McLennan County and most of its cities Thursday decided to pursue a rural transit district to increase ridership throughout the county and improve access to jobs, education and health care.

County Judge Scott Felton was appointed to preside over the conference committee that will lead discussions on the district.

“This is a great opportunity for our community to utilize transportation dollars that are out there currently that are not used directly in McLennan County,” Felton said.

The committee heard a presentation from Waco Transit System, which contracts with the city of Waco to provide fixed routes throughout the city’s urbanized area, about what that proposed district could look like. But the committee will choose at a later date whether to go with Waco Transit or another provider.

Attending the meeting were state Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, and leaders from McLennan County, McGregor, Beverly Hills, Riesel, Golinda, Ross, Bellmead, Hallsburg, Lacy Lakeview, West, Moody, Waco, Bruceville-Eddy, Leroy, Woodway and Robinson.

Felton said the county could take over a state-federal transit grant that the Heart of Texas Council of Governments uses to run vans to pick up riders throughout its six-county region.

He said the county’s portion of those funds is slightly less than 31 percent of the program, but the amount of transportation it is getting is only 10 percent.

“We are actually subsidizing the other counties,” Felton said. “Plus, on top of that, after looking at the overhead costs, the management of the transportation for our county in HOTCOG, the overhead is extremely high.”

Felton said it was his job to get the best benefit of every dollar for the county and the current method isn’t doing that.

“Where I might not be the most popular guy on the HOTCOG board right now, I do think this is the right thing to do for the county,” Felton said.

There is a substantial number of people in the county in need of entry-level jobs, he said. Many of those residents haven’t been able to work long enough to build up the resources needed to have their own transportation, he said. There are others who need the public transportation for medical care and to get to educational opportunities.

Waco Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. said several studies done by the city have shown the largest need is transportation, which is also the largest barrier to employment.

Of the 70,000 jobs in the city of Waco, only 30,000 are held by people who live in the city.

“We feel like there’s a tremendous need to get people in rural areas to jobs,” Duncan said.

Waco Transit General Manager John Hendrickson said that since 2009, the city of Waco has contributed no money from its general fund toward its transit system. Hendrickson said that while he can’t guarantee that will be the case in the future as fuel prices rise and other situations come about, he will work to keep costs low.

He said state and federal funding for transportation is based on performance. Hendrickson said he is convinced a countywide rural transit system could be done in such a way as to attract a significant amount of outside funding.

Commissioner Ben Perry pointed out to several people concerned about unanticipated costs that the committee could set up an agreement for the district that was reviewed annually. That way, he said, if costs become an issue that can’t be fixed, the contract could end.

Matthew Jordon, representing the city of Bellmead, said his main concern was that shelter be provided at bus stops for his residents. Jordon said there are a lot of elderly residents in his community who would not fare well in bad weather conditions waiting for a bus to arrive.

“If you look around, we’re all getting older, and we’re going to need it,” he said. “I’m looking out for the elderly people because there’s nobody there for them, and as they are getting older they need transportation.”

Hendrickson said the company has been putting money aside to fund such needs.

A public hearing was scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Jan. 29 at the McLennan County Courthouse for county residents to voice opinions on the proposed district.

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