Local transit officials continue to urge McLennan County leaders to create a combined urban and rural transportation district, which would close the service gaps created by the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau maps and expand bus rides to the entire county.
If the county created a combined transit district, Waco Transit System would manage all transportation in the county and receive the state money currently paid to the rural transit provider, Heart of Texas Council of Governments.
“I’m looking for a compelling reason not to do this,” County Judge Scott Felton said. “I am interested in improving transportation across McLennan County. It’s an important part of health services and economic development.”
Waco City Council and McLennan County commissioners met Monday and Waco Transit General Manager John Hendrickson explained how he could increase rural trips from 5,000 to more than 34,000 if the district were approved.
The current rural transit program is an on- demand service and offers about 5,100 hours of rides per year. Hendrickson projected increasing that to almost 20,000 hours.
Hendrickson said Waco Transit would be able to provide more service by studying where the most transit requests are coming from in rural areas and developing “flex routes” for the on-demand service. Vans would be able to pick up more people per route instead of responding to one request at a time.
Hendrickson said he also would establish points throughout the county for smaller vans that provide on-demand service to meet larger buses driving to Waco to save on fuel expenses.
By growing the number of rides provided in the county, Hendrickson said the county could expect more state transit funds.
“As ridership increases and the way we operate increases, we would see more money long-term for this region,” Hendrickson said.
The Texas Department of Transportation is responsible for public transit and dispenses funds to governmental entities based on ridership and performance.
HOTCOG provides rural transit services to the county and its five surrounding neighbors: Bosque, Falls, Freestone, Hill and Limestone counties.
TxDOT gave HOTCOG almost $1.2 million in the 2013 fiscal year to provide rural transit to the six counties. The money ran out in April 2013, forcing HOTCOG to reduce services.
McLennan County’s portion was more than $300,000, which would go to Waco Transit if the district were approved.
HOTCOG Executive Director Russell Devorsky said if the McLennan County funding is removed from the council of governments, he would have to reduce services and lay people off.
Devorsky said he was unaware the county was dissatisfied with the rural transit service and plans to meet with HOTCOG officials to research further consequences of moving the funding.
Felton said he sympathizes with Devorsky’s situation, but his priority is to build McLennan County’s services.
Hendrickson said he is open to hiring those who leave HOTCOG and using them to expand services through Waco Transit.
“The ultimate goal is to enhance services within McLennan County and ultimately create more jobs,” Hendrickson said.
Both county and city officials began looking to expand the transit system after receiving calls from agitated residents who lost transportation services because of a new census map that went into effect in October 2012, based on information gained through the 2010 census.
The map reclassified certain areas of the counties from “rural” to “urban,” causing a gap in service because of federal law and a lack of funding.
Waco Transit, an urban provider, doesn’t have the money to expand its service into the new areas, and federal law prohibits rural transportation providers — in this case, HOTCOG — to serve people inside designated urban boundaries.