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Getting home from the holiday

In some cities, the designated New Year's Eve driver is a public-transit driver - and the fare is free.

SEPTA is running more public transit tonight but it's not free.
SEPTA is running more public transit tonight but it's not free.Read moreJoseph Kaczmarek

UNTIL YESTERDAY, whenever I'd hear someone mention Waco, Texas, I'd think of one tragic thing and one funny thing.

The well-known tragic thing: the deadly 1993 siege of the nearby Branch Davidian religious compound that killed 84 people, including four federal agents and 25 kids.

The little-known funny thing: Waco is home to the Dr Pepper Museum. How hilarious is it that the city has a building with three floors of exhibits devoted to a soda that tastes like Robitussin?

Yesterday, though, I learned a wild thing about Waco: Every New Year's Eve, its public-transit system offers free rides to revelers.

I don't just mean that its buses, vans and sedans are gratis for the evening. I mean that, if you're one of Waco's 129,000 residents, a trained Waco Transit driver will actually pick you up at your door, take you to your destination, then deliver you home later - for free.

"It's more of a chauffeur service" than a bus service, says Kim Schwieters, marketing director of Waco Transit. Last year, about 300 revelers took advantage of the reserve-ahead program, whose approximate $6,300 cost is funded by bars, restaurants and the like. "It's very popular."

I'll bet it is - except among Waco's Uber and Yellow Cab drivers.

Other cities also are offering free public transit over the New Year's holiday (though not Waco's door-to-door service). Tri-Met, in Portland, Ore., will be fare-free from 8 tonight until the wee hours of tomorrow. And Chicago, Milwaukee, the Twin Cities and a handful of other Midwest towns are going fare-free overnight, too, thanks to Miller Lite Free Rides - a program sponsored by the mega-brewing company, which will pay the fares.

Any chance of getting some of that freebie transit in Philly?

"I'm sorry - no," says SEPTA public-information manager Manny Smith. "But we're adding extra buses and trains throughout the night."

Good enough, I guess, considering that Miller Lite Free Rides picked up the fare for Broad Street subway riders back on Sept. 7 - date of the Philadelphia Eagles home opener against Jacksonville. In this city, such an occasion easily rivals New Year's for reckless intoxication.

"At MillerCoors, we believe that drunk driving is 100 percent preventable," company spokeswoman Diane Wagner said at the time, unwilling even to pretend that the offering was meant to make travel to and from the South Philly stadium easier. "We encourage Eagles fans to leave their keys at home and let SEPTA be their designated driver."

But there's one day of the year when we actually need a designated driver even more: Independence Day. That's right, America's birthday is actually the country's deadliest day on the roads, followed by Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, Labor Day and then - and only then - New Year's, according to the America Safety Council.

So, why don't we focus just as heavily on sober driving on those nights?

Um, we do, says Cpl. Gerry McShea, public information officer for Pennsylvania State Police Troop K, which covers the Philadelphia region.

"We've got DUI checkpoints set up during every holiday," especially near high-accident sites and places with a dense concentration of bars, like Manayunk, says McShea. "That's where we find our drunks. We also really focus on catching aggressive drivers, not just drunk ones."

McShea is always heartened, at DUI checkpoints, when he pulls over a taxi and finds that a sober cabbie is ferrying an intoxicated passenger home.

"Better in the backseat than behind the wheel," he says.

Speaking of backseats, Waco Transit's Kim Schwieters says that her agency's drivers are unphased by New Year's passengers who've partied too hard.

"They always have paper towels and wipes and everything in the vehicles," she says, as my brain conjures images I don't think I need to describe in this column. "We'll take care of you and get you home."

The New Year's Eve free-ride program, now in its ninth year, took some hits from critics in its early days, says Allen Hunter, Waco Transit's assistant general manage.

"There were letters to the editor in the paper, people asking why we were spending taxpayer money to get drunks home," says Hunter, who worked in the public-health and safety field before joining the transit agency. "First, the program is funded by sponsors, so no taxes are used. Second, this is not a bar-hop shuttle. This is about safety. A lot of people refer to New Year's Eve as 'amateur night,' where people who aren't used to drinking a lot may overindulge. If they do, we want them to know we can get them home safely."

I'll drink to that, Waco.

But not Dr Pepper.

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly