Bus rapid transit study ready for perusal

Posted: December 3, 2017 at 1:06 a.m.

Passengers wait Wednesday to board an Ozark Regional Transit bus near the intersection of North School Avenue and West Center Street in Fayetteville.

Board members have in hand a feasibility study for implementing a rapid bus route on the U.S. 71B corridor that would provide the backbone for a regional public transit system in Benton and Washington counties.

Ozark Regional Transit board members reviewed the study Thursday and plan to meet with the consultants to parse the details. The board will then meet with stakeholders to begin picking options from a cafeteria-style list of recommendations.

"When it really comes down to it, I think it should be the stakeholder group itself that weighs in heavily on what they want something like this to look like," said Joel Gardner, executive director of the transit. "And then, we start talking about how do we go ahead and find a funding stream for that. It all comes back to money."

Board member Don Marr, who is also chief of staff for Fayetteville, said there has to be a public education program to explain not only what is being done but why it's being done before asking for money.

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"The last election, from our perspective, was 'give me the money and then I'll build it,'" Marr said, referring to a regional transit tax proposal voters handily rejected in May 2012. "Ultimately, we all know that we are going to end up going to the voters, when you talk about funding that's the only option and that means trust and credibility and what we tell them is what we do."

Gardner said that will not be the case this time around.

"When I go back to the stakeholders, I want to be able to say, 'Here is what is available to you and here are the reasons behind these options. Which one do you think best fits in Northwest Arkansas?" Gardner said.

Gardner said he expects a scaled-down version for a pilot project followed by a final decision on whether to go forward or not.

The transit study puts the estimated cost of implementing a bus rapid transit system between $9.4 million and $20 million for startup and the first year of operation, depending on the desired service level and amenities.

Annual operating costs after the first year are estimated to range from $2.7 million to $6 million.

Ozark Regional Transit, with help from a $140,000 Walton Family Foundation grant, commissioned the study by KFH Consultants. Estimated costs are affected by a number of variables, including whether the system would operate fare free for the first year to build ridership, how the stations would be appointed and how many buses would be needed to meet the selected service level for arriving buses, such as 15-minute to 30-minute intervals versus 7½-minute to 15-minute intervals.

The study recommends funding commitments from public and private sources should be secured before implementing a pilot project.

"Without a pathway to sustainability any pilot project would be futile," the study notes.

The study recommends trying to secure federal money for vehicles, infrastructure improvements and possibly operations; state and local money for the bulk of operations; private sector sponsorships and partnerships; and how much fares should be to pay for operations.

Even a pilot program would require significant infrastructure improvement, particularly stations. In addition to curb cuts, sidewalk extensions, pads and crosswalks, a basic bus station would cost from $15,000 to $50,000 each. With all amenities in place the cost would likely increase to between $20,000 and $50,000. Ticket vending machines at stations would further increase the cost by from $20,000 to $70,000 each.

"The pilot project nature of this effort may call for a lower level of infrastructure at this time," the study says. "In the future, as the service continues to grow and communities have committed to sustainability, funding should be available to allow the service to expand to keep up with the needs."

The study notes building 50 bus stations would also take some time.

Changing signals

The study looks at signal prioritization that would allow traffic lights to be controlled as buses approach. Signal prioritization for transit has never been done in Arkansas, according to the study, and would require coordination with five cities in the region and the Arkansas Department of Transportation.

Bentonville, Lowell, Springdale and Fayetteville each have different signal prioritization systems for their emergency responders and Rogers doesn't have a system, the study says.

Dedicated lanes for the buses could be proposed for sections of the route between Fayetteville and Springdale and between Rogers and Bentonville, but maybe not during a pilot project, according to the study. Striping and signs would cost $250,000 to $354,000 according to estimates.

Then there's information software and hardware to tell riders when the next bus will arrive at their station. The study estimates the cost of signs, computer packages and development of a mobile application for 20 stops and 20 vehicles would cost between $1 million and $4.5 million, depending on the sophistication of the application.

The study envisions a route along U.S. 71B operating at a minimum from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Fayetteville on the south end to Tiger Boulevard in Bentonville at the north, but it could be extended.

The proposed service would operate from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday at a minimum and buses would operate on 15-minute intervals during peak hours and 30-minute intervals on off-peak hours. Dedicated lanes could reduce the intervals to 7½ minutes during peak hours and 15 minutes on off-peak hours. The study committee is being asked to determine whether a pilot project should also run Saturday routes, which typically have about half the passengers as a weekday route.

Defining the need

The study at times states the obvious, which might be expected.

"The Northwest Arkansas urban area has a distinct shortage of transit service with much of that shortage centered on connectivity between cities," according to the study.

That puts Ozark Regional Transit at a significant disadvantage in both funding and providing services, the study concludes.

"Compounding this shortage of funding and service is that Northwest Arkansas is one of the fastest growing regions in the nation, causing ORT to fall even further behind," according to the study.

The study recommends starting with a two-year pilot project and without dedicated lanes for the buses, relying on technology and staff training to ensure buses can travel as rapidly as possible through the corridor in a safe, comfortable manner. The goal would be to have the buses operate at an average speed equal to or faster than a car.

"At this time, for the most part one can go from one city in the urban area to another by car, bicycle or walking, but for the most part you can't do it using transit," the study says. "The service area is basically linear in design but currently there is no linear service and there is little connectivity between cities. The needs in the service area are evident, but services are slow to grow due to the lack of major local funding commitment to transit."

Four funding levels are reviewed in the report, along with their costs.

"It is now up to the committee to determine the most appropriate service level for the pilot project," according to the study. "The critical issue is to ensure that the service is funded well enough so that it can succeed, rather than cut costs to save money, resulting in lower service quality, convenience and ultimately chances for success."

NW News on 12/03/2017