The proposal for a $20 million bus trunk line that could cut crosstown travel times in half is heading to the public review stage and could be submitted next summer for federal funding.

The Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization on Thursday heard a consultant’s detailed proposal for a “bus rapid transit” system, including a preferred alignment. The board agreed to move forward with a Nov. 16 public meeting at time and place to be announced.

The proposal by AECOM would reorganize the entire Waco Transit system around a 13-mile central express corridor, running from Lacy-Lakeview to Woodway, mostly along U.S. Highway 84 and Franklin Avenue. Along the route would be 15 bus stations that would connect with loop routes that circulate through neighborhoods.

At least eight express buses would shuttle back and forth along the corridor, arriving at stations in 15-minute intervals. Waco Transit officials say crosstown travel times could be reduced to about 30 minutes, down from an hour to an hour and a half.

“I think we need to hear from the community,” Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver said. “But I think it makes a lot of sense from the standpoint of trying to meet the Prosper Waco goals of improving transportation between those who live in poverty and where most of the jobs are, in the industrial district.”

Deaver is the outgoing chairman of the Metropolitan Planning Organization board, which represents McLennan County and all of its cities in setting the region’s transportation priorities.

The MPO board is set in January to vote on supporting the application for Federal Transit Administration’s Small Starts funding for the project. The city of Waco would apply for the money through Waco Transit, with a September deadline. Federal funding for the project could be available by 2020.

AECOM planner Jimi Mitchell told the board Thursday of the extensive study his firm has done, including some 200 public responses collected online, at input meetings and on buses.

The firm studied three crosstown corridors in depth for the rapid-transit trunk line. One relied largely on Waco Drive, while another used Franklin Avenue for an eastbound route through downtown and Washington for the westbound route.

The preferred alternative uses only Franklin through downtown, which would require converting Franklin into a two-way street. The city has already been studying such a move, along with converting Washington to two-way traffic. That project, which could cost several million dollars including the replacement of traffic lights, could be counted as a local match for the federal funds.

The preferred route would be a mile shorter than the others and is estimated to cost less and pick up more riders, Mitchell said. An estimated 800 riders are expected on the express route daily in 2023, in a overall system that would carry 3,500 riders.

The preferred corridor would start at Business 77 in Lacy Lakeview, zigzag through Bellmead along Loop 340 and Highway 84, then thread through East Waco onto Taylor Avenue and onto Franklin Avenue in downtown. At Valley Mills Drive it would veer right and then continue along Waco Drive to Richland Mall and the Texas Central Industrial District, ending at Estates Drive in Woodway.

The express route would work like an express train, stopping only at prescribed locations, synchronized with the schedules of the neighborhood circulators. To speed the buses along, they would be equipped with fare card readers and would have infrared technology allowing them to prolong green lights.

Waco Councilman Dillon Meek, who is incoming chairman of the MPO board, voiced support for the bus rapid transit corridor, but he raised questions about the map AECOM provided of proposed neighborhood circulators. He said that for some neighborhoods, the walk to the bus would be longer than it is now.

“I’m really excited about expediting travel times, but my concern is people won’t be able to get onto the fast-moving bus,” Meek said.

MPO director Chris Evilia said his staff and Waco Transit staff will be doing more analysis of neighborhood accessibility and will look at ways to minimize any negative impact to current riders.

Project officials said the $20 million estimated cost includes engineering, new express buses, replacement of traffic signals, pedestrian crossings, sheltered bus stations and sidewalk and ramp improvements within a 200-foot radius of the stations.

They said Federal Transit Administration officials typically prefer to fund 70 percent or less of the capital costs, and local officials will explore other funding sources to make up the rest.

In addition to the capital costs, AECOM estimates Waco Transit’s operational costs would increase by $3.5 million to $4 million, a cost that also assumes extending hours and adding Sunday service.

“The capital costs are one thing, but the long-term operational costs are where we need to have a serious conversation,” Evilia said.

Deaver said he hopes to have clearer answers about funding before the application is submitted next year, but he said city officials should keep in mind the benefits of having an improved transit system.

“I think these types of projects in other cities have caused economic development along the corridors that would be beneficial,” Deaver said. “All cities are looking at trying to improve their mass transit. Our mass transit does a good job for certain travelers with certain needs, but to make a long trip across the city it doesn’t meet those needs at all.”

J.B. Smith is the the Tribune-Herald managing editor. A native of Sulphur Springs, he attended Southwestern University and joined the Tribune-Herald in 1997. He and his wife, Bethany, live in Waco and have two children.

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