A 10-year transit plan presented Wednesday (Sept. 23) to Northwest Arkansas officials calls for a quarter-cent sales tax in the region’s four largest cities in order to implement the plan.
The Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission Policy Committee, which comprises city and county officials, was shown in a virtual meeting the draft of Connect Northwest Arkansas, a 10-year transit development plan to improve and expand transit in the area.
Tim Conklin, transportation programs manager for the commission, said the plan is expected to come before the committee and Springdale-based transit provider Ozark Regional Transit for a vote in October. Conklin noted the contract with Austin, Texas-based consultant Alliance Transportation Group is set to end in October.
Conklin previously said the plan was to be completed in April, and the presentations for the plan were postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In December 2018, the commission agreed to pay $279,579 for Alliance to complete the Connect Northwest Arkansas plan.
The study for the plan started in January 2019 and included two phases for public comments. The draft plan highlighted the growth of the region, and that by 2045, nearly 500,000 people are expected to live in Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers and Springdale.
“How are you going to move all those people? You can only widen roads so much,” said Tim Simon of Alliance Transportation Group. “That’s why we’re really doing this plan is to become transit ready for Northwest Arkansas.”
The plan study area includes Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers and Springdale and compared Northwest Arkansas to other regions. The areas that spend the most on transit have the most ridership, such as Madison, Wis., and Eugene, Ore. Cities with dedicated transit tax money have the most successful transit programs, Simon noted.
“We really need to invest in transit in Northwest Arkansas to make it successful, and we’ve identified a recommendation for that through this plan,” he said. “We’re not calling for that investment to happen at this election. This plan can be implemented when the region is ready, and because of COVID and where you all are at, right now is not the right time. But we’ve delivered a plan that will serve as a tool for when the regional planning commission, when the transit agencies and when the major organized cities are ready.”
The Northwest Arkansas plan would be implemented in three phases and have a total cost of $42.34 million. The plan suggested the four major cities, Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers and Springdale, to approve the quarter-cent sales tax to achieve the funding levels needed to implement the plan. The tax funding also would provide the money to operate and maintain the system through the second phase. Cities could address revenue shortfalls or delay the start of phase three until the money needed to do so became available, the study shows.
Plan recommendations include adding 10 transit routes for a total of 29 routes and 43 buses for a total of 75 buses. Goals include service every 30 minutes and for it to operate daily for 16 hours a day.
Simon explained that before plan implementation, a Fayetteville passenger might reach a destination in 74 minutes if the person were to miss the bus. After the plan is implemented, the passenger could miss the bus and still make it to the destination in 24 minutes because of the increased bus frequency.
Under the plan, ridership on an average weekday is projected to increase 201% to 24,133 in phase three. Existing ridership is 8,016.
Link here for the draft transit plan.