How much is public transit worth to you?

Whether you ride the bus every day, just occasionally or not at all, it should matter that transit service is available when and where it’s needed.

Of course, what makes a service valuable is its convenience and ease of use. If a prospective rider can’t find a bus stop close by or service times are limited, the value of the service declines for that individual.

In a perfect world, bus routes would cover all areas of a community, offering transportation whenever needed and at reasonable fares.

In the Killeen area, however, the cost of running the local transit system is quickly outpacing revenue — a situation that may result in reduced service.

 The Hill Country Transit District, a state entity that operates The Hop regional transit system, is proposing eliminating a popular Killeen route, Route 5, and Saturday service on all routes, if its request for more local funding from area cities is not met.

It’s not a step the district takes lightly, as it’s been dipping into reserves for several years to offset a decline in state Medicaid-related funding since 2014, when Texas contracted out its payment system to an out-of-state broker — resulting in reduced revenue to The Hop.

The shrinking bottom line forced the district to eliminate three low-performing Killeen routes in 2017. This year, though ridership is not the problem, the district is looking at further reducing service to offset a projected $455,000 shortfall in the coming fiscal year. The only way to avoid service cuts is if area cities — Killeen, Harker Heights, Belton, Temple and Copperas Cove — meet the district’s increased funding requests.

However, that’s unlikely, partly because of the size of the requested increase, but also because the cities in the service area are facing their own budget issues.

In June, a district representative went before the Harker Heights City Council asking that the city increase its funding from the current amount of $43,325 to $163,154 for the coming fiscal year — a 277 percent jump.

The increase would have the city — which accounts for about 18 percent of the district’s riders — paying 3 percent of the district’s operating expenses, as opposed to the current 1 percent.

The district is scheduled to present a similar request to the Killeen City Council on Tuesday, in which representatives will ask the city for $455,749 a year — up from the current $120,000 payment.

The proposed increase would boost Killeen’s share of the district’s budget to 8 percent, up from the current 3 percent. As Killeen has five routes and averaged 90 riders per service hour in the last fiscal year, an increase in the city’s contribution would seem warranted.

However, the district’s timing in asking Killeen and Harker Heights for more money could not have been worse.

Both cities are dealing with the increasing burden of offering state-mandated property tax exemptions to 100 percent disabled veterans and their spouses. It’s a perk the cities are more than willing to extend, but the state’s lack of compensation for the exemption has put a huge dent in their respective budgets.

In Killeen, total exemptions removed nearly $4 million in tax revenues from the city’s $82 million operations budget, though the city received $1.3 million in state compensation.

Harker Heights, with a much smaller, $20 million operational budget, is projected to lose nearly $1.5 million from the 100 percent exemption in the coming year — a total that is 40 percent higher than the city reported in 2017.  And unlike Killeen, Harker Heights received no state reimbursement because the city doesn’t share a border with Fort Hood.

Even if the cities were to boost their funding for The Hop, the size of the requested increases could call for some hard choices in the upcoming municipal budget process — potentially resulting in cuts in personnel, programs or services.

Still, local cities shouldn’t be too quick to write off the transit district’s funding requests.

Cutting transit service is a serious issue, and one that reflects on the cities the district serves, fairly or not.

Some residents cannot afford a car or must share a car with other family members. Others are restricted by age or medical conditions and must depend on public transit to get around.

The bottom line is that bus service is more than an issue of transportation; its a question of quality of life.

Cutting service through reduction of routes and elimination of weekend service extends far beyond simply balancing the transit district’s bottom line. It impacts people’s lives — and in some cases, significantly so.

With so much at stake, the transit district has scheduled a series of public hearings between Aug. 13 and 17 so residents can share their views on the potential changes.

A full list of those hearings can be found in a front-page article in today’s Herald.

Recognizing the importance of the proposed service cuts and their potential impact, the Herald will provide coverage of the Killeen, Harker Heights and Copperas Cove meetings. In the meantime, the Herald welcomes comments and letters from readers on the subject.

How much is public transit worth to you? And what — if anything — should be done to keep it viable locally?

These questions demand honest answers.

Some of those answers may be difficult to hear. But our city officials and transit district representatives must hear them — and then act in the best interests of our community.

More than just budgets are riding on the outcome. | 254-501-7543

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