Officials of the Hill Country Transit District are currently approaching local governments of cities they serve to ask how much they can provide in contributions for the upcoming fiscal year.
The discussions are an annual routine for the transit district as a requirement to continue receiving federal funding, said the district’s chairman, David Blackburn. Blackburn, who is the Bell County judge, sits on the board as a county representative.
To acquire federal funds, the district must have other non-federal funds; operations require a 50/50, dollar-for-dollar match and preventive maintenance requires an 80/20 match.
“Hill Country District is the operator who provides the transit service such as buses, drivers, maintenance, dispatch, scheduling and customer service. Cities and Bell County determine level of service by the level of local funding provided,” Blackburn said.
In Fiscal Year 2019, the district received approximately $10,232,400 in local contributions, $589,498 of which came directly from the Bell County along with Belton, Temple, Harker Heights, Killeen and Copperas Cove.
The Copperas Cove City Council approved in April the district’s request of $100,000 for transit operations.
The city council agreed to that amount during budget meetings last year, more than doubling the amount given to Hill Country Transit. The council allocated $42,165 in 2017.
At a Killeen City Council workshop May 21, however, Blackburn and urban operation director Darrell Burtner left the meeting with no definite answer.
Killeen is not prepared to know what funds can be allocated as budget talks are still preliminary, City Manager Ron Olson said to the duo.
Blackburn, said the district’s Fiscal Year 2020 starts Sept. 1.
The city of Killeen’s fiscal year begins, Oct. 1, with its budget to be adopted in late September.
“I think the council should consider … whether we want transit service or what level of service we do want. The council is going to have to consider what you are willing or able to pay for that service. I’m sure that we all want a lot more service than we are going to be able to pay for,” Olson said.
Blackburn said the answer was unfortunate as “it does not allow some sort of answer to look into the next fiscal budget.”
“I feel one scenario will be that things will remain the same until after Killeen adopts their budget and after some period of time we can implement the decision,” he said.
When asked if it was possible that routes might be cut, Blackburn said he predicted it was a possibility.
Burtner said the district’s goal is to “maintain existing routes and expand service where funding will allow.”
“We are not faulting the city council in any way as they have a lot to deal with when it comes to the budget like property taxes,” he said.
Last year, the district requested more than $455,000 from Killeen city council for fiscal year 2019 — a roughly $335,000 increase from the previous fiscal year.
The council voted in opposition to the request and settled to give the service $120,000 for a second year in a row.
There are nine urban fixed routes provided by 24 buses and 18 designated drivers — with destinations in Killeen, Harker Heights, Belton, Temple and Copperas Cove.
Throughout 2018, the HOP averaged 37,345 trips monthly and served 448,134 passengers countywide.
Burtner said the district predicts 227,678 riders for Fiscal Year 2019, approximately 31.6 percent lower than the previous fiscal year.
“Last year, we had to make service cuts such as discontinuing Route 5 and Saturday services in Killeen and four off-peak (slowest times of the day) hours between Cove and Harker Heights. Any (more) service reduction will be dependent on local funding, which has not been determined yet,” Burtner added.
Route 5 once serviced west Killeen with stops in the Willow Springs area.
During the May 21 workshop meeting, Killeen council members were given four options to consider at budget time:
Mileage: 60.2 citywide, reduction on Route 4 (Stops include Killeen Mall, Lowes Boulevard, Wal-Mart and W.S. Young Drive)
Pros: Controlled cost, less miles
Con: Low ridership
Mileage: 74.3 citywide, add Route 5 to roster
Pros: Increased ridership, increased connections and efficiency
Cons: Cost increase
Mileage: 75 citywide, full restoration of 2017 plans, including weekend rides
Pros: Increased ridership, increased connections, efficiency and customer satisfaction
Cons: Highest cost
Mileage: 49.9 citywide, terminates Route 4
Pros: Serves widest possible area with single route
Cons: Major service cut without terminating Killeen service in total
Olson urged council members to look at options, including eliminating the fixed route and partnering with private transportation services, such as Uber or Lyft.
Councilman-at-large Hugh ‘Butch’ Menking, who serves on the district’s board, said as of Thursday neither the board or council have reached a decision.
“Staff has been requested to look at other transportation options besides the HOP. That result will come out for discussion in a future workshop … funding really can’t be worked on until the budget is produced and presented to the council in August,” Menking wrote in a May 23 email to the Herald.
Faces of Killeen’s HOP
Abigail Marsh stood at an uncovered bus stop on Lake Road on Thursday — in 93 degree weather.
As she slowly inhaled her cigarette, The HOP’s Route 2 bus made its way to the post.
“It’s about time, I’ve been waiting for almost an hour,” Marsh said as she wiped the sweat from her arms.
The 45-year-old mother of four is one of hundreds of Bell County residents who use the HOP for day-to-day transportation.
“I took the bus to work, when I used to work. But I go to my doctor, grocery shop and pick up my grandkids (using) the bus. I can’t depend on anyone else for a ride, I gotta do me and this is it,” she said.
Marsh said the 30-minute wait can sometimes stretch longer depending if the bus leaves on time from the main transfer station downtown Killeen.
“It’s like they, you know the guys that control this, are making us feel horrible about our current situation, you know? I can’t afford a car, ok? This is the best I can do,” she said.
On the same day, 18-year-old Kenneth Braisher and friend Laura Phillips, 24, wait for the Route 4 bus downtown.
The route, which has stops at the Killeen Mall, Lowes Boulevard, Wal-Mart and along W.S. Young Drive, has the most ridership — 95,757 in 2018.
No data on the year-to-date numbers for 2019 for this route were provided at press time.
The pair also say the long wait is a hassle and walking long distances to a stop can be wearing.
“My experience with the bus so far is ok, just those two things,” Braisher said.
Rider Russell James, 54, said he was at the city workshop last week and predicts the worse for the HOP’s future.
“If they take another route off, just take the whole thing, you know? The city is broke and this is another example of how they cut the little people off. For what? More rooftops?” he said.
HOP BUDGET HEARINGS PLANNED:
The HOP will hold the following budget presentations:
Harker Heights City Council Workshop, May 28, 5 p.m., 305 Millers Crossing, Harker Heights
Temple City Council Workshop, June 6, 3:30 p.m., Temple City Hall, 2 North Main St., Temple
Belton City Council Workshop, June 11, 6:30 p.m., Harris Community Center, 401 N. Alexander St., Belton
Copperas Cove City Council Workshop, To be determined
West Bell County Public Hearing, June 18, 6 p.m., City of Killeen Transportation Office, 3201-A South W.S. Young Drive
East Bell County Public Hearing, June 20, 6 p.m., Temple Public Library, Third Floor, 100 W. Adams Ave., Temple