An all-time low in ridership on the streetcars that circulate through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock has prompted Rock Region Metro to again eliminate the $1 fares on the system.
Ridership on the 14-year-old system surged when the fare was eliminated for seven months in 2017, but none of the Pulaski County transit agency's funding partners wanted to subsidize the free fares, and the promotion was dropped for 2018.
That and other factors triggered a plunge in ridership this year, officials for the Pulaski County transit agency said.
"That's unfortunate," said Charles Frazier, the Rock Region executive director. "This is a high-profile asset."
As a result, agency officials want to drop the $1 cost to ride the streetcars beginning Dec. 21 in a bid to generate ridership, as well as interest, that could help jump-start discussion on expanding the system, according Frazier.
The transit agency is to conduct a strategic study of the streetcar system in 2019.
"It makes sense when we do a study we have ridership as a solid base," Frazier said. "Increased ridership will stimulate the local economy."
The free fares are to remain in place for all of 2019.
The cost of the yearlong promotion, which Frazier calls a pilot project, is estimated at $51,908, which was the expected revenue from streetcar passenger sales in 2018. That amount could change based on additional advertising and budget adjustments, Frazier said.
The Rock Region Metro board approved the initiative in a special meeting Wednesday.
Board member Matt Lindsey said the promotion needs to be supported with a robust marketing campaign.
"What kind of effort will be made?" he asked. "Will there be any sort of marketing?"
"We intend to make a significant push," Frazier responded.
Part of the reason the agency is beginning the promotion next week, he said, is to take advantage of the holiday crowds. Another reason is to give time for the staff to review safety practices.
"We want to do it the right way," Frazier said. "We don't want to rush it."
Through the first 11 months of this year, the streetcar system carried 35,345 passengers, or about 114 passengers a day, according to agency data. The system typically has three streetcars circulating on two routes daily.
Last year, the streetcar system carried 95,047 passengers, spurred by seven months of free fares.
Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola suggested the free fare after a difficult 2016 for the streetcars, which were limited that year by the six-month closing of the Broadway Bridge. That span was torn down and replaced. Resulting adjustments to downtown traffic patterns required the streetcars to suspend service during the morning and evening rush hours.
Even with that challenge, the system carried 64,688 passengers in 2016.
The streetcar system has had other challenges, transit officials said, particularly this year with staffing and maintenance issues that closed one of the lines, in addition to inclement weather, construction projects and scheduled events that disrupt service.
Going to a fare-free system also is a recognition of other barriers for riding the streetcars: an increasingly cashless society and infrequent riders who are unfamiliar with the transit-specific payment options -- including tokens, passes and a fare payment app, according to the agency staff.
Frazier said he wants a renewed emphasis on the streetcar system as a economic development tool and advertising vehicle. The streetcar system has been widely used to market the Little Rock area, and can draw attention to downtown restaurants and shops, he said.
"We are certainly appreciative to our partners and the downtown businesses who have supported our efforts to improve the streetcar experience for riders.
"The entire reason the streetcar system exists is to bring awareness to our downtown restaurants, hotels, shops and cultural amenities, and we're happy to have the continued support of these businesses as we do our part to contribute to the economic viability and ambiance of central Arkansas' downtown neighborhoods," Frazier said.
Metro on 12/13/2018
Print Headline: Little Rock-North Little Rock streetcar rides free for a year; $1 fees to be ditched in bid to boost ridership