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$20 million proposal for express bus system rolling forward

The proposal for a $20 million bus trunk line that could cut crosstown travel times in half is heading to the public review stage and could be submitted next summer for federal funding.

The Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization on Thursday heard a consultant’s detailed proposal for a “bus rapid transit” system, including a preferred alignment. The board agreed to move forward with a Nov. 16 public meeting at time and place to be announced.

The proposal by AECOM would reorganize the entire Waco Transit system around a 13-mile central express corridor, running from Lacy-Lakeview to Woodway, mostly along U.S. Highway 84 and Franklin Avenue. Along the route would be 15 bus stations that would connect with loop routes that circulate through neighborhoods.

At least eight express buses would shuttle back and forth along the corridor, arriving at stations in 15-minute intervals. Waco Transit officials say crosstown travel times could be reduced to about 30 minutes, down from an hour to an hour and a half.

“I think we need to hear from the community,” Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver said. “But I think it makes a lot of sense from the standpoint of trying to meet the Prosper Waco goals of improving transportation between those who live in poverty and where most of the jobs are, in the industrial district.”

Deaver is the outgoing chairman of the Metropolitan Planning Organization board, which represents McLennan County and all of its cities in setting the region’s transportation priorities.

The MPO board is set in January to vote on supporting the application for Federal Transit Administration’s Small Starts funding for the project. The city of Waco would apply for the money through Waco Transit, with a September deadline. Federal funding for the project could be available by 2020.

AECOM planner Jimi Mitchell told the board Thursday of the extensive study his firm has done, including some 200 public responses collected online, at input meetings and on buses.

The firm studied three crosstown corridors in depth for the rapid-transit trunk line. One relied largely on Waco Drive, while another used Franklin Avenue for an eastbound route through downtown and Washington for the westbound route.

The preferred alternative uses only Franklin through downtown, which would require converting Franklin into a two-way street. The city has already been studying such a move, along with converting Washington to two-way traffic. That project, which could cost several million dollars including the replacement of traffic lights, could be counted as a local match for the federal funds.

The preferred route would be a mile shorter than the others and is estimated to cost less and pick up more riders, Mitchell said. An estimated 800 riders are expected on the express route daily in 2023, in a overall system that would carry 3,500 riders.

The preferred corridor would start at Business 77 in Lacy Lakeview, zigzag through Bellmead along Loop 340 and Highway 84, then thread through East Waco onto Taylor Avenue and onto Franklin Avenue in downtown. At Valley Mills Drive it would veer right and then continue along Waco Drive to Richland Mall and the Texas Central Industrial District, ending at Estates Drive in Woodway.

The express route would work like an express train, stopping only at prescribed locations, synchronized with the schedules of the neighborhood circulators. To speed the buses along, they would be equipped with fare card readers and would have infrared technology allowing them to prolong green lights.

Waco Councilman Dillon Meek, who is incoming chairman of the MPO board, voiced support for the bus rapid transit corridor, but he raised questions about the map AECOM provided of proposed neighborhood circulators. He said that for some neighborhoods, the walk to the bus would be longer than it is now.

“I’m really excited about expediting travel times, but my concern is people won’t be able to get onto the fast-moving bus,” Meek said.

MPO director Chris Evilia said his staff and Waco Transit staff will be doing more analysis of neighborhood accessibility and will look at ways to minimize any negative impact to current riders.

Project officials said the $20 million estimated cost includes engineering, new express buses, replacement of traffic signals, pedestrian crossings, sheltered bus stations and sidewalk and ramp improvements within a 200-foot radius of the stations.

They said Federal Transit Administration officials typically prefer to fund 70 percent or less of the capital costs, and local officials will explore other funding sources to make up the rest.

In addition to the capital costs, AECOM estimates Waco Transit’s operational costs would increase by $3.5 million to $4 million, a cost that also assumes extending hours and adding Sunday service.

“The capital costs are one thing, but the long-term operational costs are where we need to have a serious conversation,” Evilia said.

Deaver said he hopes to have clearer answers about funding before the application is submitted next year, but he said city officials should keep in mind the benefits of having an improved transit system.

“I think these types of projects in other cities have caused economic development along the corridors that would be beneficial,” Deaver said. “All cities are looking at trying to improve their mass transit. Our mass transit does a good job for certain travelers with certain needs, but to make a long trip across the city it doesn’t meet those needs at all.”

Hard to define America's middle class, courted by both sides
Hard to define America's middle class, courted by both sides

WASHINGTON — What is middle class?

President Donald Trump and Republican leaders are promoting their tax-cutting plan as needed relief for the stressed American middle class and a catalyst for job creation.

Democrats say they’re the ones looking out for the middle class, by fighting against proposed tax cuts that would benefit big companies and the wealthy but hurt the average American. It’s not easy to exactly define this middle class, whose members are championed and courted for their votes by both sides. Lawmakers and experts have differing views on the numbers.

The Tax Policy Center sets its “middle quintile” — third slice of five — of household income, including tax-exempt employee benefits like health insurance, at $48,300 to $85,600 a year. But be careful about calling that middle class, it says — there’s no formal definition.

Other experts see the middle-income range at around $44,000 to $72,000 (middle quintile), or $72,000 to $112,000 (fourth quintile, both based on 2015 data).

At the high end, Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama, as candidates, defined middle class as earning up to $250,000 a year. That raised eyebrows because it’s in about the top 5 percent of incomes, and the two Democrats had pledged not to raise taxes on the middle class.

The median, or midpoint, U.S. household income was $57,617 last year, according to the Census Bureau.

Trump, in his rallying pitches for the far-reaching tax overhaul that is his main legislative priority, sounds the theme constantly. “We will cut taxes for hard-working, middle-class families,” he pledges. “It is time to ignite America’s middle-class miracle once again.”

To fill middle-class stockpots, Trump is promising that the tax cuts would bring a $4,000 or $5,000 pay raise annually for the average family. Skeptical tax experts and Democrats say the claim is based on fuzzy math.

Pro-tax cut troops have fanned out to middle-class neighborhoods around the country with a message to voters on their doorsteps: slashing taxes for corporations would unleash an economic bonanza. The resulting new jobs, faster growth and ample pay raises would help them and everyone else, the residents are told.

“That sort of trickle-down ... is a very hard message,” says James Thurber, professor and founder of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “Because of the burden of governing, they (the Republicans) have a problem having an effective messaging system.”

For the opposition Democrats, on the other hand, “It’s easier to have a clear message here that the tax plan would hurt the middle class and the working class,” Thurber suggested.

The nearly $6 trillion tax plan calls for cutting the corporate tax rate from 36 percent to 20 percent, reduced taxes for most individuals, and doubling the standard deduction used by most average Americans to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for families. The number of tax brackets would shrink from seven to three or four, with respective tax rates of 12 percent, 25 percent, 35 percent and to be determined. Inheritance taxes on multimillion-dollar estates would be repealed.

The middle-class family could take advantage of a heftier child tax credit and the extra money that could come from the bigger standard deduction.

But there are too many holes in the spare nine-page plan, like the income levels tied to each tax bracket and what might happen to other deductions used by middle-class people, to know how it actually would affect individual taxpayers and families.

A chief architect of the plan, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Kevin Brady, was pressed by reporters this past week: Will it truly help the middle class? Can the Republicans guarantee that everyone will get a break, that no ordinary person will end up paying more?

“The elevator goes down at every (income) level. ... I can guarantee that every American will be better off,” said Brady, R-Texas. He acknowledged, though, “It could be that a singular exception exists.”

But mainly Brady’s answer was stay tuned: The proposed income levels to correspond with each tax bracket will soon be revealed.

That’s where the math comes in. Under the current regime of seven brackets, the biggest group of U.S. taxpayers (about 30 percent) falls in the second-lowest bracket, paying a 15 percent tax rate. An individual with taxable annual income between $9,325 and $37,950 is in that group. Because it’s the largest group, some might consider it as standing in for the middle class.

Some critics of the Republican plan say that because it would eliminate the 15 percent bracket, some people who’ve been taxed at 15 percent could be pushed into the next higher bracket, 25 percent.

That’s not yet known, says Daniel Berger, a research associate at the Tax Policy Center, a joint project of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution. It totally depends on where the plan masters set the income levels.

“It’s theoretically possible that everyone in the 15 percent bracket would go to the lower bracket, the higher bracket, or they would split between the two,” Berger said.

Jared Walczak, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Tax Foundation, notes that an earlier Republican plan floated last year set the 25 percent tax rate for the same income level as currently, $37,950 to $91,900. If the new plan kept that income range unchanged or raised the bottom amount for the 25 percent rate, no one now paying 15 percent would be pushed into a higher rate, Walczak said.

Waco ISD cuts administrative costs by $500,000 under new superintendent

Waco Independent School District has cut about half a million dollars in administrative costs since Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson started in June.

The effort is part of the superintendent’s strategy to make the district run more “lean and mean” to tackle an estimated $3 million deficit in this year’s budget and get ahead for planning next year’s budget cycle, Chief Financial Officer Sheryl Davis said.

The district will start its budgeting process for the next cycle in January, months ahead of the typical start, Nelson said. The early start allows the district to take a closer look at where cuts need to be made and show off the extra commitment to spending taxpayer money wisely, he said.

“I’ve boldly proclaimed we’ve made cuts. They’ve been several hundred thousand dollars in cuts,” Nelson said. “The bottom line is we’ve reduced positions. That’s how we got to several hundred thousand dollars. One of them was as assistant superintendent of curriculum. Not trying to make that a big deal, but that’s one. We’ve had some positions in special ed, which is a different funding source, but to me it doesn’t matter. I’m in a scalpel mode.”

As of Thursday, the equivalent of 8.5 full-time administrative and support services positions have been eliminated, spokesperson Kyle DeBeer said.

Waco ISD also earned nearly a perfect score under the state’s Financial Integrity Rating System of Texas, or FIRST, this month and has maintained the nearly perfect score for 13 out of the last 14 years Davis has been with the district, she said.

Though the recent central administration cuts could help increase the district’s rating even more, they’re meant to bring more stability to district finances, Nelson said. He is taking similar actions in Waco ISD that he took to cut personnel costs at his last district, Laredo ISD, by more than $2 million, he said.

Some of the other savings come from repurposing positions, dissolving positions, reducing redundant responsibilities, reviewing departmental structures, expanding some areas and reducing others, he said.

“In different years, with different superintendents, we’ve probably gone through a lot of the same processes,” Davis said. “But we got a little crazy for a couple years there, prior to Dr. Nelson coming. We were anxious in turning things around, so a lot of positions got added. We were doing a lot of projects out of the general fund because we were kind of out of bond money.”

The cuts won’t impact campuses, but each department head who wants to fill a position or add a position must now go through a thorough discussion with Nelson and the finance department, Nelson said.

“Dr. Nelson’s going to have some (other) initiatives. With schools maybe closing, there’s maybe some dollars that have to be spent there,” Davis said, referring to five campuses facing state intervention if they don’t pass academic accountability standards this year. “It’s just prudent for us to go through this right now and try to run lean and mean.”

The extra focus since June is also giving the district’s financial department a higher level of support and priority, Nelson said. Davis and her team have no issues calling Nelson or department heads to question spending habits and the financial impact of administrators’ decisions on any given day or in cabinet meetings, and Nelson’s supporting the proactive approach, he said.

“When it’s all said and done, I’m really talking about 24 to 36 months. The sky’s not falling. I don’t need to reduce positions to make the budget in August,” Nelson said. “But every time a person says they have a vacancy in their department, we have to have a discussion about whether or not we post and fill that job. That’s already tightening up.”

On paper, the district has about a $3 million deficit, but it could be a little more because of an unexpected decline in student population this year, Davis said. It had 15,079 students in 2016-2017, which is down to 14,878. Declines of this scale are not uncommon every few years, Davis said.

But the district also underspent its budget last year. Its fund balance came out $3 million better than projected, she said.

“By the time people underspend, by the time you have salary savings and you drag your feet a little on filling positions to save money there, we’re going to be fine,” Davis said.

Limestone County Judge pushes back against effort to oust him from office

Three weeks after Limestone County commissioners filed a petition seeking to remove County Judge Daniel Burkeen from office, Burkeen is pushing back against the commissioners’ allegations.

Three of the four commissioners filed the petition early this month in the wake of Burkeen’s placement in a pretrial diversion program after his DWI arrest in April. The commissioners also included a litany of other allegations against him.

Burkeen, the 60-year-old Republican county judge who won an unopposed re-election bid in 2014, issued a three-page statement to media outlets Friday evening in response.

“Since the lawsuit filed by the commissioners has not proceeded but has been well publicized, which, of course, was their goal, I thought it best to go ahead and respond so the public would know the truth,” Burkeen wrote. “It is ironic that those behind the lawsuit complain about the publicity from the DWI stop.

“The publicity had pretty much died down, until revived again by filing the lawsuit.”

An appointed judge has been selected to oversee the petition and pending decision, but no further information or hearing date was available Friday. Precinct 2 Commissioner W.A. “Sonny” Baker said he was unaware of Burkeen’s response to the media, but he declined to comment.

“We will just see how it plays out,” Baker said.

Mart police arrested Burkeen on suspicion of drunken driving April 12 after an officer saw a vehicle dragging its muffler on a Mart street. Police initially thought Burkeen was in medical distress because he claimed he was suffering from asthma, but officers determined Burkeen was intoxicated. He had a blood alcohol concentration of .112 percent two hours after his arrest, police reported.

In an interview with KWTX-TV Channel 10, Burkeen said he usually doesn’t drink but had been using his father’s old cold remedy of whiskey, honey and lemon to relieve asthma symptoms.

“The DWI stop was very much publicized. I was very open about the fact that I had made a mistake,” Burkeen wrote. “Anyone can believe or not believe how it happened, either way it’s not an excuse, it’s just what happened. It is interesting that the commissioners complain that I should have been at work at that time, when they each make $39-40,000 per year from the taxpayers while working full-time at other jobs.”

In the filing, commissioners also allege Burkeen was found lying on the ground next to his car outside the courthouse one morning in February 2016, and they list what they classify as questionable interactions with residents who had matters pending in Burkeen’s court.

“We are bound by requirements in the Fair Defense Act and the county’s indigent defense plan, which include mandates concerning the attorneys timely contacting the defendants,” Burkeen wrote. “These are intended to protect the defendant’s rights, not the attorney’s feelings.”

Burkeen wrote that he “will not apologize” for doing his job and helping defendants by “ministering to those who the Lord leads me to minister to.” He said he continues to deny any misconduct and will continue to uphold his duties to the people of Limestone County.

“And I do not appreciate these allegations, designed to hurt me and my family, being made by those who have no respect for the truth or the law,” he wrote.