Tuesday, September 09, 2008

TOP STORY > >Mass transit makes pitch to the masses

Leader senior staff writer

Claire Lehney walks about two blocks most weekdays to catch the 7 a.m. bus from Gravel Ridge to the state Capitol office complex, where she works.

With gasoline prices hovering near historic highs for Arkansas and the rest of the continental United States, more people are, like Lehney, taking the bus.

Those who do are pleasantly surprised by the quality of the service and the ease of use, according to Betty Wineland, head of the Central Arkansas Transit Authority (CATA).

Compared to a year ago, CATA ridership on weekdays has increased about 1,500 a day to as many as 11,000.

“We’re getting (more inquiries) from white-collar and blue-collar riders than in a long time,” she said.

Lehney has been catching the bus to and from work at the Library for the Blind in a building at the state Capitol Complex for about 25 years, she said. It saves her money on gas, parking and insurance.

“I usually read the newspaper,” she said.

The bus lets her off right by her building.

Lehney is an “honored citizen,” that is, she is older than 65, so she pays half-price for her bus fare.

“I couldn’t drive for what I pay to ride the bus.”

The idea of increasing area bus service and exploring other mass transit options is meeting less skepticism than in the past, with nearly all central Arkansas mayors and county judges on the Metroplan Board of Directors encouraging exploration if not actual service.

Mass transit usually brings to mind visions of tracks and stations and people jostling each other on the morning commute, but nowhere in central Arkansas, including Little Rock, is the population density sufficient enough for even light rail service.

Officials in outlying population centers, such as Cabot, Conway, Benton and Bryant would like an express bus service to and from Little Rock each day like the Jacksonville, Gravel Ridge and Sherwood residents have, but even the cost of additional buses seems prohibitive in this economic environment, and Metroplan executive director Jim McKenzie says that even if money were available, the lag time between ordering and receiving a bus would be 12 to 24 months.

Each bus costs about $300,000, with CATA’s share 20 percent while the Federal Government pays the balance on buses it approves.

Wineland is expecting 10 new buses by the end of November, but they will replace aging buses. It’s possible that one or two of the better buses could be used to supplement the Jacksonville express bus, assuming that County Judge Buddy Villines and mayors Tommy Swaim of Jacksonville, Virginia Hillman of Sherwood and Pat Hayes of North Little Rock can each kick in a supplement of several thousand dollars, Wineland said.

Jacksonville currently supplements the CATA budget by $27,000 a year to run two buses in the morning and three in the evening, Wineland said.

She said she’s hoping the federal government will earmark the money for another 16 buses when it gets back to business in January with a new president.

“Our current fleet is about 67 vehicles,” she said. “We’re allowed to keep seven or eight spares. We have 26 that need replacing.” She said the Jacksonville bus could have as many as 48 people on it, seating about 45.

Wineland said she was asking private bus companies for quotes on running express service to and from outlying towns and Little Rock, but that it appears it would cost two or three times as much to contract out the work.

One company would charge $170 an hour for the service, which is $680 a day, five days a week.

“Our cost is $60 an hour, Wineland said.

Cabot Mayor Eddie Joe Williams envisions a bus service between Cabot and specific Little Rock destinations, like the state Capitol complex or the hospitals on the I-630 corridor.

He’d like to see the state pay for a 90-day pilot project and would hope that employers would pay some or all of the fee. By using laptops and Wi-Fi, state workers could work 30 minutes on the way into work and 30 minutes on the way home.

“I’m trying to think way outside the box,” he said.

“We’d be not just giving them a ride but taking several hundred cars off the road at a key time,” Williams said. “Like the energy crisis, you’ve got to do multiple things” to solve it, he added. “It’s a great first step for mass transit.”