In the past few months, I've had the opportunity to visit with several local groups regarding the Rock Region METRO MOVE Central Arkansas plan to improve the bus system. Most everyone with whom I visit respects and supports my plea for more investment in the central Arkansas public transit system.
Why? Because our residents understand that public transit is an economic driver, taking almost 3 million riders to their jobs, education, health care, shopping and other activities each year. They also recognize the growing demand for transportation choices, a demand made louder every day as central Arkansas considers the costs and long-term decisions associated with the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department's 30 Crossing project. Finally, our residents appreciate the role transit plays in serving our most vulnerable populations, which include students, the poor, the elderly and people with disabilities, who are more commonly referred to by our residents as family members, neighbors, church members and friends.
Our transit system operates on a 30-year-old funding formula based on service miles operated in six local jurisdictions: Little Rock, North Little Rock, Pulaski County, Sherwood, Maumelle and Jacksonville, which accounts for 73 percent of our annual budget. While this formula provides an equitable way for our local funders to share the costs of supporting our system, it does not offer the flexibility to meet changing mobility needs in our community. And our needs have changed. In the past six years, our ridership has increased by 20 percent. And no one can argue central Arkansas hasn't changed dramatically since 1986.
For the past 18 months, the Rock Region METRO board of directors, staff and almost 70 stakeholders from an array of industries and backgrounds have worked with a professional transportation development firm to develop a plan to give central Arkansans what they want: greatly improved frequency of bus arrivals on high-demand routes, a system that meets all levels of demand as efficiently as possible and a modern passenger experience.
We have a hardworking team of people who want to deliver a better public-transit service to central Arkansas, but our current funding structure does not allow even seemingly minor deviations from the route system established three decades ago.
Are there inefficient routes right now? Yes. If we cut any service in one jurisdiction, however, we force every other jurisdiction to pay more into the system. We cannot force our funders to pay more, and thus no major system changes can occur. To those who would criticize our current transit system for inefficiencies, we would agree wholeheartedly that the system could be made more efficient, with a dedicated funding source, which we are pursuing with a quarter-cent sales tax to fund public transit on the March 1 Pulaski County election ballot.
Why a sales tax? By Arkansas law, our only legal option for a dedicated public transit source is a sales tax, capped at a quarter-cent. Although it's a regressive tax, we feel the benefits of an improved transit system outweigh the downside.
Beyond improving mobility for those who are transit-dependent, a convenient, modern public transit system will also attract more riders. Nelson/Nygaard, the consulting firm that helped develop the MOVE Central Arkansas plan, estimates that we can expect a ridership increase of 30 percent to 40 percent if we implement all aspects of the plan, available at rrmetro.org/move.
Our residents may have taken notice of efforts we have already made to improve our system, such as implementing cleaner-burning compressed natural gas buses to replace our older diesel-fueled vehicles, providing 55 additional shelters in the coming months and providing free Wi-Fi service on all fleet buses. The goal is to ensure riders are as comfortable as possible and can make the most of their commute. We have also provided an intelligent technology system that offers real-time bus-arrival information access via our bus stop sign texting system, our live maps at rrmetro.org and our coming-soon mobile app.
Again, I believe most Pulaski County citizens support these efforts to improve our system. They understand that we have been successful with system changes already underway and will be successful in the future with more investment.
Our few critics call for investment in jails and deny the decline in personal vehicle ownership. We provide the essential support of transportation to take people to opportunities that can keep them out of jail: jobs, education and vocational training. We also recognize that younger generations are not attaining driver's licenses or buying cars at the rate of previous generations.
We are ready to provide the public transit system that Pulaski County deserves. We humbly appeal to Pulaski County voters to provide an efficient, modern and appealing system by voting for public-transit funding March 1.
Jarod Varner is Rock Region METRO executive director.
Editorial on 02/04/2016