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Despite the melting snow, it's election season. From Little Rock's vote on a bond program to expand the Arkansas Arts Center on Feb. 9 to votes for president and important state and local judgeships on March 1, voters across Pulaski County have opportunities to vote on a number of important matters in the coming five weeks.
However, the vote that will determine the most about the shape of Central Arkansas's future will be the last item on that March 1 ballot: a proposal to increase the county sales tax by a quarter-cent for Central Arkansas's transit system. That vote will determine whether the newly renamed Rock Region Metro will become a source of transportation that folks across the county can count on and, because of importance of public transportation to the health of cities, whether there will be additional fuel for revitalization of the county's urban core.
The current funding scheme for Rock Region Metro is inadequate, uncertain and inflexible. With about three-quarters of its overall budget coming from local governments, the transit system is overwhelmingly dependent upon the county and municipalities in Pulaski County for its funding. If a municipality's annual budget comes up short, an attractive place to cut is in its contribution to transit. Moreover, as part of a longstanding agreement, the service miles within the system match the share of funds provided by the locality. Without other sources of funds, this makes it impossible for the system to add additional routes or more frequent buses in those parts of the county — the hearts of Little Rock and North Little Rock — where bus travel makes the most sense and ridership is highest. In short, the current funding scheme undermines any innovations in the system.
Over the years, Rock Region Metro has done a lot with a little, developing a system where the buses — a lifeline for thousands of residents wholly reliant upon them to get to work, school and doctor's appointments — show up on time. Over recent months, Rock Region Metro has rebranded itself and modernized its fleet with sleeker, energy efficient, Wi-Fi enabled buses. These changes have provided a needed facelift to the system, but more fundamental alterations are necessary for the system to be a transportation source for those who ride buses not out of necessity, but by choice. Rock Region Metro has developed a strategic plan that makes sense, including the addition of Bus Rapid Transit on cross-town corridors in Little Rock and North Little Rock that would serve as a backbone of the system, enhanced frequencies on the most traveled routes, and community shuttles in Sherwood, Maumelle, Jacksonville and West Little Rock. That plan can only begin to take shape if the system gets the $18 million annually that the quarter-cent sales tax would produce while maintaining most or all of the funding from local governments. These major alterations to the system would not yet create a truly comprehensive system, but would establish a solid foundation for the type of public transportation found in the most vibrant mid-sized U.S. cities where folks regularly mix buses, bikes and walking as their modes of transportation.
Last week, both proponents of the increased tax (The Committee to Connect) and opponents (the Arkansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity) kicked off their campaigns. The AFP opposition centers on a simple anti-tax message that has won more often than not across the last two generations in American politics. The proponents made a more multifaceted argument: A healthy transit system is an environmentally conscious investment that makes it easier for seniors to remain independent, for college students to travel cheaply to campus and for those who are reliant upon bus travel to remain productive workers. But the most compelling argument focuses on the fact that the workers in a 21st century economy increasingly wish to live in places with healthy public transportation systems.
Turnout will likely determine which argument prevails. While some conservatives nationally have seen the light on the value of a healthy transit system in 21st century communities, most Republican voters in Pulaski County are emphatically anti-tax. (Indeed, the placement of the issue on the ballot came on a nearly party-line vote of the Pulaski County Quorum Court.) Pulaski County's electorate does skew Democratic, creating an electorate for the tax vote more open to its proponents' arguments. There is little doubt, however, that the GOP race for President will remain sharply contested on March 1, tilting primary turnout a bit more Republican than is typical. The key question is whether the Democratic presidential contest remains in doubt on March 1, pulling the Democratic base and young voters to the polls. This would buttress the transit advocates' efforts significantly. Thus, oddly enough, Bernie Sanders's performance in Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire's primary may be important to the outcome in the important vote on transit's future here in Central Arkansas.