Rural residents in McLennan and surrounding counties this week will begin feeling the effects of drastic cuts to a government-subsidized transit service.
Effective last Friday, the Heart of Texas Rural Transit District laid off 12 of the 20 drivers of vans that took seniors and other rural residents to work, shopping and medical care.
That will mean thousands of fewer rides this summer for the service, which provides on-demand customized rides to residents of Bosque, Falls, Hill and Freestone counties and rural McLennan County. Limestone County is also part of the district but operates on a separate contract and is not directly affected by the cuts.
Russell Devorsky, executive director of the Heart of Texas Council of Governments, which oversees the transit district, called the service cuts and layoffs “heartbreaking” but necessary. He said the service became overextended due to federal and state budget cuts and rapid growth in demand. But he expects it can rebuild after this budget year ends in late August.
“This is a temporary reduction until we can get to the next budget cycle,” he said.
In the meantime, he said his agency will try to maximize service by combining trips. Meanwhile, medical trips for Medicaid patients are handled by Waco Transit and will not be affected.
Those who work with the needy were alarmed about the sudden decline in vital transportation services.
“The whole community is probably going to have to have a conversation about this,” said Libby Bellinger, associate director of Waco-based Meals and Wheels, which serves seniors.
“We’re getting calls daily from people who say, ‘I don’t drive anymore. How can I get to my appointment?’ ” she said. “They’ll say, ‘I have to get my stitches out, but I call HOTCOG, and they say they can’t pick me up.’ We don’t know what to tell them.”
Barbara Tate, executive director of the Heart of Texas Regional MHMR, said she worries about the effect the cuts will have on residents with intellectual disabilities in places like Marlin who need to come into Waco for services.
The council of governments for years has contracted rural transit service to a constellation of providers, such as Waco’s Meals and Wheels. For as little as $1, the providers would arrange to drive residents outside the Greater Waco urbanized area to destinations as far away as Temple or even Dallas.
Most of the money for the service has come from federal-state grants, one for senior travel and one for the general population.
But federal and state grants for the program have shrunk in the past few years. Last year, contractors said they were losing too much money on the service. In January, four months into the fiscal year, half the year’s budget of $1.19 million had been spent, and the council of governments took over the service.
“The model had become unsustainable, so we took it in-house,” Devorsky said.
“We brought it in without full funding, and we knew we were going to have challenges, but the challenges turned out to be greater than anticipated.”
The expenditures continued to exceed budget under the council of government’s management. To make up for lost ground, the service that gave nearly 3,500 rides a month last year will have to shrink to 1,175 a month for the next four months, according to Devorsky’s numbers.
Devorsky said the council of governments is looking at several strategies to get back into financial shape, including raising fares, seeking advertising for buses and asking counties to contribute to the service.
Also, the agency could seek to become a transportation provider for Medicaid, which provides much better reimbursement for rides than the other federal programs.
Currently, Waco Transit provides transit service for Medicaid-related trips in the region. Waco Transit general manager John Hendrickson said it would be more efficient to have one agency, either his or Devorsky’s, make all the rural trips.
“From a coordination standpoint, it makes total sense,” he said.