The Belton Journal

The Hill Country Transit District held its inaugural public meeting on Monday at the Harris Community Center in Belton seeking public input on how the HOP customers will catch local transportation.

The Hill Country Transit District (HCTD) is going to introduce a new microtransit system within Belton that will replace The Hop bus service.

The change involves using your smart phone with an application that is similar to ride sharing apps like Uber or Lyft. With the implementation of the microtransit system, bus riders will be able to order their bus from anywhere within its service area during the HCTD regular business hours.

The fixed-route system where you went to a specific location and waited to catch a bus for an hour will be replaced by the microtransit system. The new system will offer flexibility and convenience to individuals to order a Van from your house, a doctor’s office, restaurant, shopping, or even a theater.

Users can track their driver’s arrival, monitor the trip’s progress, and plan accordingly on their phone.

New transit vans with seats and seatbelts have been ordered. Headroom and additional room will be available for the rider. There will also be dedicated vans for ADA needs and wheelchair lifts. Riders can request one of these ADA vans for their ride.

Darrell Burtner, the director of operations with Hill Country Transit District, said the changes are proven to enhance accessibility and efficiency for passengers.

“We are incredibly excited about the upcoming launch of our service, which has been in development for over a year. Our journey began with an acute awareness of transit needs in urban areas, and a desire to innovate in this space. The cornerstone of our service is our dispatch scheduling software, accessed through a user-friendly smart phone app, or on the internet. This platform will enable users to request on-demand transportation similar to ordering a ride-hailing service,” Burtner said.

A resident had concerns about using the phone app and internet for individuals with specific needs like her mother, who is visually impaired.

Burtner assured her that requests for bus service can still be scheduled by phone.

“For those less familiar with smartphone technology, we have alternative solutions in place. Our service prioritizes accessibility, ensuring that passengers can easily navigate their journey.

“Additionally, our focus on nonemergency transportation services aims to provide efficient and reliable transport options. The move to suspend fixed service routes in favor of microtransit was proposed with the intention of evaluating the new system’s performance over a period of two to four months based on feedback and data analytics before making any final decisions.

“Belton City Councilmembers have unanimously approved an agreement with the HCTD to introduce these innovative microtransit options positioning them as competitors to ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft.”

Burtner described the app as being user-friendly. “You open it up, put in an address, and it takes you right where you want to go.”

There are three pillars of transit service behind the software: service area, service hours and frequency. Funding for HCTD comes from the state, county, local municipalities, and ridership fares.

Burtner is eager to gather opinions on ways to improve the transit system. The proposed changes aim to reduce wait times and travel durations, providing a better overall experience for customers.

While the HOP transit service plans to increase rates for the first time in over 20 years, rider costs are expected to go from $1 to a base $2 fare. According to Burtner, the goal is to maintain affordability while offering improved services. There will also be a discounted fare for seniors over 65, students, military, and special needs. The HOP service will continue to honor Medicaid transportations.

More transit district meetings were held at Copperas Cove Public Library, Harker Heights Public Library and Activity Center, and the last meeting will be held at 4:45 p.m. Friday at the Temple Public Library, 100 W. Adams Ave. in Temple.

In terms of functionality, the funding sources include federal and state grants, as well as a contract with Medicaid for nonemergency medical transportation services. These funds are vital for maintaining and optimizing our software, ensuring real-time tracking and efficient operation. For instance, the software can calculate the optimal route for a passenger from one part of town to another, minimizing wait times and ensuring prompt pickups and drop-offs.

During the initial period from February 5 to March 6, the average wait time stood at 8 minutes and 42 seconds. This data gives us a glimpse of the operational efficiency and sets a baseline for future enhancements. Between Feb.5 and March 6, over 3,840 riders participated in the Fort Cavazos study.

Looking ahead, HCTD is planning to run this service for a few more months, allowing them to gather more data and insights.. Additionally, Burtner said they are ensuring that 100% of the service is functional. This strategy aims to optimize the system’s performance while maintaining a high level of service quality for all passengers. Firm dates for a roll out is unknown, but launch is expected in May or June. Data collection will be collected 2-4 months after launch and corrections to the program will be made. Burtner admits that they may have to return a few fixed routes depending on the data collected.