Transit supporters give tips on improving public transportation

by Jeff Della Rosa ( 334 views 

Joe Milazzo, right, executive director of the Regional Transportation Alliance in North Carolina, speaks in a question-and-answer session with KUAF 91.3-FM radio host Kyle Kellams, left, and Mark Fisher, chief policy officer for the Indy Chamber in Indiana.

Business leaders from North Carolina and Indianapolis explained why their regions have supported transit with sales and income taxes, and how one region overcame perceptions that public transit is only for the poor and bus rapid transit only for the rich.

In part three of a speaker series on public transportation, Joe Milazzo, executive director of the Regional Transportation Alliance business coalition serving the Raleigh-Durham area in North Carolina, encouraged Northwest Arkansas residents to build a public transit system that suits the needs of the region. Milazzo along with Mark Fisher, chief policy officer for the Indy Chamber, recently spoke on the business case for transit.

Milazzo also encouraged people to remove the mindset of considering whether to invest in either transit or roads. An investment into roads is an investment into transit, since buses travel on roads. “If you do it right, you can actually reduce some of the cost of transit because the roads are taking care of that. Rail is different, of course,” he said. “But roads and transit are not enemies.”

Another point he made was a region shouldn’t stop investing into freeways with the understanding that it cannot build its way out of congestion, such as in downtowns or a congested area at peak times. A market of moderate density can build its way out of congestion, or at least reduce the congestion at peak times.

A region should consider the issue it wants to solve, and being regional doesn’t require the cities or counties within in it to act at the same time to achieve goals, Milazzo said. In Durham and Raleigh, the vote to increase sales taxes for public transit took place five years apart. Along the way, expect the plan to change, he said. The 2012 plan for Wake County, which includes Raleigh, called for light rail and commuter rail but excluded bus rapid transit, and the Regional Transportation Alliance didn’t support this. The approved plan, which 53% of voters and the alliance supported, included bus rapid transit, or BRT, but cut light rail. In November 2016, voters approved a half-cent sales tax for the $2.8 billion plan.

The Wake County plan includes establishing 20 miles of bus rapid transit service; running commuter rail service on an existing 37 miles of railroad; and adding 66 miles to existing bus service, with at least a 15-minute frequency, according to the Go Forward website. Transit plans in other area counties, including Durham and Orange counties, were approved in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Altogether, the region known as the Triangle and includes the cities of Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh, has a population of more than 2 million, growing by more than 80 people daily. The public transit project is expected to be completed in 2027.

Fisher, who’s also a board member for transit provider IndyGo, said Marion County voters approved a 0.25% income tax increase to pay for transit improvements in the county, which includes Indianapolis. The city is the nation’s 15th largest city with the 83rd largest bus fleet, he said. The region completed polls and a study to determine return on investment for public transit. The area supported a plan for bus rapid transit, but until the tax increase was approved, the area didn’t have a dedicated revenue stream for transit.

Voters approved the first dedicated revenue stream for transit with 60% of the vote, and afterward, the region’s council approved it. An important aspect of the plan was to not underestimate the cost of the tax on households, Fisher said. The average household will pay less than $10 per month more as a result of the tax.

The bus rapid transit system it is working to establish will be the first all-electric system in the United States, Fisher said. The plan is to complete it in 2021. It will enhance the existing bus transit system by 70% and reduce bus frequency to 15 minutes. “When you get to that 15-minute frequency you stop planning your life around transit,” he said. “You start living your life knowing that the transit frequency will be there to support what you are trying to do.” It also triples the amount of bus access for residents in poverty. The expanded bus service could allow households with two vehicles to only need one.

One of the keys of success to develop a public transit system is to establish coalitions with those with diverse interests, he said. The campaign to support the initiative in Indianapolis had a $700,000 budget, and because of the 2016 general election, didn’t run TV ads.

In a question-and-answer session, Fisher said the business community alone cannot support a public transit plan. Milazzo said timing is important to implement the plan and how it is promoted is important as well. In North Carolina, the plan was promoted to relieve traffic, instead of reduce traffic. Milazzo said some aspects OF the plans could be achieved with little cost. The bus on shoulder program was established for $32,000.

He suggested to test similar programs not in areas where it’s expected to have the most impact. But to test it in an area to show it will succeed there before adding it to another area, which might not have supported it initially.

Perception is also important to address. In Indianapolis, some said the bus service was for the poor while bus rapid transit was for the rich. But the bus service was promoted for all people. He also said critics of the service might be loud but that doesn’t mean they represent the majority of public opinion.

After the event, Joel Gardner, executive director for Springdale-based transit provider Ozark Regional Transit, explained that transit isn’t a social service but is part of the infrastructure of the community. The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) recently announced ORT would receive a $3.6 million grant to replace the majority, if not all, of the remaining buses that have yet to be replaced after a Jan. 10, 2017, fire destroyed 20 buses and damaged two buildings at the transit provider’s headquarters.

Gardner said ORT is looking to purchase between 12 and 14 buses, powered by either compressed natural gas (CNG) or diesel fuel. In order to use CNG buses, ORT would need to have a fueling station on site, he said. The length of the buses would be between 30 and 35 feet long and with floors, 11.75 inches off the ground. A 30-foot bus would transport between 20 and 24 passengers, while a 35-foot bus could transport between 28 and 30 passengers. He expects to know which fuel the buses will use in 60 days. He hopes to have the buses built and in use sometime in early 2019.