A project that would overhaul Waco’s bus system and dramatically cut cross-town travel times could be more expensive to build but less expensive to run than city staff initially thought, a consultant told the city council Tuesday.
The proposed Bus Rapid Transit system could cost as much as $30 million to $35 million to implement, compared to initial estimates of between $18.3 million and $19.4 million, according to AECOM Technical Services, a firm the city hired for preliminary engineering planning. During a Waco City Council meeting Tuesday, AECOM representatives, local transportation officials and city council members reviewed possibilities for lowering the initial cost to as little as $10 million by removing some elements, in addition to the possibility of splitting the work into phases.
City Council Member Andrea Barefield said the improved bus system has been part of the city’s pitch to employers considering Waco operations. She said she would prefer not to reduce the overall size of the proposed system, which would stretch from Woodway to Lacy Lakeview with a central line along Franklin Avenue and Highway 84.
“I don’t think decreasing our footprint is the answer, especially when one of the things we used as a selling point … with industry coming in is that we have this wonderful bus rapid transit system that is coming to bring jobs to people and people to jobs,” Barefield said.
She said the project would especially have benefits for residents in District 1, which she represents, giving residents easier access to employers and vice versa. Given the long list of ongoing road and utility projects causing temporary disruptions in the city, she could see the benefit of tackling the bus system in phases.
“I get the phased approach. …We’re already as torn up at one time as we can be,” Barefield said.
A Federal Transportation Administration grant would pay for much of the Bus Rapid Transit work, if approved, and the city has taken initial steps in the lengthy application and approval process for one of the possible grants, including hiring AECOM in 2019 and collecting public input on initial proposals for bus stop placement.
The long central line would have 28 stations, and shorter routes would branch off into neighborhoods. For the main line, fare collection could be handled before riders board the bus at more-developed stations, possibly with raised platforms to ease loading. Buses also could be prioritized in various ways in traffic flow, with the goal of making the consistency of timing similar to a light rail or subway system.
The new system would replace Waco Transit’s current fixed bus route layout.
Annual operation of the proposed Bus Rapid Transit setup would cost between $2.3 million and $2.8 million, according to AECOM, compared to earlier city estimates of $2.4 million to $3 million.
“It didn’t seem like we were too overly grand in our initial look at this,” said City Council Member Jim Holmes, who represents District 5 on the western end of the proposed central line. “But to come up with an extra $3 million a year to make it work is … a challenge for sure.”
David Pointdexter, who specializes in federally funded Bus Rapid Transit systems for AECOM, presented the city council with three example funding scenarios: one estimated at $35 million, a pared down $20 million version and an even smaller $10 million version. Some of the major costs would include construction of stations with seating, digital signs at stations that can be updated in real time, new vehicles, sidewalk improvements, road work at two intersections, and stations where bus operators can use the restroom.
If it can secure federal grant funding, the city has several options for funding its share of the project, including local sales taxes, a bond or using the Tax Increment Financing fund, Pointdexter said.
The city has already started the process to apply for a grant through a Federal Transit Administration program known as Small Starts. To continue that process, Waco Transit would need to submit a financial plan, report other sources of funding, demonstrate the organization is not struggling financially and submit a 20-year plan detailing how Waco Transit would operate and fund its overhauled transit service.
“This is where we show FTA how the service … would be funded for the next 20 years, both from the capital and operating side,” Pointdexter said. “We need to come up with what those funding commitments are.”
City officials have discussed counting an upcoming Franklin Avenue road project as part of the Bus Rapid Transit project for purposes of the grant, in part to fulfil a local funding match requirement. That remains an option but would require the road work to go through National Environmental Policy Act processes for review and public input, which could slow the road work down, Pointdexter said.
The $4.8 million Franklin Avenue project would convert a portion of the thoroughfare from University Parks Drive to 18th Street to a two-way street, potentially with a central turn lane. The project includes sidewalk repairs and is expected to start as soon as January.
Pointdexter said in the past, the city has considered counting planned road and pedestrian improvements along Franklin Avenue as part of their local match for the Small Starts grant. He said it’s still an option, but would require the Franklin Avenue to become part of the BRT project officially and follow federal National Environmental Policy Act requirements.
“This could result in delays for the, currently being designed and planned, Franklin Avenue project,” Pointdexter said.
Regardless of whether the Franklin road work is counted for the grant, Waco Transit’s next steps will include a “route realignment study” outlining the expected effects of switching to the Bus Rapid Transit system compared to sticking with current operations, Waco Transit General Manager Serena Stevenson said. The Waco Metropolitan Planning Organization is expected to award a contract for the study in the coming months, and the study itself is expected to take another nine months, Stevenson said.