When the sales tax increase requested by Ozark Regional Transit failed in May 2012, many who voted “no” said it was because they didn’t think that the organization was operating efficiently enough with the money it already had.
Joel Gardner, the new director hired in September 2012, has been working to change that perception by literally changing the reality — and making the public transportation agency more efficient.
Washington County voters ousted the sales tax increase (by approximately 64%) that would have generated $7.5 million annually for ORT, which was to be used for sustaining and expanding the existing operations. The measure never even made it to the ballot in Benton County where ORT officials had also sought for tax support.
“Right now what’s happening is that we’re making sure that we are being as effective as possible,” Gardner said. “We’re looking at individual routes and asking ourselves if we are going where we need to be going.”
The organization recently stopped its Saturday service, which was essentially a “dial a ride” service for disabled passengers. This affected about 22 people, Gardner said. To be considered a true paratransit service, it would have to be coupled with a standard route that goes on the same basic path and that was not the case, he said. The Saturday service started several years ago with federal stimulus funds that lasted one year. Gardner’s predecessor continued the program after federal funding ran out, he said.
“By taking that out, we are saving $45,000 a year in transit services alone. We can reinvest that into the week day routes,” Gardner said.
One area the organization aims to invest in is providing evening rides. The belief is that it would increase ORT’s overall ridership.
“We can get people to work but many don’t work nine to five jobs,” he said. “If we can get them to work in the afternoon and home in the evenings, more people will use us.”
Gardner said he has also tasked his staff with being able to offer a full explanation for each part of the routes that are being run, including why they go that route and what options might be more efficient either by being shorter or taking the buses closer to more people.
One example of a route he plans to change is to add a route that stops near the ORT office.
“It’s silly. We’re telling people to use the bus and to come by the office for a pass but then we don’t have a bus that comes by our office,” he said. “We found a solution to that problem real quick.”
Gardner said he and his staff are also working closely with the University of Arkansas’ Razorback Transit system, which can be used by students and non-students. He discovered that some of the Razorback buses and the ORT buses were frequenting some of the same areas at the same time.
“Why are we both chasing each other up and down the same streets?,” Gardner said. “We can get better coverage if we work together. There’s some strategic thinking that needs to go on.”
UA officials for the Razorback Transit could not be reached for comment.
Gardner said it’s his personal opinion that once the communities ORT serves see that the organization can run more efficiently, they will be more willing to support an expansion effort.
“We still need more money, but before we ask we need to do more to show that we’re doing well with what we have,” he said.
Mike Lanier, ORT board member, said that for a bus system to truly work throughout Northwest Arkansas, there needs to be enough routes running often enough for the buses to be useful. He said there has been discussion about how to use some of the turnback money that will be generated by the new highway tax that passed in November 2012.
In the next 10 years, Washington County will receive about $12 million, Fayetteville will receive about $13 million, and Springdale will receive about $12 million, according to figures from the Arkansas Highway & Transportation Department. Eleven other towns in Washington County will receive between $69,000 and $1 million.
Benton County will receive about $12 million, Bentonville about $6 million, Rogers about $10 million and Bella Vista about $4 million. Twelve other towns in Benton County will receive between $15,000 and $1.6 million.