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It didn't take much debate for a Metroplan advisory committee to support a proposal on the March 1 primary election ballot that would establish a one-fourth percent Pulaski County sales tax dedicated to transit.

The Regional Planning Advisory Council voted Wednesday to recommend that the Metroplan board of directors support the initiative to expand transit service in the county and possibly introduce bus rapid transit, which the top official at Rock Region Metro described as "light rail on wheels."

The recommendation will be on the agenda for next week's board meeting, said Jim McKenzie, the long-range regional planning agency's executive director. The board can adopt, reject or ignore the recommendation, he said.

The unanimous voice vote from about two dozen council members present came not long after a presentation from Jarod Varner, the transit agency's executive director.

The proposed transit expansion is a way to diversify the county's transportation options by providing residents with improved service to reduce the dependency on single-occupant vehicles, lessen road congestion and protect the environment, he said.

He said voters can look at all the parking lots, which Varner said he understood to be the top land use in Little Rock, to see the need for transit improvements.

Approval of the tax would give the transit agency more leeway to tailor routes to maximize bus usage. Rock Region Metro relies on annual contributions from the county and its major cities, which total about $12.5 million.

But the contributions are based on routes in Little Rock, North Little Rock and other parts of the county. The agency is limited in its ability to modify routes that might serve customers better and attract more riders because of the funding formula, he said.

The tax would raise about $18 million annually. The agency would use the proceeds to add buses and routes and to increase the frequency of stops. Rock Region Metro also could use smaller vehicles to add some community bus service in places such as Jacksonville, Sherwood and Maumelle.

In other areas, regular buses on some underutilized routes would be replaced with smaller vehicles for on-demand "flex" routes, Varner said.

Plans also call for bus rapid transit, which is higher-frequency service using bigger buses and sometimes lanes set aside for buses. Two rapid-transit routes using West Markham Street, Kanis Road and South University Avenue would be established only if Rock Region Metro's partners agreed to continue their annual contributions, he said.

Under the proposal, the partners' contributions likely would be smaller than the amount they pay now, Varner said. The bus rapid transit proposal also would hinge on grants from the Federal Transit Administration, which requires at least 50 percent of the routes to be on dedicated lanes.

The council vote came a day before a formal campaign for the tax kicks off at UALR.

Alex DePriest, an advisory council member from Little Rock, urged the council to support the tax.

Brad Walker, who said he was inclined to support the tax, suggested the council wait until its next meeting to vote, giving members time to digest the information.

But others pointed out that the long-range transportation plan for the region through several updates had called for a tax dedicated to transit.

Casey Covington, a Metroplan transportation planner, said the proposal wouldn't require amending the plan because the tax would pay for the transit expansion.

The council also got a briefing on the status of the Interstate 30 corridor project from Earl Mott, the corridor project manager who works for North Little Rock engineering firm Garver LLC.

The council will eventually get to weigh in on whether the project is granted an exception to a longtime Metroplan board policy that limits area freeways to six lanes until transit and other options are considered.

A public meeting is set for Feb. 23 at Horace Mann Middle School at 1000 E. Roosevelt Road in Little Rock, at which the department will solicit comment on an in-depth evaluation of two alternatives -- eight main lanes or a 10-lane option that includes eight main lanes and two segregated lanes dedicated to local traffic.

Metro on 01/21/2016

Print Headline: Metroplan advisory panel backs tax measure on county's ballot

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