A new rural transit service promises to greatly improve connectivity between Waco and its outskirts.

Starting July 1, any county resident outside of Waco Transit’s current fixed route system can arrange for a McLennan County Rural Transit District van to pick them up and take them anywhere in a six-county area. The fare schedule is not final but has been proposed at $3 per in-county trip or $5 for trips that cross county lines.

The service isn’t just for the disabled or elderly but can be used to get to college classes, jobs or errands. It will be available not only to rural areas but to suburban areas such as Bellmead, China Spring, Lorena and Woodway.

“We want people to understand there’s going to be a lot more service available,” said John Hendrickson, general manager of Waco Transit, which runs the service. “If they need a trip, call us. If it’s going to the beauty salon, call us. It’s not just for trips to the doctor’s appointment. . . . If they’re going to work, going to school, whatever the case is, this is general transportation.”

Local leaders say this is just the first step in creating a full-service, countywide transit system, and they hope in the next year or two to run buses on fixed routes to towns such as McGregor.

The new program replaces an existing service administered by the Heart of Texas Council of Governments and funded by federal rural transit grants.

Officials from McLennan County and its cities formed the district in January with the idea of using McLennan County’s share of those grants — about $500,000 a year — to do a single-county service.

HOTCOG has transferred 12 of its vans to the new district but will continue to operate the demand-response service in Bosque, Hill, Falls and Freestone counties.

Waco Transit already is dispatching the rural service for HOTCOG, and customers in or outside McLennan County can continue to call the same number to arrange rural trips.

Local officials were dissatisfied with the level of service McLennan County was getting from the program.

Only about three of the vans were dedicated to this county and averaged about 30 trips a day, Hendrickson said.

He said McLennan County was getting about $100,000 worth of service a year.

Service interruption

HOTCOG took over the program from a patchwork of contractors in 2012 but quickly ran out of funds and cut service.

That led to lower ridership and further declines in grant assistance, Hendrickson said.

Hendrickson said many clients have found that the service was booked up and have stopped using it.

“There’s a very limited number of trips because of the lack of availability,” he said. “Right now, our challenge is building confidence back in the program. Right now, you don’t have choice riders, just the riders who are completely dependent on the services.”

Russell Devorsky, executive director of HOTCOG, could not be reached for comment on the changes, and no one else at the regional agency was authorized to comment.

Compared with the current rural transit system, the new system will pick up passengers in more places within McLennan County and will offer extended hours.

The current HOTCOG system runs from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The new system runs from 5:15 a.m. to 7:15 p.m. on weekdays, plus 6:15 a.m. to 8:15 p.m. on Saturdays.

The new system provides a way around some bureaucratic inefficiencies.

Waco Transit already has a contract to pick up rural Medicaid patients in McLennan County and surrounding counties but can’t use those dedicated Medicaid vans to pick up non-Medicaid riders.

But it can use the new rural vans to pick up Medicaid patients in McLennan County along with non-Medicaid riders.

Meanwhile, Waco Transit can use its urban vans to provide demand-response service in areas that aren’t considered rural under the 2010 Census, such as Waco’s adjacent suburbs, McGregor and parts of Lorena.

Currently, rural transit service isn’t available in those areas.

Federal-state funds

As ridership numbers increase, Hendrickson said he expects the federal-state rural transit funding for McLennan County will increase and the countywide system will grow.

“It’s really going to change the dynamics of public transportation in this city and the county,” he said.

Hendrickson said he would like Waco Transit to provide fixed-route commuter service between Waco and towns such as West and McGregor, even North Fort Hood.

He said such expansions would require some contributions from major employers in those places.

Waco Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. said he also would like to see fixed-route service outside Waco starting next year.

He said local leaders will be monitoring which areas of the county have the most demand for the demand-response service before deciding where permanent routes would go.

“There’s already interest in providing a route to the call center in McGregor,” he said. “It’s like any market-driven service — it’s going to be based on ridership and usage.”

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