Driverless cars and rapid transit bus lines that slash commute times will barge into Waco’s transportation future. But their arrival will depend on funding and the basics of street striping, synchronized traffic lights and smooth pavement.
That’s the message Chris Evilia, executive director of Waco’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, delivered Monday to the Waco Rotary Club.
He launched the MPO’s campaign to spread the word about a new long-term plan under development that will address McLennan County transportation needs through 2045, and to receive public response. It will supersede the current transportation plan, called Connections 2040, Evilia said in an interview.
Though some may view driverless cars as a science fiction novelty, “most experts believe they fall within a 25-year planning horizon,” Evilia said. “Whether five or 15 years down the road, it is a question we are going to have to deal with. We need planning exercises, and this is one, and eventually we will need to pursue funding. There is no real good answer to when. There is good news in the fact we will not have to consider any special infrastructure. What we have now is what automakers are preparing for. What they say communities need is good pavement, good signage, good lane markings and good signals. We can definitely work on those. We are behind on that, but Waco is not any different from anyone else in that regard.”
An MPO subcommittee already has taken up the matter. Its chairman, Waco City Councilman John Kinnaird, told the Tribune-Herald last year that driverless cars are not “pie in the sky” but a mode of transportation that could be widely adopted in the next two decades.
Evilia said the Dallas-Fort Worth area is brimming with autonomous vehicle activity. The U.S. Department of Transportation has included Texas among 10 sites nationally where business and government can test the technology, the Dallas Morning News has reported. The cities of Frisco, Arlington, Austin, Bryan and Houston have projects in the planning and development phases.
Driverless cars carry a slew of benefits, Evilia told the Rotary Club. They obey traffic laws and don’t operate impaired, which means safer travel.
“The challenges are poorly marked or faded lanes, or streets that are in bad condition, things like that, but the truth is human beings face the same challenges under those conditions,” Evilia said. “Whether driverless vehicles will serve individuals or fill mass transit needs, a lot of people are trying to figure out. I don’t know that anyone has a clear picture. Some visionaries say no one will own driverless vehicles. If we need to go somewhere, we will call a (driverless) Uber or Lyft, and one will swing by moments later.”
Meanwhile, Evilia said creating a bus rapid transit line remains a priority for local transportation leaders. AECOM Technical Services, under a contract with the city of Waco, conducted a $468,000 study that envisioned an east-west trunk line that followed Franklin Avenue. Four express buses would serve this backbone, while circulator buses would feed into it from up to 14 citywide stations. The system would eliminate the need to end and begin all routes at Waco Transit’s downtown hub.
The BRT was included in the 2040 transportation plan and was adopted as a goal last year by the MPO and Waco City Council.
“The consultant has finished the report, and it met all feasibility criteria. They came back with some really impressive numbers on reducing travel times on the system,” said Evilia. “The next phase, which Waco Transit has begun, involves the engineering and design phase, taking steps to get funding for the infrastructure and physical things needed to have such a system. This would be done with input from the Federal Transit Administration.”
That process could take another two years, Evilia said.
“Instead of taking an hour or longer to get across town, we might see 20-minute loops,” said Evilia. That time savings becomes critical, said Evilia, considering projections that job creation between now and 2045 will be heavily concentrated along West Loop 340, near Woodway and Hewitt, Texas Central Industrial Park, Providence Health Center, Hillcrest Scott & White Health Center Waco, Richland Mall and Central Texas Marketplace.
“Fast forward 25 years, and I believe we will have more employment concentrated there than anywhere else in the region,” Evilia said.
The MPO estimates that the bus rapid transit line would cost about $19 million to create and $4 million a year to operate.
Evilia said planning includes prioritizing projects with the understanding that money is not available to cover everything on the wish list. In highway projects alone, the 2040 plan identified nearly $1.7 billion in upgrades, maintenance and rehabilitation from $3.1 billion submitted.
That $1.7 billion includes funding for widening Interstate 35 from North Loop 340 to South Loop 340, with work on the portion between South 12th Street and the north loop scheduled to begin next month, Evilia said.
This MPO transportation study takes note of increased development within Waco’s “urban core,” the arrival of restaurants, retail and loft living.
“We are seeing a reversal in the trend of residential decline, and we would anticipate that to be continuing,” Evilia said. “We do have sufficient infrastructure in place to support that growth. It was built for a very different time. But we don’t want to start removing capacity with bike lanes and converting two-way to one-way, and later realize we shot ourselves in the foot. What we are proposing is sufficient to accommodate demand.”
He said the plan envisions continued rapid growth in the China Spring area, “and areas that look very rural now won’t look rural by 2045.”
He asked the public to share thoughts and ideas either by attending public meetings scheduled to begin in May, or via email at email@example.com.