NWA editorial:

Political leaders struggle with vision for mass transit

We can't say for sure, but we'd bet nobody ever said "I can't wait to grow up so I can ride a bus to work."

A car, yes. Or certainly in Arkansas, a truck. Maybe even a motorcycle. But who longs for mass transit as a primary means of transportation?

What’s the point?

The future of mass transit in Northwest Arkansas is limited by a lack of vision among the region’s leaders as to its future impact.

There are cities where doing so isn't impossible and isn't really crazy. Owning an automobile in parts of New York City or Boston or similar urban areas is the crazy thing because having a place to put it can break the bank. And because public transit options range from subways to trains to buses.

Not in Northwest Arkansas, where the automobile is still king and, for many public officials, funding for a bus system is viewed as welfare. Or even worse, undeserved welfare.

Northwest Arkansas has a divide when it comes to public transit. Advocates recognize a growing region must have reliable means of public transportation, that development of mass transportation will mean more in the future than it does today. Today, one can make an argument the region isn't ready for prime time in the mass transit business, and most of the public officials in decision-making positions are all too ready to point out the flaws of Ozark Regional Transit, the regional bus system.

Ask the man in charge of Ozark Regional Transit and he won't dispute the bus system isn't all it needs to be.

"We know what we are right now," Joel Gardner recently said. "We're a placeholder for the future."

A placeholder. That's not much of a rousing celebration of the current system. But it's hard to dispute Gardner's evaluation. And he's certainly not to blame for the region's almost grudging taxpayer allocations to keep the bus system alive.

Late last week, Gardner predicted Ozark Regional Transit faces a $338,000 shortfall in its 2018 budget, forcing the organization to ask the cities and counties it serves for more money or to cut routes and hours of service.

The trouble is, the bus system's routes and schedules are already bare bones. Cutting back more will make it an even less viable option for transportation than it represents to riders today.

A massive fire that destroyed much of the bus fleet in January was a huge set-back from which ORT hasn't recovered. Other systems heroically provided loaner buses, but advertising revenue and ridership has been reduced since the disruption. And Washington County justices of the peace, who seem every year to resent being asked to fund the bus system, recently decided to cut $100,000 from its bus system allocation. That leaves about $25,000 as Washington County's contribution, essentially matching what Benton County government gives.

Just a few days after that decision, regional planners and representatives of the Walton Family Foundation -- a mover/shaker/funder on Northwest Arkansas infrastructure -- got together for the first in a series of talks on mobility. That's government- or consultant-speak for getting around. They gave particular focus to the importance of mass transit.

Jarrett Walker, an author and consultant from Oregon, told them Ozark Regional Transit but routes try to cover as much ground as possible because that's what cities and counties paying the organization demand. But it's too spread out, killing any hope of a bus system that offers riders frequent pickups and dropoffs. Without that kind of frequency, he said, a bus system can hardly look successful.

Healthy mass transit, Walker said, benefits everyone in a growing region by reducing the number of cars on the limited space on roads. But this region's bus system is largely viewed as transportation for the poor, people who don't have any other options. A successful bus system provides that, but is also a viable option for those who could drive or bike.

Walker told the groups the region's leaders must make decisions about whether they want a service that covers a lot of space or one that provides quick and efficient service to densely populated areas. Only the latter is likely to look like a successful mass transit operation.

Just Friday, a Walton Family Foundation representative sent out a comment on Twitter: "Transportation is a critical issue for #NWArk to stay on top of as the region continues to grow."

As strongly as we feel that mass transit is a necessary component to the region's success, it's hard to overlook the disconnect between many public decision-makers and that statement. Mass transit, quite simply, is not a priority among many government officials. It's easy to go back 10, 15 and 20 years to find evidence that today's discussions differ little from those back then. Mass transit has been nursed along. A placeholder, indeed.

"I do not hear any overwhelming, you might say, shouts of more, more, more," Bentonville Mayor Bob McCaslin recently said of the bus system. "We do recognize it's important to a very small percentage of our citizens."

The reality is many Northwest Arkansas leaders want to view the region's future with bright eyes, imagining all sorts of possibilities for economic growth. They're proud of the region's continued expansion. They just do not fact mass transit into their imaginations as a meaningful component for the future.

Some, however, recognize a need for Northwest Arkansas to avoid the pitfalls of poor planning that many of today's metropolitan areas are dealing.

"We have to get serious in the discussion with our citizens. We can't just keep building roads," said Don Marr, chief of staff for Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan. Fayetteville devotes more than $500,000 a year to mass transit. "If we really want the system that people feel like meets the need, that goes to the high density places, that has the frequency and the days of service that we want, it's going to take a bigger investment."

It's going to take a lot of convincing before many public officials will embrace devoting more money to mass transportation. Today, there's a lack of vision about the impact it can have on a better future. In all likelihood and unless more attitudes change, Northwest Arkansas residents in 50 years will look back and wonder why the region's leaders didn't plan better.

Commentary on 12/03/2017

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