Frontier MPO in Fort Smith talks rural transit

VAN BUREN -- A project is underway to try to improve rural transit in the Fort Smith area.

The Fort Smith-based Frontier Metropolitan Planning Organization learned Wednesday about creating a "smart" rural transit hub during its Technical Committee Meeting at the Van Buren Public Library.

Cody Schindler, the group's transportation planner/bike and pedestrian coordinator, said the organization partnered with the Western Arkansas Planning and Development District to win a technical assistance grant from the National Association of Development Organizations. It will be used to investigate the feasibility of a rural transit hub to connect rural communities to larger metropolitan areas and transit providers, such as Fort Smith and Fort Smith Transit.

"The purpose is to make healthcare, employment and higher education opportunities more accessible to those experiencing transportation barriers," Schindler said. "The study is intended to determine how technology can be incorporated into such a hub and how there may be limitations due to the rural nature of the region."

Schindler said the study will also work with partners, including cities and counties, as well as local, state and federal agencies, to gauge insight and better understand origins and destinations of potential users.

Reese Brewer, Frontier Metropolitan Planning Organization director, said the organization and the Western Arkansas Planning and Development District were notified they received the technical assistance grant two or three weeks ago.

"What a 'smart' rural transit hub generally looks at is how can you take technology such as smartphones, other social media, and develop a program where you can integrate and let people know that there may be services available and get them to the places that they need to go," Brewer said.

The consultant helping Frontier and Western Arkansas Planning with this grant, Brewer said, is the Western Transportation Institute from Montana State University.

"The institute will be assisting in developing the feasibility study, looking at how rural transit can integrate with other transit programs or amenities, and then if there are some technologies that could be used to assist folks to get to employment, healthcare or educational opportunities within the Fort Smith area," Brewer said.

Two research engineers from the Western Transportation Institute, Rebecca Gleason and Danae Giannetti, were also there to give a presentation on the project.

Gleason said there isn't a simple formula on where to start on rural areas and transit. She described the institute's presence at the meeting as its "initial trip" to kick off the project, with it wanting feedback from the committee members. Gleason also talked about options for transportation and mobility, as well as challenges associated with transit in rural areas. An example of the latter is long distances due to residents being spread out.

Giannetti said there are a number of directions in which the project could be taken, with the institute casting a broad net. She also provided a potential framework for the project.

"One thing we want to be really explicit in saying is we don't necessarily have a solution in mind right away," Giannetti said. "We want your input. We need to know what our problem statement is before we develop a solution. Otherwise, the tail's wagging the dog."

Within this potential framework, Giannetti said the institute is at the stage of getting to know the communities and key stakeholders involved in the project.

The same presentation was also on the agenda for the Frontier Policy Board meeting after the committee meeting Wednesday.

NW News on 10/03/2019