Central Arkansas transit agency's board OKs bus-route overhaul

In this file photo buses wait at the River Cities Travel Center in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

The board governing Rock Region Metro on Tuesday approved a sweeping proposal to overhaul the Pulaski County transit agency's regular bus routes, with underperforming routes being dropped and replaced with on-demand microtransit vans and resources being shifted to more popular routes that will allow more frequent stops and expanded night and weekend service.

Little Rock and North Little Rock also will get new cross-town transfers, eliminating the need to go downtown to make such transfers, under the RIDE 2020 plan, which is designed to make transit service more efficient and accessible in a bid to attract new riders.

Although the plan is budget neutral, an element of Tuesday's vote also changes the cost allocation formula used to figure how the transit agency's major funding partners -- Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County -- shoulder their shares going forward.

Riders can expect to see the changes implemented beginning in November, agency officials said.

The vote took place against a backdrop of plunging ridership brought about by the coronavirus, with several bus drivers testing positive for the virus and the union representing the drivers pushing back against RIDE 2020, an acronym for Route Innovation, Development and Evaluation.

But by the time the board voted 12-0, the union had decided to drop its opposition with an agreement to meet with the agency staff over the next five weeks. The final plan saw four changes that were prompted by public comments, including one from drivers.

"Congratulation, folks," board Chairman Art Kinnaman said after the roll call. "It passes."

After the vote, Charles Frazier, Rock Region's executive director, thanked the board, staff, elected officials, community and neighborhood leaders as well as riders for engaging in the yearlong planning process that he said will deliver "more, better and more innovative transit service to Central Arkansans."

Sara Lenehan, the Little Rock finance director and a board member, said developing the final plan was "challenging, but I think we really accomplished something here."

"The end result is that we are a much more flexible organization because we will be able to make changes as service and need demands without being strapped to the old funding method that had such unintended consequences when we tried to make good decisions for the community and the economic benefit of the organization."

The plan was developed under a contract worth up to $300,000 with Transportation Management & Design Inc., a San Diego consulting firm specializing in mass transit.

Although routes will be dropped, the proposed restructured routes and microtransit zones will be closer to a larger percentage of the population, according to the consultants.

In addition to expanded service hours on weekdays and weekends, more frequent stops and additional microtransit zones under the proposal, service will be simplified, more direct and faster, and it will extend bus service on Chenal Parkway to the Promenade at Chenal for the first time.

During the week, some routes will run an additional hour, to 9 p.m., and Saturday service will run an additional two hours, to 6 p.m. Both weekday and Saturday service start at 5 a.m.

Sunday service will be expanded an additional four hours, going from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. It now runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Two routes will be dropped from the system under the proposal -- Route 17 Mabelvale/Downtown, which officials say is largely redundant, and Route 25 Pinnacle Mountain, which is the route with the lowest ridership in the system.

Nine other routes will be shifted permanently to microtransit zones under the draft network plan.

Two express routes to Maumelle and to Sherwood and Jacksonville won't be restored, either. But Tuesday's vote also allows Frazier to negotiate transit options with those and other communities, likely some form of microtransit service. Maumelle and Sherwood will be allowed to keep their seats on the board until the negotiations are concluded.

Microtransit is an on-demand service for areas where transit demand is less robust, in which smaller vehicles are used to pick up people at their door and take them to stops on regular routes. Riders can track their vehicles with real-time arrival push notifications and door-to-door service, and they can reach places not previously accessed by regular bus service if those places fall within the zone.

More than 70 people submitted comments on the plan, the most comments the agency received in five years on any of its proposed route changes. They included comments submitted from the 27 people who attended three public hearings the agency held last month on the proposal.

The changes prompted from the comments included adding a circulator vehicle with the campus of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the veterans hospital in Little Rock.

The Route 5 service along West Markham Street no longer will go into the medical campus in the interest of speeding up the route. That raised alarms among riders who expressed reservations about the difficult walk they faced from Markham or Pine and Cedar streets.

Route 4 in the Levy/Amboy area of North Little Rock was eliminated under the draft plan and replaced with microtransit service. But after riders convinced staff members that a microtransit service couldn't handle rider volume at peak times, the final plan includes an express service that will run at those times.

Drivers complained about the new configuration of Route 13, which serves the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College in North Little Rock. Its proposed route used 18th Street, which has a busy railroad crossing that would produce delays.

"It was a good change and will improve reliability," said Russ Chisholm, project leader for the consulting firm.

The final plan also adds a microtransit service to an area largely south of Roosevelt Road for Routes 2 and 11 in Little Rock, which serve Main Street and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, respectively, after riders complained that in making the routes more direct, the new routes required longer walks to catch buses.

The new cost-allocation plan defines primary and secondary funding partners -- with the primary partners being Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County. It also separates fixed costs and variable costs and uses a combination of service miles on fixed routes and service hours in microtransit zones to allocate variable costs.

The existing cost allocation was based on service miles within jurisdiction boundaries, resulting in costs not being distributed equitably and making it difficult to address system inefficiencies, agency officials said.

Under the new cost allocation, Little Rock's annual payment will total about 2% more than it does now, or $9,993,175. North Little Rock's payment will stay roughly the same, $2,697,211. Pulaski County's payment, meanwhile, will fall 1%, to $1,008,723.

Board member Michael Mason praised the plan, saying: "This benefits the community. The change will help the ridership, and it goes into the future. I foresee good years to come for Rock Region Metro."