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story.lead_photo.caption In this file photo passengers wait for their Rock Region Metro bus at the River Cities Travel Center in downtown Little Rock. ( Democrat-Gazette file photo / John Sykes Jr.)

LITTLE ROCK -- A proposed overhaul of the Rock Region Metro bus network calls for "axing routes" in "working class, African-American" areas of Pulaski County, neighborhoods that rely on transit service the most, the union representing the transit agency's bus drivers and maintenance employees says.

"It's absolutely outrageous that METRO has decided to cut entire communities off from the very lifeline that gives them safe, reliable transit to work in the downtown core," Carl Beecham, a bus driver for Rock Region and president of Local 704 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, said in a statement.

The union represents 124 Rock Region employees, according to its latest annual report on file with the U.S. Department of Labor.

The union criticism comes ahead of two days of public hearings the Pulaski County transit agency has scheduled for this week to take comments from riders and other stakeholders on the proposed overhaul, against the backdrop of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests over the death of George Floyd while in police custody. Similar protests took place over several days in Little Rock.

The "protests have brought the problems of systemic racism to the fore of public discussion," according to the union's news release.

In meetings with union members, Beecham said agency officials say up to 10 routes will be discontinued, with most being replaced with "micro-transit" service.

Micro-transit 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, have door-to-door service, and access places not previously reached by regular bus service if they fall within the zone.

"These types of short-sighted austerity measures spell death for the economic health of this city," Beecham said.

The bus system overhaul comes on the recommendation of a San Diego transit consultant, hired under a $300,000 contract to develop ways Rock Region could provide more efficient service without raising costs to the transit agency's partners, which include Little Rock, North Little Rock, Maumelle, Sherwood and Pulaski County.

Beecham criticized the use of an out-of-state consultant.

"Consultants out of California have no business stripping service away from our city," he said. "They don't know anything about Arkansas."

PROPOSED CHANGES

Under the proposal, Rock Region will drop under-performing bus routes, replace some of them with micro-transit zones, expand service hours for remaining weekly and weekend bus service and increase stop frequency to 30 minutes for most routes.

Both Little Rock and North Little Rock will get new crosstown transfers, which eliminate going downtown to make a transfer. Little Rock would have a new transfer point at West Markham and Cedar and Pine streets, and North Little Rock would have one at Pershing Boulevard and Willow Street.

The proposed route plan is known as RIDE 2020, an acronym for route innovation, development and evaluation. It is being developed by Transportation Management & Design Inc.

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

"In this suggested new route network plan, we actually serve more minorities living within Pulaski County than the existing transit network," Becca Green, the spokeswoman for Rock Region, said in an email.

In addition to expanded service hours on weekdays and weekends, more frequent stops and additional micro-transit zones, service will be simplified, more direct and faster. Bus service on Chenal Parkway would be extended to the Promenade at Chenal for the first time under the proposal.

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 micro-transit zones under the draft network plan.

PANDEMIC'S EFFECTS

"In hard times like these, we want to do what's best for the entire community -- in fact that's why our union worked so hard to help Metro successfully apply for the $14.98 million they received from the CARES Act," Beecham said. "But now that they're just cutting service and shifting to cheaper microtransit vans, it's unclear to us where all that money went."

The coronavirus pandemic has led to a dramatic drop in ridership on the transit agency's bus routes and has cost Rock Region $5,000 a day in fare revenue, according to Charles Frazier, the agency's director.

The nearly $15 million the agency received under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act was designed to replace that money. He also said the money has been used to purchase cleaning equipment, protective Plexiglas partitions and other supplies, including masks.

The decline in passengers forced the agency to suspend some routes, in part, due to high absenteeism among drivers during the pandemic, and at one point, furlough employees, including drivers. As of Wednesday, all drivers have returned to work, Beecham said.

Another reason for suspending routes was to shift buses to busier routes to provide more frequent stops because ridership was limited to no more than 10 people per bus to accommodate social-distancing protocols.

AGENCY RESPONSE

Green said it was "disappointing that some members of our employee union would choose to use politically charged words to purposely mislead people about our suggested transit network project."

Agency staff, she said, has "worked incredibly hard to put together [the plan] for central Arkansas' public transit riders, with a high level of public participation throughout the process."

Green also said it is understandable that some union members are "dissatisfied" with the proposed changes.

"Microtransit driver jobs are jobs that pay less than fixed route bus driver jobs, which is what I suspect the union release's reference to "cheaper" is all about," she said in an email. "This suggested route change plan keeps all union jobs we have in place."

The hearings are scheduled to be held Tuesday and Wednesday at Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock.

Each will be limited to 44 attendees on a first-come, first-served basis to allow for social-distancing protocols because of the coronavirus pandemic. Attendees also will be required to wear face coverings that fully cover their noses and mouths for the entire meeting.

The first public hearing will be from 11:30 p.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday. The second hearing will be from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. the following day. Doors will open 30 minutes before the hearings begin.

Both meetings will kick off a 15-day comment period to allow interested parties to offer additional comments before the Rock Region's board of directors takes up the proposal later this month. If it receives board approval, the changes would be implemented in November.

After Tuesday's meeting, updated information regarding the proposed changes, including maps, will be posted at the transit agency's website, rrmetro.org.

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