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Less than one month after it did not muster support for a proposed transit tax, the Metroplan board of directors voted Wednesday to endorse the tax proposal that will go before voters Tuesday.

The proposed quarter-percentage-point increase in the county sales tax would raise $18 million annually for transit-service improvements for Rock Region Metro.

Metroplan is the long-range transportation planning agency for central Arkansas. Its board of directors is composed of the region's mayors and county judges.

After a resolution to endorse the tax proposal failed for a lack of a motion at the board's Jan. 27 meeting, Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher, the board's president, said transit agency officials had "more homework" to do.

Since that time, transit officials led by the Rock Region Metro executive director, Jarod Varner, have made presentations on the benefits of the proposed tax. In the past week, Varner had made presentations to municipal governing bodies in Maumelle, Sherwood, North Little Rock and, on Tuesday, Little Rock.

Varner also made a presentation to the Metroplan board ahead of Wednesday's vote on the resolution, which drew endorsements from all of Pulaski County's delegation on the board, including Fletcher.

"We're ecstatic that this board, made up of our region's mayors and judges, unanimously support greater investment in public transit," Varner, who also is a Metroplan board member, said after the vote.

Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, who said he wanted more information after last month's meeting, made the motion to adopt the resolution supporting the tax, saying a dedicated transit tax has long been discussed.

"Since the 1990s, Little Rock has had two different visioning processes," he told fellow board members. "One was called Future Little Rock. The other one was called Vision Little Rock. We had subcommittees dealing with the issues of transportation and dedicated transportation.

"Each one of those processes, all of which lasted from 14 to 18 months, has, in the process of studying this issue, all recommended for the benefit of this region ... that we needed to have a dedicated funding source."

The mayor also said the proposed tax was equal to 25 cents on $100 and, if voters approve it, would leave the tax burden a quarter-percentage point smaller than "virtually every city in Northwest Arkansas."

"If we're going to compete economically, if we're going to become the great capital city and metroplex, I think it's important we dedicate, finally, a funding source for our transit system," Stodola said.

The tax campaign has the backing of the Committee to Connect, which is led by Pulaski County Justice of the Peace Donna Massey, Little Rock City Director Kathy Webb and Jimmy Moses, a longtime developer.

The committee's recently filed a financial report showed its collected $22,075 in contributions and spent all but $420.39 through Tuesday.

Significant contributions include $5,000 from Jason LaFrance of Dale Capital; $3,000 from LTK Engineering Services of Ambler, Pa., which bills itself as a leading rail transit consultant; $2,500 from Pat Riley of Little Rock; $2,500 from the Little Rock law firm of Cross, Gunter, Witherspoon & Galchus, which is the outside counsel for Rock Region Metro; and $1,000 from Mathew Jones of Legacy Capital.

Almost half of the money raised, or $10,000, went to The Markham Group, a public affairs, issues-advocacy and campaign consultant, retained to manage the campaign.

Other major spending included $3,500 for website development by Turtle Target LLC of Conway, and $3,500 for yard signs and $3,303.05 for direct mail, both paid to Arkansas Graphics of Little Rock.

Rock Region Metro relies primarily on annual contributions from the county and its major cities, which total about $12.5 million. Other revenue, including federal aid and ticket revenue, boost the agency's annual operating budget to about $16 million for 2016.

But the contributions are based on routes in Little Rock, North Little Rock and other parts of the county. The agency is limited in its ability to modify routes that might serve customers better and attract more riders because of the funding formula, according to Varner, who said the funding system in place since 1986 "completely inhibits growth."

The agency would use the tax proceeds to add buses and routes and to increase the frequency of stops. Rock Region Metro also would use smaller vehicles to add some community bus service in places such as Jacksonville, Sherwood and Maumelle.

A consultant retained by Rock Region Metro said that implementing the plan would boost ridership by 30 percent to 40 percent. Ridership on Rock Region Metro's regular bus routes declined 2.24 percent last year to 2,573,953, according to agency data.

In other areas, regular buses on some underutilized routes would be replaced with smaller vehicles for on-demand "flex" routes.

Another component of the plan, introduction of bus rapid transit, depends on the cities continuing their annual contributions, as well as increased federal aid. The city of Little Rock is to contribute $8.5 million this year.

Rapid transit is higher-frequency service using bigger buses and, sometimes, special bus lanes. Two rapid-transit routes using West Markham Street, Kanis Road and South University Avenue would be established only if Rock Region Metro's partners agreed to continue their annual contributions, which likely would be smaller than they pay now, Varner has said.

Supporters say bus rapid transit would have platform stations that would serve as magnets for redevelopment.

Varner said he hasn't received a firm commitment from Rock Region's municipal and county partners on continuing funding at the same level if the tax passes.

"The folks we talked to are very interested in continuing to support transit from the general fund at some level," he said. "I think it's to be determined what level is going to be acceptable to each jurisdiction. That, in turn, will determine what the bus rapid-transit component will look like."

Metro on 02/25/2016

Print Headline: Tax for transit flies this time at Metroplan

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