Push starts for transit tax rise

Proceeds would fund buses, fine-tune LR-NLR routes

An organization formed to support a 0.25 percent increase in the Pulaski County sales tax to fund transit improvements formally kicked off its campaign Thursday.

Campaign to Connect is headed by Jimmy Moses, the Little Rock developer who is a member of the Rock Region Metro board of directors and helped craft the proposal. Little Rock City Director Kathy Webb and Pulaski County Justice of the Peace Donna Massey serve as co-chairs.

They used a news conference at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to press their case for a tax dedicated to transit, saying the continued growth of Little Rock and the rest of central Arkansas depends on it.

"This is the launch of our quarter-cent sales tax that will fuel the redevelopment and continued growth of central Arkansas," Moses said before a crowd of supporters at UALR's district building on Asher Avenue.

He said transit is vital for many of the region's citizens and investing it in would help foster economic development and make Little Rock a "vibrant and dynamic" city.

"Three million people use our transit system every year to go to work, to play, to health care, to school and many other trips back and forth," he said. "What would the city be without that? It would be a lot less, I think."

Webb said the leaders of other cities of Little Rock's size with whom she speaks say the "key to being a great 21st Century city is to have a great transit system."

Massey said improved bus service with more frequent service would help "people wanting to succeed in this community who don't have the means to.

"If you want to enhance our community, you have to enhance our bus system."

The initiative is on the March 1 primary election ballot.

Backers say approval of the tax would give Rock Region Metro 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 in ways that might serve customers better and attract more riders because of the funding formula, Moses 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.

Plans also call for bus rapid transit, which is higher-frequency service using bigger buses and, sometimes, special bus lanes.

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.

Supporters say bus rapid transit would have platform stations that would serve as magnets for redevelopment.

Under the proposal, the partners' contributions likely would be smaller than the amount they pay now, if the contributions are continued. 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 proposal is an effort to attract "choice" riders, passengers who would use the buses to commute if the service was more convenient than it is now.

Consultant estimates say the plan would boost ridership 30 percent to 40 percent.

Ridership on Rock Region Metro's regular bus routes declined 2.24 percent last year to 2,573,953, according to agency data.

Moses said supporters want to raise at least $75,000.

"It's aggressive," he said. "We'll be lucky to get there. It may be a lot more grass-roots than any campaign that's been run in awhile. We're just going to have to do what we can do. Volunteers are going to be a big part of it."

The campaign comes in the face of political headwinds. The Arkansas chapter for Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group, has had volunteers go door-to-door to raise awareness of the tax proposal and its impact if it is approved.

"We are not telling people how to vote," said David Ray of Maumelle, who according to the group's website is the state chapter's director. "We are encouraging people to vote on March 1. We want them to understand the true cost of the tax."

Ray said the proposed tax amounts to a 25 percent increase in the Pulaski County sales tax, which is 1 percent. The statewide sales tax is 6.5 percent.

Little Rock has a 1.5 percent sales tax.

The volunteers who don't talk to residents are leaving hangers on their doors that calls the tax a "permanent tax hike" that will force "Pulaski County families to pay more for the things we need every day."

Ray, asked for comment on the tax proponents' assertions that the transit improvements the tax will finance will boost economic development in the county, said voters will have to consider that.

"I think every voter is going to have to weigh the pros and cons of the proposal before them," he said.

But Moses pointed to successful elections for tax and bond issues that helped create Verizon Arena and improve the Central Arkansas Library System in the past and helped fund the redevelopment of Robinson Center and the Arkansas Arts Center more recently.

"People are more and more realizing that a good city takes investing public dollars as well as private," he said. "We are going to have another chance to consider that with transit. The successes of the other taxes that make our city better are our best bet."

Metro on 01/22/2016

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