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story.lead_photo.caption An Ozark Regional Transit bus leaves a stop Friday July 10, 2020 in downtown Rogers. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Spencer Tirey)

SPRINGDALE -- More people need public transportation with shorter trips times at more frequent intervals, the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission decided Wednesday in approving a 10-year plan.

Regional planners and public-transit providers spent almost two years working with consultants to create the plan, "Connect Northwest Arkansas." Roll out of the plan was delayed since spring by the covid-19 pandemic. This is the first such plan adopted since 2010. The plan and the study leading up to it cost $280,000.

The plan concentrates on the most urban areas of the two counties. Phillip Patterson, Siloam Springs city administrator, asked if smaller cities may eventually join in.

"I get it, in this plan we've got to look at where the numbers are, but I just feel like I have to put that out there," Patterson said. Tim Simon, with Alliance Transportation consultants, said the plan is flexible enough to have that conversation in the future. A city wanting to participate would need a source of funding, he said.

Fully carrying out the plan would require a voter-approved sales tax to pay for the approximately $42 million in all three phases of possible improvements. Tim Conklin, assistant director at Regional Planning, said state law allows cities and counties to refer a public transit funding measure to voters.

It would most likely take a quarter-cent sales tax, applied to the area within the boundaries of the four urbanized cities, according to Simon. A sales tax would allow the cities to eventually eliminate their contributions to public transit.

A sales tax would pay for buses, maintenance and operations through Phase II of the plan. Phase I would cost about $19.9 million, and Phase II would cost about $2.2 million; Phase III about $12.3 million.

"We're not recommending we work on a dedicated funding source in 2020. We need to get through the covid-19 pandemic to see where we're at, where our budgets are at. But, overall, this plan, just like the plan a decade ago that we did for the region, recommended a dedicated funding source," Conklin said. "The biggest difference between 10 years ago and today is it was looking at the county level for a dedicated source. This is broken down to the city level."

A proposed two-county, quarter-cent sales tax to fund Ozark Regional Transit never materialized in 2012. Washington County voters defeated the proposal with 64% against. The Benton County Quorum Court refused to put the issue on the ballot.

Fayetteville, Bentonville, Springdale, Rogers, the University of Arkansas and state and federal governments currently pay for public transportation in the region to the tune of about $8 million a year.

Connect Northwest Arkansas looks at every aspect of public transit in the region and makes recommendations to improve and increase both coverage and service.

The plan envisions expanded routes and on-demand service in the urban areas of the region. Ridership on Ozark Regional Transit and University of Arkansas Razorback Transit would be expected to increase from an average of 8,000 riders on a typical weekday when school is in session to more than 33,000 by Phase III.

The plan is based on population projections of 1 million residents in the region by 2045.

Plans have been developed specifically for public transit providers Ozark Regional Transit and University of Arkansas Razorback Transit to define their roles in a regional system. Individual plans have been developed for each of the four major cities.

Connect Northwest Arkansas will be rolled into the 2045 Metropolitan Transportation Plan, a guide for how the area will look and function with the projected population of 1 million residents in 25 years. The 2045 plan will provide a long-range look at transportation needs including highways, streets, public transit, and bicycle and pedestrian facilities.

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Public transportation plan

The Connect Northwest Arkansas public transportation plan is available on the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission website for those who want to see what it contains. Here’s the link: www.nwarpc.org/transit/connect-northwest-arkansas/ .

Source: Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission

Ron Wood can be reached by email at rwood@nwadg.com or on Twitter @NWARDW.

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