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story.lead_photo.caption Bobby Ward drives a Rock Region Metro streetcar Wednesday in downtown Little Rock. Streetcar ridership was way down this year. - Photo by John Sykes Jr.

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

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  • Jfish
    December 13, 2018 at 8:16 a.m.

    The new Mayor might want to reevaluate this service and use the money elsewhere. If it is never going to be expanded to the airport, I really don't see it ever even being close to breaking even monetarily.

  • Architect
    December 13, 2018 at 8:27 a.m.

    There were almost 100,000 riders last year. That is not inconsequential...the system needs investment and expansion to move it from a tourist-driven model to a more practical alternate mode of urban transportation - examples: extend down Main Street and a possible line to the airport.

  • DowBM
    December 13, 2018 at 8:54 a.m.

    Definitely the airport. If we're adding to the wish list I'd say Capitol-UAMS-Zoo/WM-Park Plaza would be a great line too.

  • Libertarian
    December 13, 2018 at 9:38 a.m.

    Just another government success story.

    Really architect, 100,000 is a success? For what? 5 blocks?

    Let's do the math, $100,000 riders at a dollar a pop? How many trollies? How many drivers? What salary? Insurance? Retirement benefits?

    This has been a boondoggle since day one. The only way this should have been funded was with a special district tax. Let the hotels and restaurants along the street pay for it.

  • drs01
    December 13, 2018 at 9:40 a.m.

    Let's rename it "A streetcar I don't desire". This is a $20 million boondoggle that is nothing more than a tourist trolley. It has no practical application for working folks who have limited time to spend on lunch.You can expect to get anywhere and back in an hour. We taxpayers are spending thousands of dollars annually to maintain it.
    The "dream" of this ever become a viable urban transportation system is foolish thought.
    I rode trolley cars years ago in this city that were better. But clearer heads ditched them then. Where are they now???

  • drs01
    December 13, 2018 at 12:23 p.m.

    Note that the 95,000 riders last year included 7 MONTHS of free ridership. Take away the freebies and what's left? This marketing genius wants to give it away for 12 months then use those numbers to justify keeping it or even expanding it. I guess if we gave away Twinkies for a year, we could use that information to decide on building a multi-million dollar plant here in Little Rock. Wonder if taxpayers would finance that? Only in government can you find such idiots. Agree with Libertarian, if this tourist trolley is to survive, it should be financed by the A&P (tourism) arm of both LR and NLR and not be part of the general revenue city budget.
    We taxpayers have been screwed into believing that the only way our city can prosper is to revitalize downtown with grant money and bond issues to finance it all, and to continue subsidizing projects like the streetcar, and even the tech park. What the hell, we have a presidential library.

  • Architect
    December 13, 2018 at 1:35 p.m.

    Interesting that some of you think city services/amenities should all be "turning a dollar." That's why we pay taxes, to support libraries, parks, trails, etc. These things aren't all self-supporting. They are components of "quality of life" that all viable cities offer to their citizens, and what make some cities more desirable than others. [It should noted that almost all of the original cost of the system was paid by federal transportation grants]

  • Jfish
    December 13, 2018 at 2:02 p.m.

    Well, I believe the original grant money should have been used to construct a rail from the airport to downtown, and then the loop to nowhere could have been added later. As has been mentioned on here several times in past articles, you rarely see more than 1 or 2 riders on these cars. I don't mind subsidizing the bus system because it is a necessity for many who don't own or can't afford cars. I would prefer to see the trolley money spent on cleaning up the endless stream of trash on our streets downtown and everywhere else.

  • MBAIV
    December 13, 2018 at 3:15 p.m.

    We once had rubber tired "streetcars" (a trolley looking body on a bus frame). Those vehicles cost a fraction of what we paid for these devices and the tracks and the electrical lines and the constant maintenance. And with rubber tires, the trolleys could drive around accidents, alter routes and be used anywhere. But NO. We had to sink over $20 million in a fixed route tourist bus. We have bus routes down Main Street and to the airport already. We certainly don't need to dump another $20+ million into more tracks. Telling me that most of the money came from federal grants is no comfort. Where do you think federal grant money comes from? Architect thinks that I might drive my car downtown, park it somewhere with little security and then hop the trolley to the airport. I think not. We might need improved bus routes but we don't need to put another dime in the tourist ride that seems to only attract riders, even tourists, when it is free (a dollar is apparently too much).

  • Architect
    December 13, 2018 at 3:39 p.m.

    MBAIV - the concept of the rail spur to the airport isn't for Little Rock residents! It's for people who are traveling to and from Little Rock on business (or pleasure) who need direct service downtown. This is extremely convenient amenity at a lot of airports.

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