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Free trolley rides in Little Rock, North Little Rock set for summer

To fill bus seats, agency reinstates student pass for 3 months

By Noel Oman

This article was published April 19, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.


A Rock Region Metro trolley turns onto West Markham Street from Spring Street on Tuesday in downtown Little Rock.

Rock Region Metro is dropping the $1 fee to ride its downtown trolley cars for the summer.

The Pulaski County transit agency's board voted Tuesday to make the rides free in June, July and August in hopes of building ridership year-round.

The Rock Region board also decided to reinstate its reduced student-fare pass for the summer on its regular buses. Available for any student through the 12th grade, the reduced fare will cost $30, which is about half the cost of regular bus service for three months.

Both measures are aimed at boosting ridership on both the system's regular bus service throughout the county and on the trolleys, which run on a 3.4-mile route in downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock.

Regular bus service and the streetcars both are experiencing declining ridership through the first three months of the year, particularly the trolleys.

The Metro streetcar system has been operating for nearly 13 years. Its first phase opened in 2004. A second phase that took trolley service to the Clinton Presidential Center opened in 2007.

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Streetcar ridership declined 28.8 percent in March compared with the same month in 2016, with ridership falling to 5,841 from 8,205.

For the first three months of 2017, the drop has been more precipitous, falling 36.3 percent, to 10,951 from the 17,187 in January, February and March of last year.

The decision to shut down the trolley at peak hours while the Broadway Bridge was closed to traffic for about five months was certainly a factor. The new bridge opened to traffic March 1.

The streetcars also have had to shut down or limit service on several weekends, including the March 3-5 weekend during the Little Rock Marathon.

Streetcar ridership peaks on Saturdays, said Jarod Varner, the executive director for Rock Region Metro.

The proposal came about after a plea from Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola to look at fare promotions that might enhance ridership.

Varner said it might work, particularly during the workweek when people in downtown offices go to lunch.

"We talked to people in the River Market," he said. "They feel like a lot of folks don't necessarily make it down there during the lunch hour even if they are on a streetcar route just because even though it's just a dollar, it's a dollar each way.

"Add that to the cost of a lunch, it's an inhibiting factor for some people to get out of their office and ride down and eat in the River Market or Argenta."

Board member Jimmy Moses of Little Rock welcomed the proposal as a way to increase ridership during the rest of the year.

"Parking in River Market in the summer is tight, more so than any other time of the year," he said. "This is further encouragement or inducement to get more people familiar with using River Rail and, perhaps, by doing that with this kind of marketing tool more people will use it year-round."

Bentley Wallace, a board member from North Little Rock, expressed worry that the free rides might induce people just to remain on the trolleys indefinitely "to get out of the heat" when summer temperatures soar.

Under the agency's customer conduct code, riders have to be on board "with a purpose," Varner responded. "Some people do get on, they don't necessarily have a purpose, they just ride all the way around [the loop].

"So that will be a limiter. There's no riding around all day. Get a trip in, take care of some business and come back and ride again later if you want."

The fall in ridership on regular bus routes hasn't been nearly as dramatic as that of the streetcars. Still, it is down.

In March, regular buses had 210,830 riders, a 3.18 percent decline from the 217,760 people who rode the regular buses in the same month in 2016.

For the first three months of 2017, ridership declined 3.29 percent, to 608,925 from 629,637 in the first three months of last year.

The discounted student summer pass is designed to boost those ridership numbers with both short-term and long-term potential.

In the short term, more young people will ride the bus, Varner said. But those riders also might give the transit service "more of a chance to have a lifelong customer."

The student pass is modeled after a program the agency ran from 1991 to 2001.

"We want to encourage folks to get out this summer," Varner said. "It pairs really well with the streetcar summer plan. It really gives us a further opportunity to leverage our marketing and outreach to expand that to youth on the bus."

Rock Region likely will partner with summer jobs programs, particularly with Little Rock, which employs several hundred young people every summer. The agency also would look to partner with similar programs in North Little Rock as well as Pulaski County.

"It's another way to leverage a low-cost pass to people who might need a discount," Varner said. "Youth don't have a whole lot of money in their pocket always.

"We don't want transportation to be a limiter to the programs the cities and counties put together."

He expects both initiatives to be revenue neutral and have no impact on the agency's bottom line.

"I don't think it's going to be a heavy lift for us," Varner said.

Metro on 04/19/2017

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drs01 says... April 19, 2017 at 7:27 a.m.

Years ago someone conned the federal government into funding this "tourist trolley" with $20 Million. It was sold as a "transportation system" even though Jim McKenzie (MetroPlan) admitted that it wasn't. We spend $$$ Millions each year to operate and maintain it.
No one who works downtown rides this thing because it's TOO DAMN SLOW. Few have the luxury of a casual 2 hour lunch. That's how long it would take if you rode the tourist trolley. You can walk to a destination faster.
Give the service for free or pay people to ride won't help the ridership numbers.
This project is just another in a long list of downtown revitalization (lipstick)projects that spend money better intended for infrastructure and public safety.
But I have to admit it is "cute".

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Razorbacker1 says... April 19, 2017 at 7:45 a.m.

Hey look at the positive side. At least Little Rock has a functioning trolley line!!! Memphis spent millions to build a trolley line down Madison Street in an attempt to connect the Cooper Young Midtown people with the growing downtown/southmain area. In just a few years after building the line a few of the trolleys caught on fire!! The entire trolley line is now shut down. Also Memphis didn't have mechanics that knew how to properly work on the trolleys. Its just a money pit in the end...

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