companies, says he has no plans to bolt for a higher-paying job. Before taking this job two years ago he drove a dump truck, working 16-hour days. He would rather spend time with his wife and three children, he said, though he enjoys getting to know his passengers.

One passenger is Jesus de Leon, a 50-year-old former oilfield worker who now uses a walker and receives disability benefits. For seven years, the service has taken him to and from dialysis appointments.

“All my relatives work, so that’s why I have to rely on this bus,” de Leon said. “It’s a vital necessity right now.”

By 4 a.m., Mendoza was already en route to his first pickup, an elderly woman who needed dialysis treatment about 15 miles away in Carrizo Springs.

“There’s days when we try to avoid everything,” he said as he approached a bedeviling intersection. “This intersection itself, there’s been, I say, about 15 or 20 accidents since I started.”

Earlier this year, Mendoza said, a flipped semi backed up traffic for three hours, leaving riders waiting for pickups.

Several riders on Mendoza’s route said they do not begrudge the industry for the inconveniences. Many have relatives working in the oilfields; some have worked for energy companies.

But they cannot ignore what the trucks have done to the roads.

“I’d be afraid to be driving on these roads right now if I could drive,” de Leon said. “The oilfields traffic doesn’t care. The big trucks will get in your way purposefully because they want to pass.”

Maria Rios, a rider with diabetes, enjoys the bus. The seats are comfortable, and she gets to see her friends, she said. But the roads?

“They’re all broken by the 18-wheelers,” she said. “I don’t like that because we go bouncing and bouncing and bouncing.” 

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