How much is it worth to keep bus service operating in Killeen?
Tuesday night, the City Council decided that for the coming year, that total is just over $222,300.
That figure is nearly double the $120,800 the city currently pays the Hill Country Transit District to provide service to riders on the Hop’s four daily routes.
The problem is, even with the higher funding level, service for the Hop will be reduced, with cutbacks on Route 4, which stops at the Killeen Mall and the Walmart on Lowes Boulevard.
Still, the council had little choice given the options presented by a Hill Country Transit official Tuesday night. Keeping the funding at current levels — as City Manager Ron Olson’s proposed budget calls for — would result in cuts of more than 10 miles from the current plan and elimination of Route 4 altogether.
In order to restore service to 2017 levels — which included weekend service — the council would have had to approve funding of more than $800,000 for the coming year.
Given the city’s tight finances, that wasn’t going to happen.
As it is, extra funding for the transit district must be identified before it can be allocated. The council directed Olson to find money in the city’s balanced budget for 2019-2020 in order to fund the additional $101,500 for bus service.
In a proposed budget that totals more than $209 million, it would seem that finding $100,000 wouldn’t be a difficult task — especially if the money were taken from several different areas.
The budget calls for no increases in the property tax rate or utility fees, and it doesn’t envision any significant cuts in city personnel.
Given those parameters, where can the extra transit service money be found?
Olson has some ideas — what he terms decision packages, which are included in the proposed budget. Some of the options include reallocation of personnel and equipment purchases.
Those would seem to be the least painful options, and the most sensible.
Certainly, increasing fees would not be a logical choice — especially if the fee selected has nothing to do with mass transit service. For example, a hike in golf course fees or water meter hookup fees would result in all golf course users or all water customers subsidizing bus service, although very few of the people impacted may actually use mass transit.
However, no matter what funding mechanism is used to provide the extra money for the transit district, it will amount to a taxpayer subsidy.
Still, the city isn’t paying much, in terms of the percentage of the Hop’s operating costs. According to a spokesman for the transit district, passenger fares and contributions from local governments amount to just 10 percent of the district’s operating costs. Consequently, even with state and federal funding factored in, the transit district is paying for about a third of the costs each year.
Federal Transit Authority figures show that the average amount paid by governments nationwide is 32 percent.
Given the gap between what local governments are paying and what the transit district needs them to pay, it would seem that the Hill Country Transit District’s current business model is unsustainable over the long term.
This is especially the case given the Hop’s falling ridership numbers over the past three years. And further cutbacks in routes and service hours will only hasten that drop-off.
In addition to resolving the funding question for the upcoming budget year, the City Council must decide whether keeping bus service in the long term is essential for Killeen and its residents.
In doing so, council members must be mindful of the fact that the Hop is a regional system, with riders from Copperas Cove, Harker Heights, Nolanville, Belton and Temple impacted by any potential loss of service in Killeen.
Should the council eventually decide to opt out of the Hop service, some kind of accommodations must be made for residents who lack transportation.
Last week, the council directed Olson to look into alternatives to mass transit.
In recent months, he has suggested a possible transition to service by ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft, but as the Herald has reported, some municipalities that have entered into such agreements have reported problems with rising costs and changing terms of service.
Certainly, no transit system is perfect, but the city would be wise to thoroughly investigate a variety of options before making any final decision to abandon the current service.
Residents will have an opportunity to share their views regarding the Hop funding and any other aspects of the Fiscal Year 2020-2021 budget, during a public hearing Tuesday. A hearing also is planned on the city’s property tax rate, which is proposed to remain at 74.98 cents per $100 valuation.
The hearings are part of a City Council meeting that starts at 5 p.m. at City Hall, 101 N. College St.
It is important that residents show up for Tuesday’s meeting and let council members know how they would like their tax money spent.
The city’s budget is scheduled for adoption Sept. 17, after a second tax rate hearing next week.
Unfortunately, residents have had scant opportunity to offer their input on what has been a largely behind-the-scenes process to date.
However, this week’s hearings provide just such a chance, and council members have an obligation to listen to their constituents’ views — including how much should be spent on bus service.
The answers offered by residents should be taken into account before any long-term funding decisions are made.
How much is it worth to keep bus service in Killeen?
Maybe it’s best to ask those who use it — and those who need it. Then decide.