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Freedom ride for Rock Region 

Dedicated tax will give bus agency flexibility to improve.

click to enlarge RIDES BUS TO GET TO WORK AND SCHOOL: Ashley Darnell. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • RIDES BUS TO GET TO WORK AND SCHOOL: Ashley Darnell.

Do you see bus service in Pulaski County as welfare for the poor, a service used only by people you don't know and not very often? Since you don't ride the bus, do you think it doesn't benefit you directly? Do you ask yourself, why should I pony up a quarter of a cent tax every time I spend a dollar to help people I don't know ride a bus I'll never take?

If you think that way, it's time to think again.

There were around three million boardings on Rock Region Metro buses last year. It is not sparingly used.

The people who ride the buses are going to work, school, shopping. That means buses boost employment, education and spending.

Yes, your taxes already support it, but the dollars Little Rock, North Little Rock, Pulaski County, Sherwood, Maumelle and Jacksonville contribute to Rock Region from general revenues are reconsidered every year, rather than revenues the bus agency can count on.

And you do know people who ride the bus. You've met them at restaurants, hospitals, colleges, at your job. Some of them are poor, sure. But here's something else: They'd be poorer if there wasn't a bus to get them to school or to work. Is that what you want? A city with people who want to work but can't because they can't get there? Who want to go to school, but don't own a car, whose ability to buy a car depends on the degree from school? Who may have to skip their doctor's appointment? Where a grocery store out west or the outlet mall in the south may have a hard time filling jobs because there's no way for people to get there?

Do you want Little Rock (if that is where you live) to continue to be ranked among the most backward cities in the United States in regard to public transportation? Just a little bit better than Jackson, Miss., and a whole lot worse than Memphis?

No. Surely a public transit system that reduces idling and polluting traffic on the interstate system (by 11 percent, if Pulaski County government got serious about investing), with buses that ran more frequently and on more routes and so were more convenient to riders, is better. Surely riders would be attracted to express buses, whose stations would then attract new business to benefit the riders.

Perhaps you live in North Little Rock and want to go from, say, McCain Mall to Pulaski Technical College, without having to go to Little Rock first. Or maybe you live in Maumelle and would like local bus service to get around the community, pick up books at the library, meet folks for dinner.

Maybe you are a millennial who doesn't want to have to rely on a car, who'd rather hitch your bike to a bus and get around town that way. Or a boomer who wants someone else to do the driving. Or a parent who'd like to get your children to that school that doesn't have its own bus system.

Maybe you are someone who shares Rock Region's vision that by moving more people around town more conveniently and to more places, the standard of living in Pulaski County will rise. Maybe you agree with Jimmy Moses, the chair of Rock Region Metro's Campaign to Connect to advocate for the quarter of a penny sales tax, who thinks that it's no coincidence that growing cities have good public transit.

Here's what you do: On March 1, you vote for the proposal to raise the sales tax in Pulaski County by 0.25 percent. That'll cost you a quarter every time you spend $100. That will buy you a more progressive, healthier and richer community.

***

Ashley Darnell is a transplant from California herself. Her mother moved -- via Greyhound bus -- from Toledo, Ohio,to Long Beach, Calif., and that's where Darnell was born and raised.

Now, a bus figures in Darnell's life again. She followed a friend to Arkansas and enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She left in California the transportation she relied on there: a couple of Vespas. Here, she relies on Rock Region Metro to get her everywhere.

Darnell, 30, is lucky. She lives on one of Rock Region's bus lines in West Little Rock, near Rainwood and Green Mountain Drive. There she can board the No. 8 that travels east on Rodney Parham Road to Markham and then jogs around a bit before reaching the Travel Center at Capital and Cumberland streets downtown. In the early morning, that particular bus is packed with students going to eSTEM schools at Third and Louisiana streets ("I've been the oldest person on the bus" at times, she said).

To get to UALR, where she is working toward a master's degree in public history, Darnell can transfer at H and University to the No. 21 that goes down University Avenue. No problem there.

But two days a week, Darnell works at Baptist Health Medical Center (she is an LPN and assists nurses with IT needs). To get there, she boards the No. 8 at Rainwood around 4 p.m., takes it all the way downtown, and then transfers to the No. 3, which takes her back out west again.

Darnell can walk to Baptist Health from her apartment, but it's an hour-long slog. She prefers to take the bus, even though the ride is longer, an hour and 15 minutes. Here's why it takes so long to get to one place in West Little Rock to another: Rock Region Metro uses a spoke design, making the Travel Center the central transfer station. It's been that way since 1986.

If Darnell wants to go downtown at night, she can't. Most Rock Region Metro buses stop running by 8 p.m. She could go downtown for a night in the River Market district, but she couldn't get home without plunking down the cost of a cab.

***

click to enlarge AT THE CENTER: Rock Region Executive Director Jarod Varner. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • AT THE CENTER: Rock Region Executive Director Jarod Varner.

Darnell has studied at UALR with Donaghey Distinguished Professor of History Dr. John Kirk, who is also the director of the university's Institute on Race and Ethnicity. Kirk, originally from England, has made Arkansas race relations his specialty, and joined the faculty at UALR in 2010.

Kirk takes the bus to campus daily, catching the 21 at 8:10 a.m. right across from his house on Kavanaugh Boulevard. The 21 takes him home again at 5:30 p.m.

Kirk has a driver's license, and he and his wife have a car. But he doesn't drive. He grew up in England in a family that had no car — they didn't need one because of British public transportation — and he doesn't see a need to drive now. (Kirk, it happens, learned to drive in Arkansas some years ago so he could get to interviews all over the state for a book he was writing. It wasn't until later that he learned how to drive in the United Kingdom — on what we would call the wrong side of the street.)

Kirk is so committed to public transportation that when he and his wife were house hunting here, they deliberately looked for a home near a bus stop. They could not have done better. His commute to work is about 24 minutes, plus the seconds it takes for him to cross the street in front of his house to catch the bus. If he needs to go downtown during the day, there's the No. 16 from the UALR campus.

Not everyone lives across the street from a bus stop. But more people could live closer to a stop if Rock Region had the wherewithal to add routes and buses.

***

click to enlarge HEADED HOME: Substitute teacher Ronald Kimbrew lives in Levy, works in LR. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • HEADED HOME: Substitute teacher Ronald Kimbrew lives in Levy, works in LR.

Riding the crowded bus Darnell was taking on a recent Friday afternoon was Ronald Kimbrew, who got on at Kavanaugh and North Pine, a block north of Pulaski Heights Middle School. It was the stop this writer took every day for the three years she was a student at Pulaski Heights. In those days, it was how students got to school: There were no school-run buses.

Kimbrew is a substitute teacher, and he'd just wrapped up the day teaching keyboarding and Spanish at PHMS. He was headed to his home in the Levy neighborhood of North Little Rock. Kimbrew knows the Rock Region Metro lines well; he also substitutes at other LRSD schools and at Academics Plus in Maumelle. He's been taking buses to work since 2000, he said. He'd like more routes — like one to Burns Park, for example, or a Sunday route that would allow him to get to church without a several-block hike to the bus stop in his Sunday best.

Kimbrew is such a bus maven he knew the name of Rock Region's CEO, Jarod Varner. He said he'd seen some good changes since Varner came, citing the shiny new buses that run on compressed natural gas, Wi-Fi, new signage at bus stops and the ability to check online to find out when your bus is coming. Last week, Rock Region rolled out an app, METROtrack, that does the same thing: The app lets you see just how far out your bus is from your stop, in real time, on your phone. You want to know how long it will be before the Pulaski Heights outbound will arrive at Second and Spring streets? You open the app, select the route, and there it is. I've got eight minutes to get there from my office! Catch you later!

***

click to enlarge REPLACING THE FLEET: CNG buses (in rear) will replace diesel-fueled. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • REPLACING THE FLEET: CNG buses (in rear) will replace diesel-fueled.

Varner, who before his hiring at Rock Region was with the Denton County Transportation Authority in Texas, and the board of directors of Rock Region have been a catalyst for modernization of Pulaski County's bus system, which is gradually replacing the buses in its aging fleet with the new CNG buses. In December, Rock Region won a $360,000 federal grant to buy and install 25 solar-powered shelters, each with a bench and bike rack (Rock Region kicked in another $90,000). Thirty more shelters are on the way. With the introduction of the new buses, the agency dumped the Central Arkansas Transit Authority name for the hipper Rock Region Metro and is replacing its fleet's advertising-on-wheels look for a sleek blue and green design.

The changes are part of MOVE Central Arkansas, an 18-month planning project that has involved the board, staff and dozens of community leaders and representatives from schools, businesses and social service agencies. Rock Region hired a San Francisco-based consultant and began a round of public hearings, meetings with neighborhood associations and business groups and any gathering willing to listen to Rock Region's ideas for more workable public transportation in Central Arkansas.

What the agency heard: People want more service, and they want it more often. They want extended hours, and they want routes tailored to the community they live in.

The board of directors successfully persuaded the Pulaski County Quorum Court last November to bring before the voters tax support to do just that.

***

click to enlarge WHAT A BUS RAPID TRANSIT STOP COULD LOOK LIKE: This one is in Grand Rapids, Mich. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • WHAT A BUS RAPID TRANSIT STOP COULD LOOK LIKE: This one is in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Why a tax, and why a quarter of a penny? Because a sales tax is the only dedicated funding allowed public transportation under Arkansas law, which also limits the tax to 0.25 cents. It cannot go higher.

Rock Region (and CATA formerly), has been funded at the whim of Pulaski County and the cities within. That's truly no way to run a railroad, as they say, or a bus service.

Here's how city and county contributions to Rock Region, which are based on a percentage of mileage of routes, broke down in 2015 (rounded up): Little Rock, $8.7 million. North Little Rock, $2.7 million. Pulaski County, $1 million. Sherwood, $108,834. Maumelle, $48,628. (Jacksonville, which is not a partner to Rock Region, also kicks in, around $42,000.) The total: $12.6 million. Other revenues include $2 million from the Federal Transit Administration and $2.1 million in fares. Total revenue in 2015 was $17,283,416.

The quarter of a penny should produce around $18.2 million for Rock Region. It would bring the county tax to $1.75.

Because the agency has not had dedicated funding, Varner said, "there are many great [grant] opportunities we can't necessarily take advantage of," including federal TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grants.

Because the partners agree to share a fixed cost, should Rock Region drop a route that's not needed in the county, say, the cost would go up for the other partners to reach the fixed cost. That's undesirable, and reduces flexibility for Rock Region.

It's important for people to know, Varner said, that Rock Region is "incredibly sound financially"; in 2016, it was able to give money back to funding partners.

CNG buses cost nearly $500,000; Rock Region wants to buy more of those as well as smaller, less expensive buses for the community shuttles it will offer if the tax is passed.

"We are not asking for more money just for money's sake," Varner said. He said Rock Region prides itself "in being good stewards of public funds" and in working to provide Pulaski County service "it deserves."

***

It is almost certain that if the tax does pass, some of Rock Region's partner governments will lower their contributions from general revenues. If they were to quit contributing altogether, Rock Region Metro still comes out ahead, by about $6 million.

But if cities continue to chip in, Rock Region can begin planning for Bus Rapid Transit corridors, service with few stops along dedicated lanes, similar to an express train on a subway.

BRT requires more than money; it would also require that Little Rock agree to dedicate at least 50 percent of the corridor to the BRT-only lanes.

While Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola has no argument with the tax, noting that adding 0.25 cents per dollar to the county tax "would put us at 1.75 percent local, still 25 percent less than all the cities in Northwest Arkansas," his support comes with a caveat: It must free up a "substantial portion" of the nearly $9 million Little Rock contributes every year from its General Fund.

That does not bode well for a BRT system. However, with continued support from cities, even at reduced rates, Varner said, Rock Region could operate what he calls "BRT Lite," with a Markham Street route serving downtown and UAMS and St. Vincent Infirmary, and a 12th Street route that would connect the quickly multiplying Kanis Road neighborhoods to downtown and add to the city's efforts to bring new life to 12th Street.

Should Rock Region not be able to put in place its BRT idea, Rock Region spokesperson Becca Green said, it would lose the "transformational" part of the plan.

***

Pulaski County Judge Barry Hyde is unequivocal in his support for adding 0.25 cents to the county's sales tax to support public transportation.

"I've talked to my constituents, and they are interested in better and more bus service," Hyde said. He said he was "proud of the Quorum Court for stepping up" to put the tax on the ballot.

Hyde said it's "obvious" that increased bus service, especially to the rapidly growing western part of the county, would be advantageous. He noted Rock Region's ability to sustain itself is precarious: It needs more service to generate the ridership it needs to be sustainable.

Consultants to MOVE Central Arkansas said that if all the elements of the plan — better service, more buses, flexibility and BRT routes — were funded, Rock Region could increase ridership by 40 percent.

Hyde said he's "optimistic" voters see the connection between growth and public transportation and will approve the tax.

North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith, a former member of the board of Central Arkansas Transit (Rock Region in its former incarnation), is an enthusiastic supporter of the tax, and says he would "encourage others" to vote for it as well. "Whether we personally use the system or not, we all benefit from public transit," he told the Times. However, he made no commitment to continued funding, saying the city would review "Rock Region's total revenue needs" when it draws up the yearly budget, as it always does.

Though Jacksonville, like Maumelle, would benefit from the tax, Mayor Gary Fletcher has concerned himself with getting a millage tax increase to fund the new Jacksonville school district; he said he could only fight for one tax at a time.

Because increased funding would bring an in-town shuttle to his city, Maumelle Mayor Mike Watson supports the tax. Rock Region now runs express shuttles from Little Rock to Maumelle, two in the morning and three in the afternoon. "I do not support tax increases unless there is a definite enhancement in the current service provided," Watson said, but Maumelle service would certainly be enhanced, with a community shuttle.

Rock Region has not come up with a name for the Maumelle shuttle, Varner told a supportive group at Maumelle's Jess Odom Community Center recently; "party bus!" one attendee suggested.

The tax has also been endorsed by Arkansas Community Organizations, the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, the North Little Rock Chamber of Commerce and the Coalition of Greater Little Rock Neighborhoods.

DLRP Executive Director Gabe Holmstrom said the downtown revitalization group believes the dedicated funding is needed to modernize the transit system and set Little Rock "on a progressive course for future growth."

While Metroplan's Regional Planning Advisory Council gave a thumbs up to the plan, the Metroplan board of directors, which includes all the partner mayors and the county judge (among others), did not, members outside Pulaski County claiming ignorance. However, the board will hear from Varner at its next meeting, on Feb. 25. As the Metropolitan Planning Agency for Central Arkansas, one that includes public transportation in its long-range planning for the area, Metroplan needs the support of its board for improved bus service.

Opposing the tax, though not saying so specifically because campaign laws prohibit it, is the anti-tax group Americans for Prosperity. AFP was created by gazillionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, who have no need for public carriers by air, land or sea. In January, AFP's Arkansas chapter, headed by David Ray, began putting hang-tags showing a worried couple staring at a bottle of milk and warning that Pulaski County was about to raise taxes by 25 percent on front doors in the county. In an email to the Times, Ray wrote, "As our activists have knocked [on] doors across Pulaski County, we hear many people ask why the county insists on raising taxes to expand bus routes when there are severe problems with roads and underperforming schools." He could have answered those concerns by saying, when you need fewer cars on the roads because you have public transit, you don't have to invest as much in road repair.

It was also suggested at a public meeting that maybe the county should spend its money on jails, not transportation. But, Rock Region's Green said, "Why not spend money on things that keep people out of jail, like [transportation to] jobs and school?"

The connection between the cost of building highways and public transportation has been much discussed in the past several months as the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department has unveiled a $600 million-plus plan to rebuild the Interstate 30 bridge and widen seven miles of I-30 from North Little Rock to the Pine Bluff exit from six to 10 lanes. The plan has been met with vocal opposition, both at public hearings and before the Little Rock City Board of Directors, by proponents of downtown revitalization who see other American cities tearing down their interstates to repair urban communities blighted by the interstate system, and who wonder why the AHTD is locked into a 1950s transportation model.

The highway department rejected the idea of a lane for public transportation in its so-called 30 Crossing plan. Yet, the agency's own Planning and Environmental Linkages study, which it used to come up with the 10-lane plan, considered the effect of public transit on reducing traffic in I-30: It concluded that with an express public transit system that ran buses on the half hour, the number of cars on I-30 could be reduced by up to 9 percent. If frequency of public service could be increased to 10 minutes, traffic would be reduced by up to 11 percent. That would significantly reduce congestion, which the AHTD is trying to do.

However, adding lanes to the interstate is not only costly — both now and in the future — but will only increase car traffic. It is not possible to build one's way out of congestion, Varner and every other person who has studied highway transportation say. Even highway engineers concede that new roads induce traffic.

At a neighborhood meeting last Saturday, Varner asked people to address head-on those who express the notion that buses are a welfare service. Highways and the automobile industry are heavily supported by taxes, he noted (the 30 Crossing project will be paid for with a sales tax). It's a false argument, he said, that one is a social burden and the other is not.

***

Lou Tobian, who is AARP Arkansas's director for outreach and education and who was a member of MOVE Central Arkansas's coordinating committee, said the agency doesn't make political endorsements. But AARP is "passionate about the importance" of public transportation, Tobian said.

"I know so many people for whom Rock Region is their way of connecting with the world and that's going to become more and more important as we continue to age, but also important as a lifestyle choice," Tobian said. He is particularly enthusiastic about the community shuttles Rock Region would be able to offer in the county's smaller towns.

"We can't tell anybody how to vote. But we can say we believe in healthy public transportation, that it's only going to get more and more important for the 50-plus population."

When Campaign to Connect head and Rock Region Metro board member Moses talks about the potential benefits of dedicated funding for Rock Region, he notes the recent history of the Central Arkansas Library System. There is the library "pre-Bobby Roberts [the director] and post-Bobby Roberts," Moses said: Roberts' vision and ability to secure millage for the library made all the difference, changing the so-so public library into the modern, multi-branch system in place now.

Will Arkansas voters see dedicated funding for Rock Region as another way to escape mediocrity? Moses doesn't know. But, "just because we may not be successful doesn't mean it's not worthwhile," he said. "It takes a while here [in Little Rock] to get done what we know is the right thing to do."

CORRECTION: The original version of this story incorrectly said Darmell's grandmother was interned at Rohwer. That is incorrect.
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