Rock Region METRO, formerly known as Central Arkansas Transit, is asking voters to approve a quarter-cent sales tax increase which would generate a projected $18 million, all earmarked for public transit. According to Executive Director Jarod Varner, the additional revenue would allow the organization to be more responsive to current passenger needs and attract new riders.
“Our system is anchored in a funding structure that was developed in 1986 and so it's very difficult to make major service changes. We want to modernize what we do,” said Varner
Currently the bus system is financed primarily from the budgets of the cities it serves. Varner said the tax is the only option for a dedicated, flexible revenue stream under Arkansas law. The increased revenue would allow the transit service to address common complaints such as the ones from a twice-a-week rider who identified herself as Darby.
“I live on Crystal Valley," she said, "there is no bus service. It's bad because people in rural areas need to ride buses too. I think they need to go to Jacksonville.”
Infrequent service and limited routes have created a system that is used mainly by those who have no alternatives, such as students and those who can't afford their own vehicles.
One daily rider, who gave his name as Matthew, said, “the bus system is for the lower class people, the people that don't have money. Some upper class people do use it, but it's mainly for the lower class. And some people don't have money even for a phone. I've been on the streets, I've been homeless for a long time and they're kind of dependent on knowing when the bus comes and when it doesn’t.”
Rock Region METRO’s plan for improving the passenger experience and increasing the number of riders is outlined on its website. It includes extending the hours of weekday routes, adding shuttles to Maumelle, Jacksonville, and Sherwood, and creating new cross-town routes in North Little Rock.
David Ray, the state director for the conservative advocacy group Americans For Prosperity said he knows of no organized opposition to the ballot initiative. His group has been going door to door to educate voters about the proposal.
“We talked to people at their doorstep," said Ray. "A lot of people are wondering if the county wants to raise the sales tax, why is that money not going to address our crumbling roads or our overcrowded prisons or our struggling schools? Why is the money going to expand bus routes? That's a question that we do get a lot from people.”
His group is not officially supporting or opposing the tax increase. Economist and former University of Arkansas at Little Rock professor Jim Metzger understands concerns about the tax, but says he believes the overall impact of improvements to public transit would be positive.
“It should have considerable, what economists call spillover effects, or sometimes we call it positive externalities. That means simply that what spending happens here is going to reverberate into other sectors. So it actually has the ability to be what economists used to call an engine of growth,” said Metzger.
Similar initiatives have been on the ballot twice since 1995 and failed both times. Rock Region METRO’s Jarod Varner hopes the new buses, website, and mobile app that have been launched in recent months will persuade voters to support the proposal.
“The focus of the program is connecting communities to opportunities: job opportunities, healthcare, education, and so we need better service. We need more frequent service. We need more buses, more places, more often is the bottom line,” said Varner.