Public transportation in the Little Rock area will undergo some major changes this summer. In July, 15 new buses with a noticeably different paint scheme will be added to the fleet as Central Arkansas Transit Authority, or CATA, becomes known as the Rock Region METRO.
The modern buses and new branding are part of a broader project known as Move Central Arkansas. Leading the effort is Executive Director and CEO Jarod Varner.
"It’s a project that’s designed to start a dialog with key stakeholders, elected officials, our passengers... to figure out what our transit system needs to look like. What types of services and what level of services do we need to offer to make transit a viable option for central Arkansans?”
Varner, who took the helm of CATA nearly two years ago, credits his board of directors for providing the vision for the initiative. He said they've studied what has worked elsewhere.
"We’re looking at Nashville, Austin, Charlotte, large cities that have a lot of what we have. They have high employment, they have great health care, and they’ve invested heavily in transit, so they’re able to draw the types of professional workers that we want to draw to central Arkansas. Young professionals," Varner said.
"Unless we invest in transit it’s going to be difficult for us to attract and retain that millennial group.”
Riding the bus in central Arkansas has long been known for infrequent service and routes that can make it difficult to get from one area to another. It’s hoped that improving the passenger experience will make taking the bus seem more appealing to a broader cross section of people.
Varner said passenger amenities planned for this year include an app that will allow real-time tracking of buses, free wifi on every vehicle and the addition of 30 new shelters at current bus stops.
"Different people decide to ride transit for different reasons. I think there’s a common misconception that transit is for the people who are either out of work or down on their luck and don’t have a vehicle or can’t afford a vehicle," Varner said. "We do provide services for folks who have no alternative, but I think it’s important to note that many of our customers are small business owners, they’re attorneys. They choose transit because they understand the environmental and the economic benefits."
Changing the image of the transit system is considered an important first step in achieving longer term goals, which include adding more routes and boosting the frequency of service. Varner hopes that will pave the way for public discussions on increasing funding for even more improvements.
"We’re funded through numerous cities in central Arkansas who have been great investors over the last decades,” Varner said, “but we’ve gotten to a point where if we’re going to take a big step forward we need to find a dedicated funding source."
A variety of tax options are being considered as potential revenue streams. According to Varner, there are no immediate plans to increase fares, though they will be weighed as part of the long-range plan. Collaborations with some of the regions largest institutions are also being explored.
"There’s a lot of large employers in our area, predominantly in, obviously, state government and health care industries that have very large parking lots, and UALR also. That property has a higher value, a higher use. What transit brings to the table is we have the ability to shrink that footprint. If you get more people in a more effective way to your business, to your school, and to your hospital it frees up land," Varner said.
Passengers interviewed at the downtown River Cities Travel Center on Capitol Avenue said overall they’re satisfied with the services currently provided, though their expectations aren't very high.
"It’s pretty good," said Nathan Hodges, who cited the low cost as the key reason he's a frequent rider. "They take you everywhere you need and it’s cheap. Instead of taking a taxi, you got a bus that’ll take you wherever you need to go."
Another rider, who gave his name as Hakeem Flash, said he's a local musician and views riding the bus as an opportunity for inspiration and less stressful travel.
"Sometimes I don’t want to be bothered, you know. I feel like it’s an escape, just an adventure, a short adventure around the city."