Tuesday, February 13, 2018
For nearly 40 years, Ozark Regional Transit has largely served the less fortunate and people with disabilities with on-demand rides and, later, fixed bus routes. Its services have filled a critical need for some residents even as Northwest Arkansas has posted record numbers in population and economic growth.
The region is a hard place for a bus system to operate, spread out as it is within each city's boundaries and even more so when viewed as an increasingly interrelated metropolitan area. But that hasn't diminished its importance to those who rely on its vehicles as a way to get around -- to jobs, to medical appointments, to shopping. Last year, the agency provided more than 261,000 rides.
What’s the point?
The future of Northwest Arkansas’ regional bus system continues to look dicey given its funding needs and attitudes of many local leaders.
Mass transit for Northwest Arkansas has had its advocates over the years, but it has hardly been championed in a way that more high-profile projects -- a regional airport, an interstate-quality highway, even biking and walking trails -- have been aggressively pursued.
It's an annual event for the people at Ozark Regional Transit to visit the government bodies that provide critical local funding that, combined with federal and state money, keep the system operational. The agency provides transportation in the cities of Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers and Bentonville as well as in Benton, Washington, Carroll and Madison counties.
Last year was no different, as Ozark Regional officials made the rounds to their funding "partners." But as partnerships go, these often have an almost adversarial nature to them. That's particularly true at the Washington County Quorum Court, where it's not rare to hear remarks about "empty buses" and questions about whether anyone benefits from the county spending money for a regional bus system. Late last year, the Quorum Court voted to cut $100,000 from Ozark Regional's annual funding, seeing its demand-response service in rural areas trimmed from five days a week to only Tuesday and Thursday.
The bus system in December faced an anticipated $338,000 funding shortfall for 2018 but has asked its partners for additional contributions and made some reductions.
Fayetteville is usually among the strongest supporters of the bus system and has increased its funding by $122,000 so that its residents will see no reduction in services. Rogers and Bentonville opted against any additional money and will see some service reductions. Springdale was recently asked to provide another $122,908 and continues considering its options. The bus system provided about 80,000 rides in Springdale last year.
Ozark Regional's existence is a bit of a teeth-pulling exercise. Among the government entities on which it relies, none consider mass transit to be a top priority.
It's truly unfortunate. We remain convinced mass transit will become more of a need in the future, not less, as the population grows and as development trends concentrate people more densely. When communities are putting more people in already developed areas rather than spreading out, the scenario for mass transit's success gets stronger.
Northwest Arkansas talks a big game when it comes to regional solutions, and has on occasion demonstrated progress because leaders recognized the need to operate with a regional perspective. It hasn't come together that way regarding mass transit.
What will it take to shift from a bus system that seems to constantly be operating on fumes to one that's going to be a strong transportation provider for the future? It's going to take leadership, much like that provided by the private, nonprofit Northwest Arkansas Council on the interstate and the regional airport. Once that organization decides to make something happen, solutions are often found.
The future of mass transit in Northwest Arkansas will move forward when consensus-building leadership comes to the fore.
When will that happen? If it's like so much in the way of transportation infrastructure in Northwest Arkansas, it will probably be about 20 years after it's needed.
Commentary on 02/13/2018
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