Robinson resident Jefferson Gunn is among a growing number of people in McLennan County without access to door-to-door transit service provided for individuals with disabilities to travel to jobs and appointments in Waco.
Gunn, a 38-year-old teacher at La Vega High School, has been nearly blind for 10 years and uses Waco Transit System’s on-demand service to get around town.
But Gunn’s home sits just outside the boundaries of Waco Transit, and the half-mile walking route to the nearest pickup site is along Robinson Drive, a five-lane highway lined with busy fast-food restaurants and convenience stores.
Gunn’s wife, Denise, is afraid for his safety, so when she can she drives him to the pickup site in the morning.
“It made me worry because he can’t see around him at all. He can run smack into me in the living room,” Denise Gunn said.
Jefferson Gunn is among hundreds of other residents trapped in areas that are unreachable by public transportation because of federal law or lack of funding.
The U.S. Census Bureau released new transit maps that went into effect in October 2012 labeling areas such as Robinson, Lorena and Chalk Bluff as “urban,” thus restricting which agencies and which pools of money can be used to provide transportation in those areas.
Waco Transit, an urban provider, doesn’t have the money to expand its service into the new areas, and federal law prohibits rural transportation — run by Heart of Texas Council of Governments — to serve people inside designated “urban” boundaries, Waco Transit System general manager John Hendrickson said.
But local officials are looking at new ways to reach those without rides.
Waco Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. said the city and county plan to coordinate with Texas Department of Transportation to combine the two systems in order to provide better service.
Hendrickson said TxDOT ultimately is responsible for providing transportation services, but doles out rural transit funds to HOTCOG and urban transit funds to the city of Waco, which contracts with Waco Transit as its provider.
“There’s so much confusion about the urbanized area and rural transit,” Duncan said. “We don’t really understand the funding streams and what is allowed and what’s not allowed.”
To create more efficiency, Hendrickson said, the McLennan County Commissioners Court could redirect the rural funds from HOTCOG to Waco, where he could grow those dollars through advertising and other revenue streams.
The city in 2013 fiscal year received $400,000 in state money, $2.6 million from the federal government and generated $4.8 million in revenue through bus advertising and corporate contracts.
“We’ve maximized all the dollars we’ve got,” Hendrickson said.
Rural transit received almost $1.2 million in the 2013 fiscal year, but the money ran out in April 2013, forcing HOTCOG to reduce services.
HOTCOG executive director Russell Devorsky said the little revenue HOTCOG brings in is negligible compared to the demand for rural transit.
“We can’t just look at individual pieces of the community. We’ve got to look at the community as a whole because you’ve got Waco, but then ancillary communities just outside of Waco,” Hendrickson said.
Chalk Bluff resident Cindy Barnett, 48, said she has been blind since infancy, but traveling locally has never been a problem because she always had access to door-to-door transportation from HOTCOG.
The new boundary lines eliminated her service and forced her to hire a driver.
Barnett is an independent living coordinator for Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services and teaches new skills to those who recently lost their vision.
Barnett said her husband normally drops her off at work in the morning and she uses a company driver for any traveling she needs to do on the job. But her day ends about 4:30 p.m. and she needs to get home to her children.
“What really bothers me is that I’ve had great transportation for years and now boom — you have something and then they take it. It’d be different if it had never been available,” she said.
Barnett said she spent $328 in October and $220 in November for personal rides home from work and the occasional doctor’s visit or grocery store run.
“I’m just grateful that I can do that. My husband has a good job. I have a good job. It’s not the way I really want to spend my money. The bottom line is for anybody with any type of visual impairment or any kind of disability, public transportation should be a little bit better,” Barnett said.
Her driver charges $15 for a trip home unless the driver has a trip planned in that direction, then she only charges $8. Rural transit only costs $3 a trip.
Gunn said it’s less about the money and more about independence.
He said he couldn’t take his 3-year-old daughter to the doctor while his wife was at work because he couldn’t walk a toddler the half-mile along Robinson Drive. He depends on co-workers for rides home from his job and his wife for anything else.
“I don’t have my independence. I’m not saying we need to have a bus system everywhere in the county, but in these urbanized areas there needs to be a better system,” he said.