Documents don’t justify transit tax

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 147 views 

The people who want to increase the Washington County sales tax for an excessive expansion of public transit view the Northwest Arkansas Transit Development Plan (TDP) as their justification.

I say the TDP justifies nothing, and the plan even says it doesn’t justify a sales tax.

With all the back and forth about what the quarter-cent sales tax would do and wouldn’t do, it’s hard to know what to believe.

Remember that the original TDP described a huge transit system serving two counties. The Benton County Quorum Court refused to ask voters to consider giving millions upon millions of dollars to Ozark Regional Transit, and tax dollars were spent to modify the TDP so it would describe what an excessive transit system might look like in Washington County.

The entire TDP is on ORT’s website in the “Future of Public Transportation” section. You should review the Washington County version.

I know, I know. It’s 51 pages about buses you probably don’t ride, but on May 22 you must decide whether to pay a sales tax to support buses. You’d be approving or denying $7.5 million a year for buses. None of it would go to the highways, light rail or any other aspect of transportation.

I’ll hit a few highlights that’ll make clear ORT didn’t follow the TDP’s guidance. Instead, ORT officials cherry picked what they liked about the TDP, and ignored the parts that I’m about to point out.

To me, the TDP’s most important paragraph is on Page 29. It reads as follows: “Finally, it is important to note that this TDP has provided only a cursory review of funding requirements and potential funding sources. A more detailed assessment of costs and revenues will eventually be required, should officials in Northwest Arkansas decide to pursue a dedicated tax funding source for transit, such as a sales tax.”

No kidding. It really says that. The justification document acknowledges it does not justify a sales tax, and it’s “only a cursory review.” ORT never did the more detailed assessment, either. Yet, ORT is asking you for money now.

Second, I’m none too fond of what I see on TDP Pages 19 and 20. They describe “rural connector routes,” the limited bus service to cities such as West Fork, Greenland, Prairie Grove, Lincoln, Elkins and Goshen.

The connector routes are discussed as part of the TDP’s “long-range service plan,” meaning residents in those cities would pay the sales tax immediately but wouldn’t see any bus service for at least six years. The long-term service plan covers years 6-10. So it could be the sixth year, but it might be the 10th year.

I can’t imagine how small city residents could support something that they’d fund for years before receiving anything.

Third, Page 1 says the TDP is a 10-year service plan. Yet, ORT didn’t ask for a 10-year sales tax. Nope. ORT wants a permanent tax.

Wouldn’t it have been better if this tax proposal guaranteed voters a chance to return to the polls in five or 10 years to re-evaluate the tax-supported transit system?

Fourth, I’ve written this entire commentary assuming ORT would get all the money if the tax is approved, but the TDP on 23 occasions mentions Razorback Transit, the University of Arkansas system that carries 1.7 million riders a year. ORT carries 250,000 riders.

The truth is the Washington County Quorum Court must decide how to divide the money between ORT and Razorback Transit, and I can’t imagine how anyone would assume all the money should go to either one.

Except, of course, Phil Pumphrey, the head of Ozark Regional Transit. Pumphrey has said on multiple occasions and written down at least once that he has no intention of sharing any of the $7.5 million a year with Razorback Transit.

Let’s summarize.
• ORT thinks Razorback Transit shouldn’t get a dime. People in Fayetteville won’t like that one bit as Razorback is the primary bus system in the city as it provides more of its annual rides to non-students than ORT (340,000 to 250,000).

• The TDP is a 10-year document, but ORT wants a permanent tax. It’s an excessive, one-county tax proposal that doesn’t help our region. Northwest Arkansas is best when local governments work together regionally, and public transit should be funded that way.

• Small town voters would pay the sales tax immediately and might get minimal service in the sixth year, but it might be 10 years.

• The TDP doesn’t justify a sales tax. It says more research was necessary and ORT ignored that guidance.

There’s one thing worth repeating since most people don’t ride buses and do drive a car. Not one penny would pay for highways that our region needs, but that’s not in the TDP.

You’ll just have to trust me on that one.