A regional infrastructure and transportation policy panel Wednesday endorsed a quarter cent sales tax that would expand public transit services in Pulaski County. The Metroplan Board of Directors, which consists of mayors and county judges from central Arkansas, passed the resolution in a voice vote after hearing a presentation by Rock Region Metro Executive Director Jarod Varner.
The tax is expected to generate about 18 million dollars in additional annual revenue for Rock Region Metro, more than doubling the agency’s current budget to about 37 million dollars. Currently the transit agency is only funded by annual contributions from the cities it serves. The tax would amount to 25 cents on a consumer's 100 dollar purchase. Pulaski County voters will decide whether or not to approve the tax in the March 1st primary election. Early voting is already underway.
Before Varner spoke before the group, Metroplan Executive Director Jim McKenzie told the board that public transit was a significant piece of the Imagine Central Arkansas Plan, a long-range transportation policy which the board adopted in 2010. McKenzie said his agency has recommended that the local transit authority be funded through a dedicated source--like a sales tax--since 1995.
Varner’s presentation built upon earlier earlier remarks delivered before the board at its last meeting. At that meeting they tabled the endorsement resolution in order to learn more about the Move Central Arkansas Plan, as the effort to expand transit in the area has been dubbed.
Varner said the plan to seek a dedicated funding source for the potential expansion of the bus system was an 18 month process in which Metroplan staff had been heavily involved. He said a sales tax increase was the only option available under state law.
Varner went through the list of planned improvements, which include more frequent stops, as well as expanding night and weekend service.
Other major investments with the added revenue would include bus rapid transit, which Varner described as a “light rail on tires,” with lanes dedicated to buses along certain major routes like on Markham Street and University Avenue in Little Rock. Stops would include more accurate arrival information, with boarding platforms level with a bus’s entrance.
Longer term, Varner said the agency would like to place a Bus Rapid Transit Route, or BRT, down Main Street and JFK Avenue in North Little Rock.
Varner called the current bus service a “one trick pony,” with large buses navigating down small streets and some riders facing as much as an hour and fifteen minute wait in some cases.
If the tax were to pass, Rock Region Metro would seek to expand express routes, like along Chenal Parkway in west Little Rock. The routes of commuter shuttles traveling between Little Rock and satellite communities like Jacksonville, Sherwood and Maumelle would also expand. Midday service on those commuter lines would be added along with their normal morning and evening routes.
Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher, president of the Metroplan Board of Directors, said after the meeting that expanding the commuter shuttle service from his city to downtown Little Rock was important to car-less residents.
“In the midday...there’s no services whatsoever,” said Fletcher. “So I think if we can expand to midday services, then the people that are going to get the greatest benefit of this are those people generally who oppose tax increases...it gives them the ability to become more mobile in a way that they aren’t now.”
Fletcher added that cities in Pulaski County needed to catch up with other cities that are modernizing.
“As a Metroplan board, our job is to think 10, 20, 30 years down the road. And the cities that are growing, that are progressive cities, do have mass and inter-city transportation,” he said.
Fletcher said his city would likely choose to devote its monthly contribution of 5,600 dollars from Rock Region to other city services, if the tax were to pass. Contributions are determined by the number of miles traveled by buses within the cities, Varner said. The current funding structure was established in 1986.
Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, who supports the tax, said his city may also consider redistributing money currently devoted to its annual contribution to Rock Region Metro.
“You know this is a big hit to the city of Little Rock’s budget,” Stodola said after the meeting. “It’s 9 million dollars a year. So there probably will be some revisions as it relates to our contributions. We’re going to have to see what the route improvements are going to be, if and when this passes.”
Stodola said bike lanes, streets and the Little Rock Police Department might be areas of improvement if more revenue is available to the city after the potential sales tax increases revenue for buses.
Stodola also noted that he had studied the sales tax burden of several municipalities in northwest Arkansas. He says he found that if the quarter cent measure were to pass, Little Rock would still have a 1.75 percent sales tax rate--a rate that would be a quarter of a percent less than the rate in many northwest communities.