Missouri, Oklahoma transit leaders to offer insights for Northwest Arkansas

by Jeff Della Rosa (JDellaRosa@nwabj.com) 436 views 

The Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission is hosting an event Aug. 8 in Springdale to learn what neighboring cities are doing to improve mobility. One of the speakers in the event, Jason Ferbrache, director/administrator for transit provider Embark in Oklahoma City, will discuss a modern street car system Embark is completing.

The Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission will host transit and planning officials from Kansas City, Mo., Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Okla., in the fourth event in a four-part speaker series on improving regional mobility.

“Growing Mobility for a Growing Region, Part 4: Our Next Door Neighbors’ Transit Initiatives,” will take place from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Aug. 8 at the Jones Center in Springdale. The last event in the series is expected to build upon the previous three and focus on how neighboring cities are improving mobility.

A common thread most of the officials plan to discuss is bus rapid transit, which is a system that allows for faster transportation along a corridor by increasing the frequency of buses at stops, reducing the number of stops buses make and using technology and dedicated lanes to improve bus arrival times.

Recently, Springdale-based transit provider Ozark Regional Transit completed a study on bus rapid transit along U.S. Highway 71B, between Bentonville and Fayetteville. Bus rapid transit also was a key topic in the previous event in the mobility speaker series. Joel Gardner, ORT executive director, said the plan is to seek direction from the stakeholders on the next steps for bus rapid transit after the completion of the speaker series, which is related to the planning process for the transit system.

With nearly 20 years of transportation experience, Keith Sanders, chief engineer for the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, said he plans to speak about the bus rapid transit initiatives on which the region has worked and continued to improve.

In the early 2000s, the transit authority started to plan a bus rapid transit system, and its first line in the system opened in 2005, Sanders said. In 2011, another line opened. The authority is working to establish a third corridor, which is expected to start operating in 2019, and a fourth is in the early planning stages. The transit authority is also working on a plan for a new terminal at Kansas City International Airport.

Also from Kansas City is Laura Machala, planner for Mid-America Regional Council. She helped develop Smart Moves 3.0, a long-term transit and mobility plan for the region. Smart Moves was developed over the past 12-15 years and is in its third iteration, identifying transportation projects or corridors that need improvements.

Dawn Warrick, planning director for Tulsa, will speak on land use planning along the bus rapid transit line that the city is establishing on Peoria Avenue. The north-south line is expected to start in fall 2019, and in 2021, an east-west line along Route 66, or 11th Street, will begin running.

The city developed a voluntary rezoning program that would allow properties along the route to be rezoned. A dozen properties, among hundreds along the line, voluntarily rezoned their property, primarily from commercial to mixed use. The latter would allow for buildings to be built closer to the road and improve walkability, Warrick said. As an incentive, the city waived fees to rezone properties along the route.

The same opportunity will be extended to property owners along the Route 66 line, Warrick said. Another push to encourage property owners to rezone their property along the Peoria Avenue line will take place when buses start running on it next year.
Also discussing the bus rapid transit system will be Ted Rieck, general manager of transit provider Tulsa Transit. Rieck, who has more than 35 years of transit experience, will speak about the funding for bus rapid transit.

Warrick said Tulsa voters approved a permanent sales tax that will in part pay for the bus rapid transit system. The sales tax revenue also will go toward filling potholes on existing roads.

Jason Ferbrache, director/administrator for transit provider Embark in Oklahoma City, will speak about a modern street car system that Embark is completing. Ferbrache, who has been administrator of the Central Oklahoma Transportation and Parking Authority and director of the Oklahoma City’s Public Transportation and Parking Department since February 2014, said the 4.6-mile street car system will provide service in downtown Oklahoma City.

The $130 million project is expected to be completed in December and will include seven street cars, he said. The battery-powered cars, each with a capacity of about 100 people, will operate with and without an overhead electric line. About 40% of the system doesn’t have an overhead electric line, he said.

In 2009, voters approved a sales tax to pay for 100% of the project, he said, and it’s spurred residential growth and possibly a mixed-use development, which is in negotiations, along the line.

Another project Embark is a part of is a plan among six cities that are working to develop a regional transit authority that is funded. Embark is also planning to establish a bus rapid transit system and is looking to improve walkability for better access to the system.

After brief presentations by the speakers, they will participate in a panel discussion, said Tim Conklin, transportation programs manager for the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, who expects between 50 and 80 people to attend the event.

“I think there’s a lot of interest in public transit in Northwest Arkansas,” said Conklin, adding the information from the speaker series along with new survey data from riders of area transit providers will help the region to update its 10-year transit plan over the next two years.

At the previous speaker event, transportation experts from the Raleigh-Durham area in North Carolina and Indianapolis spoke on why businesses supported projects to improve public transit. The previous two events included Jeff Speck, author of “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time,” and transit consultant Jarrett Walker, who spoke on the seven demands of how to make transit more useful and desirable.

In 2017, the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission started hosting the speaker series, which is sponsored by the Walton Family Foundation, providing a nearly $80,000 grant for it.