Waco City Council is hoping to fast-track the conversion of Franklin and Washington avenues to two-way traffic to set the stage for a proposed “bus rapid transit” trunk line.
At an all-day retreat Monday, the council agreed to commission feasibility and design studies in early 2016 for a bus “backbone” system that would run along Franklin Avenue, bisecting Greater Waco between Bellmead and Hewitt. The Waco Transit system would be reorganized around the trunk line in an effort to cut travel times in half. The cost of such a system, $56 million over 15 years, would require an increase in federal funding as well as a local match.
But first, Franklin would have to be converted to two-way traffic in Central Waco, city staff said. City Manager Dale Fisseler said the conversion of Franklin and its westbound twin, Washington Avenue, could happen as early as 2017.
The cost is estimated at $3.5 million, largely because of the cost of traffic lights, which would be programmed to give priority to the bus line.
Councilman Wilbert Austin said he expects resistance from downtown business owners to the two-way conversion.
“I think we’re going to have a hell of a fight,” he said.
But downtown development director Megan Henderson said the two-way conversion is a top priority of the Public Improvement District, which represents downtown property owners.
“There are a small number of people who are very opposed to it,” she said. “There is support, not unanimous but widespread, that this needs to happen.”
District 4 Councilman Dillon Meek, who represents downtown and works in an office at 900 Austin Ave., agreed.
“There are a ton of people doing a lot of retail and restaurant business, and people who office downtown as well, who have been supportive of this,” he said.
The council appeared to be unified on the need to reorganize the Waco Transit system around a trunk line, though the opportunities for funding remain uncertain.
Waco Transit general manager John Hendrickson told the council that the speed and convenience of the new system would double ridership, which is now about 1.2 million per year.
Currently, the buses operate on loops that take one hour, and with transfers at the downtown hub, some crosstown trips can take up to two hours, he said.
Adding more buses to the current system wouldn’t significantly improve those statistics, he said.
“If you’re trying to get someone who already has challenges to a job across town, and if they’re having to plan two hours to get from South Waco to North Waco, . . . that could be a 12-hour day,” he said.
On the proposed system, two express buses would shuttle across town on the trunk road, stopping at new bus stations that would connect riders to buses that run loops through neighborhoods. The express buses would run from Bellmead to Hewitt in half an hour, and even with transfers, a typical crosstown trip would take about 45 minutes, Hendrickson said.
The $56 million price tag over 15 years would include not only additional buses and bus stations but also sidewalks and ramps around the bus stations to provide pedestrian connections.
“This corridor would become a very pedestrian-friendly, bike-friendly and transit-friendly corridor,” he said.
Hendrickson said getting federal funding for the project may be a struggle, but now is the time to get positioned for it.
“For us to be eligible, we’ve got to get these studies done,” he said. “We have to be shovel-ready.”
Fisseler initially suggested hiring a lobbyist in Washington to push for the funding. But consultants from the National Resource Network who were attending the council retreat offered to act as liaisons between Waco and federal transportation officials.
The federally funded National Resource Network has chosen to provide Waco in the coming year $500,000 worth of consulting on social and economic challenges.
David Eichenthal, the organization’s executive director, was one of three network officials who spent the day with the council at its retreat on the top floor of McLane Stadium.
Eichenthal said the network is investing more in Waco than in any other city, largely because of the community’s Prosper Waco initiative to address poverty.
“We thought there was a basic readiness and willingness to address issues,” he said. “There was an extraordinary amount of capacity here.”
Council and National Resources Network officials discussed how to move forward on a wide range of economic development and housing issues. The council directed the staff to work with the network on several action items, including:
• Create a “housing commission,” including council members and nonprofit officials, to figure out how to maximize federal housing funds coming to Waco.
• Develop a strategy for retaining college graduates in Waco by connecting them with employers for jobs and internships.
• Develop a strategy to assemble land for redevelopment in the inner city, including property seized in tax foreclosures.
• Explore an expanded code enforcement program that would involve scheduling regular inspections rather than merely reacting to complaints.
• Commission a study of the costs of annexing outlying areas, and the long-term cost of not annexing them.
• Commission a market study to determine what kinds of businesses and attractions downtown could support.
The city has attempted to recruit developers through a request-for-proposals process for two of its prime downtown properties.
But the Heritage Square property got no takers. The Brazos Commons riverfront property got three suitors, though several more developers initially showed interest.
Henderson, the downtown development official, said some developers who were interested in the properties found the process “murky and expensive.” She urged the city to get more specific about what it wants to wants to see on those sites, rather than expecting a developer to know what downtown needs.
“Nobody benefits from that overall question more than the city,” she said.