A more complete picture is emerging of the Bus Rapid Transit project, which would reorient Waco’s transit system along an express route with hopes of cutting cross-town travel times in half.
As part of environmental and engineering studies for the project, AECOM consultants have issued new maps showing the 13.3-mile bus express route between Woodway and Lacy Lakeview, largely following Franklin Avenue, which would be converted to two-way traffic in downtown.
The maps also show a revised locations for 14 stations where riders can transfer to the express bus from neighborhood collector routes.
The consultants and local transportation planners are looking at federal funding possibilities to allow construction to begin in 2022. They have been working with a cost estimate of about $19 million, though that number has not been updated recently.
At a Waco City Council meeting last week, project manager Paulette Vander Kamp said the project is in its preliminary design phase and could still be revised.
“There are still stations that are in a little bit of flux as we go through the design process,” Vander Kamp said.
Once the federal environmental study is complete, AECOM will seek more public input on the project. Representatives from CP&Y are conducting survey and utility work for the project.
Deputy project manager Tim Simon with Alliance Transportation Group estimated the system will cost between $4.5 and $5 million to operate annually.
“This all began as a way to explore how to improve connectivity and travel time,” Simon said. Project officials have estimated that the longest cross-town trips could be cut from 110 to 50 minutes with the reorganized routes, though most trips would be much shorter than that.
Even with the existing system organized around a single downtown hub, Waco Transit saw an 11% increase in ridership from 2016 to 2019.
For the new bus routes to work, parts of Washington Avenue and Franklin Avenue will be converted to two-way streets.
An estimated $4.8 million project on Franklin Avenue from University Parks Drive to 18th Street would convert the road to two-way traffic and include sidewalk repairs in spots. Officials are considering two lanes in each direction, potentially with a central turn lane. Work is expected to start in January 2022.
Metropolitan Planning Organization Director Chris Evilia said the study will determine what other design changes need to be made to accommodate the new system.
Evilia said the city would most likely pay for related projects such as the Franklin Avenue two-way conversion.
“It’s probably one of those things where the city would have to pay for it, but if they could do some calculations and actually identify elements of that project that are necessary and needed, there is an opportunity to count that work as local match,” Evilia said.
He said it’s too early to tell if Franklin Avenue will need more work besides the planned conversion.
Franklin Avenue and Washington Avenue are a one-way pair serving downtown. The city approved plans in March 2019 to convert the downtown section of Washington to two-way, but the project has been rebid because initial bids came in higher than expected.
Evilia said the Bus Rapid Transit project has moved from concept to practical design questions.
“We’re getting down into the weeds right now on a staff level with the consultants,” Evilia said. “So there are a lot of options on the table. Right now we’re just trying to understand the pros and cons of each, what are the trade-offs.”
He pointed to the different ways stations could be designed to square with Americans With Disabilities Act regulations, either with raised platforms, buses that “kneel” down to curb-level or some other method. Different designs make stops last different lengths of time, having a cumulative effect on the whole system that was intended to shorten travel times.
“Minute details, but important in terms of cost and how long the bus needs to actually be there,” Evilia said.
Evilia said once the study is over and final recommendations are ready, the consultants will turn to the public for more input.
He said COVID-19 is a wildcard, but he can’t predict if it will impact funding for the BRT. Last year Congress voted to extend the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, which earmarked $305 billion in federal funding for long-term transportation projects, by another year. He said the following year will be marked with discussions about what will replace the FAST Act once it expires.
“We have a new administration coming in, it’s perhaps going to look different from what the conversations have been over the past year,” Evilia said. “How that translates into transit funding, that’s a good question.”