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Tax rise for buses loses; backers vow to try again

by Noel Oman | March 2, 2016 at 5:45 a.m.

Voters in Pulaski County on Tuesday defeated a proposal to raise the countywide sales tax by a quarter of a percentage point to increase transit options throughout the county.

With all 137 precincts reporting, the unofficial vote totals were:

Against 48,841

For 36,791

The vote for the first tax solely dedicated to Rock Region Metro was projected to raise an estimated $18 million annually. The transit agency planned to use the proceeds to expand regular bus service, increase the frequency of stops on its busiest routes, tailor other routes to best serve its customers and establish some routes using larger buses on traffic lanes reserved for them.

Despite the defeat, transit agency supporters said they were heartened by the vote and plan to make another attempt to pass it.

"We're encouraged," said Jimmy Moses, a developer who is a member of the agency's board of trustees and served as co-chairman of the Committee to Connect campaign promoting the tax initiative. "We've got a base line. We're absolutely convinced that within the next two or three years that enough people will think it's the right thing to do.

"I think it's very do-able."

Opponents of the tax increase said the outcome was convincing.

"The voters of Pulaski County sent an overwhelming message tonight that they are taxed enough already," said David Ray, state director for the Americans for Prosperity state chapter, which said volunteers knocked on 5,000 doors and made 39,000 telephone calls to "alert" voters about the tax. "Instead of doubling the budget for public transit, voters want to keep taxes low and focus on the core functions of government like roads, education, and public safety."

In the months leading up to the vote, Rock Region, formerly known as Central Arkansas Transit Authority, adopted a new name and a new paint scheme for its fleet; acquired more than a dozen buses powered by compressed natural gas, an alternative to the diesel engines the rest of the fleet uses; made free Wi-Fi available to customers; and recently introduced a mobile phone app that includes the ability to track buses in real time.

But Rock Region supporters say the region needed a dedicated tax that would allow the agency more autonomy to improve service and attract more riders, especially so-called choice riders who don't have to take a bus but would if the service was more convenient.

But Tuesday night's vote means the transit agency will have to rely on the funding mechanism in place since 1986. Since that year, the transit agency has relied primarily on annual contributions from the county and its major cities, which total about $12.5 million. Other funds, including federal aid and ticket revenue, boost the agency's annual operating budget to about $16 million for 2016.

The contributions are based on routes in Little Rock, North Little Rock and other parts of the county. That funding system limits Rock Region's ability to modify routes that might serve customers better and attract more riders, agency supports say. It is a system that Jarod Varner, the Rock Region executive director, has said "completely inhibits growth."

The campaign in support of the tax increase was low-budget, with the committee collecting $22,075 in contributions, according to a recently filed financial report. It had spent all but $420.39.

The Committee to Connect campaign and Rock Region presentations on what the tax approval would mean for mass transit in the county attracted several endorsements, including the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, the Maumelle Chamber of Commerce, the Metroplan board of directors and, most recently, the Central Arkansas Library System board of trustees.

Metro on 03/02/2016

Print Headline: Tax rise for buses loses; backers vow to try again

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