Tuesday, November 17, 2015

TOP STORY >> Tax would support bus service

Leader senior staff writer

Jacksonville and Sherwood residents could get their first taste of local bus service, as well as increased commuter express bus service to Little Rock in the morning and back at the end of the work day if Rock Region Metro gets the one-quarter percent sales tax increase it seeks.

That’s according Jarod Varner, executive director of the bus service, formerly known as Central Arkansas Transit Authority.


It won’t be easy, however. First, a super majority of the Pulaski County Quorum Court—at least 10 justices—must approve an ordinance to put the increase on the March 1 primary election, then a majority of those voting need to pass the increase.

Nine quorum court members voted last week to put the issue to a vote Nov. 24, but some do not seem committed to voting to put the increase on the ballot.

Aaron Robinson, the Jacksonville area JP, voted against it.

The most recent countywide attempt to raise taxes—in this case to build new jail beds—failed substantially in 2007.

Jacksonville-area residents will vote on a millage increase at a special election in February and may not be in the mood to raise sales tax to bring bus service.

The study that led to the current plan and need for more revenue was kicked off in July 2014.


“Sherwood and Jacksonville will have their first ever local shuttle service, from point A to point B with the city, not just express service to and from Little Rock.

Both the buses and the routes will be smaller and more nimble,” Varner said.

“We’ll work with the cities to determine what the route would look like. It would run on a schedule, but be flexible, with the ability to stop at homes of those with disabilities.

Not only would it be easier for residents to get around Jacksonville and Sherwood, but the shuttles would also meet up with the express buses for transfers to or from Little Rock.

Right now, there are two morning bus trips from Little Rock to Jacksonville and Sherwood and back, and three at the end of the workday.

Varner said he’d like the express buses running until 8 or 9 p.m., because fewer people work an 8-5 shift.


“This is an unacceptable level of service,” Varner said.

Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher said he hadn’t been briefed on the proposed changes, but that Jacksonville would like to have more service.

“In McAlmont, we want to offer a flex zone,” Varner said, with even smaller vehicles to pick people up at homes and take them elsewhere in their neighborhood. It would also connect them with a mini-hub on McCain Boulevard, where riders could transfer to a bus into Little Rock.

If the increase passes, Rock Region Metro revenues will increase about $18.2 million a year. Currently it gets about $12.5 million a year from the county, Little Rock, North Little Rock, Maumelle, Sherwood and Jacksonville combined, plus about $5 million to $6 million a year from the federal government towards operations and capital improvements, including buying new buses.


“Lack of transportation is the big reason people are moved out of their homes and into nursing homes,” he said. “We are working with AARP.

Referring the to state Highway Department’s controversial 30-Crossing plan to rebuild the I-30 bridge over the Arkansas River and expand it to 10 lanes, Varner said there’s little in the plan to accommodate mass transit, like buses or “bus light rail.”

He said it was possible for dedicated bus or HOV lanes on hardened shoulders to help mass transit.

Varner said Rock Region Metro currently operates about 60 buses on 26 fixed routes and would like to add about 5 routes—a couple of east-west routes in North Little Rock so people don’t have to come to the Little Rock Transit Center and then back to North Little Rock to move from one side of town to the other.

Another possibility would be an express route from West Little Rock to downtown Little Rock.

If they get the additional revenues, ridership is projected to increase 30 percent to 40 percent, with about 12 to 18 additional buses.


All buses now boast Wi-Fi and several newer buses run on compressed natural gas, a less expensive and more efficient fuel.

Varner said Rock Region Metro is also talking with Little Rock Air Force Base to determine how to better serve airmen.

“We are seeing major demographic changes,” and trying to respond to them, Varner said. “The baby boomers, as they age, it’s critical they have transportation when they have to give up the keys.

“They still need to get to the doctor’s office, the grocery store and pharmacy, to visit friends or get to the library or theater.”