A government-subsidized rural transit service will ramp up again this week under a private contractor after suffering drastic cuts and losing more than half its ridership this summer.
The Heart of Texas Rural Transit District has hired LeFleur Transportation to start Monday providing customized rides to residents in Bosque, Falls, Hill and Freestone counties and rural McLennan County.
Fares for the on-demand service will rise from $1 to $3 as part of an effort to prevent operating deficits.
The service often is used by rural residents to get to doctor appointments or shopping, but it is not limited to the elderly, sick or poor.
The transit district, which is under the Heart of Texas Council of Governments, took over the transit operation from a patchwork of nonprofit contractors a year ago.
Within four months, half the year’s budget was spent and in April, the service laid off 12 of its 20 drivers and reduced its ridership this summer from about 3,500 per month to about 1,200.
LeFleur won the bid competition to run the service in the fiscal year beginning Sept. 1.
HOTCOG executive director Russell Devorsky said he expects LeFleur can help rebuild ridership to its prior levels. He said the firm’s costs, including benefits, will be lower than his organization’s.
He said LeFleur, which operates about 40 transit systems across the country, has “economies of scale” that allow efficiencies HOTCOG can’t match.
He said the company has agreed to consider hiring back drivers who lost their jobs with the transit service in April.
The budget for the service is about $1 million, including Limestone County, which operates its own service. Last year’s total budget was $1.2 million, coming from federal funds administered by the Texas Department of Transportation.
The budget is based on ridership two years before the present, so the loss of ridership this year will have an effect in 2015, Devorsky said.
A separate transit service run by McDonald Transportation handles medical trips under the Medicaid program.
McDonald Transportation, which runs Waco Transit and maintains the buses for the HOTCOG program, is in discussions to handle dispatching for the rural transit program. The company did not bid against LeFleur to operate the service.
John Hendrickson, general manager of Waco Transit, said he doubts that hiring a private contractor will solve the financial problems for the rural service.
He said $1 million isn’t enough to restore the service to previous levels, and the loss of ridership will only cause funding to shrink in the future.
“By going the route (HOTCOG) is going, I think it’s going to be detrimental to the region as far as transportation goes,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t going to get rides.”
Devorksky disagreed, saying HOTCOG has been working to find savings and new sources of revenue, such as fare increases and advertising.
“I’m extremely confident the program will survive and grow,” he said.