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story.lead_photo.caption NWA Democrat-Gazette/FLIP PUTTHOFF Justin Cunningham (left) of Bentonville, a regular Ozark Regional Transit passenger, waits Wednesday Nov. 22 2017 for an ORT bus to depart from a stop in Rogers. Cunningham said the bus service is excellent.

Northwest Arkansas' transit system is designed in a way that covers a lot of people but is so spread out that it can't provide timely service with short waits for riders to be picked up, a transit expert says.

Jarrett Walker, an author and consultant from Oregon, told dozens of planners, transportation officials and others that Ozark Regional Transit's buses try to cover as much ground as possible with winding routes because that's what cities and counties that pay the organization demand.

Spreading out paradoxically means serving fewer people, however, because buses can't arrive as often and don't get to where most people want to go quickly, Walker said. That can prompt local governments to look at the transit system's relatively low ridership, roughly 1,000 a day, and decide it's not worth paying more to improve it. Walker compared the situation to a taxi driver being told to turn both directions at once and getting yelled at for failing.

Walker called good transit a win for entire regions, even for residents who don't use it, not just because of its lower use of gasoline than cars or its lower costs for low-income people, but also because of the simple concept of space. Roads and highways have only so much space. Northwest Arkansas, a growing area, is quickly filling it.

"There is no keeping things the way they are," Walker said, and no good reason to wait for traffic congestion to become a truly major problem. Los Angeles did so and now is trying to fix its well-known traffic jams at "catastrophic expense," he said.

Walker made the comments on Nov. 13, during the first of a series of talks presented by the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission and Walton Family Foundation.

THE PICTURE NOW

Ozark Regional Transit runs about a dozen routes in Benton and Washington counties with adult fares of $1.25. Most run through Fayetteville or Springdale. Buses generally pass a given stop once an hour on weekdays. The system offers pickup service for people with disabilities and others off-route. An annual operating budget of about $3 million to cover it all comes mostly from fees, local government support and federal grants.

Walker pointed to several essential ingredients for an efficient and well-used transit system that gives people the freedom to reach more of their community: high frequency; a network connected to popular destinations and walkable areas; and reasonable speed and reliability once someone's on a bus. They need a certain density along their routes, he added; not only are there more potential riders in dense areas, but people in those areas are more likely to use transit than others.

The routes have to be numerous enough that housing alongside them doesn't become too expensive for people of all incomes to reach jobs, school and recreation areas, Walker noted.

A good system with all of these characteristics will still leave out a lot of less-dense or far-flung areas, Walker said. That's not a bad thing, he said.

"This is not like libraries and fire stations," he said, urging the region's leaders to make a decision on where they want to fall in the continuum between covering a lot of area on one end and providing quick and efficient service on the other. "That's what elected officials are for."

Washington County gives a good example of the debates and trade-offs. The Quorum Court decided to cut $100,000 of its support for Ozark Regional Transit, leaving a little more than $20,000. The money went to a rural route that reached some smaller cities.

Some members pointed out the value of transit for attracting employers and giving low-income people access to jobs in the bigger cities, while others said transit helps cities and should be supported by them, not the county.

"There are places where they should be and places where they shouldn't be," Republican Bill Ussery of Springdale said of transit routes during a Quorum Court budget committee meeting, echoing some of Walker's points.

REGIONAL IDEAS

Don Marr, chief of staff for the Fayetteville mayor, was one of several Fayetteville officials attending Walker's talk. He took heart at Walker's advice to start a bigger transit system where there's demand -- Fayetteville's university students and other residents want it, Marr said. The city pays $550,000 a year to Ozark Regional and to the University of Arkansas' bus system.

"If we really want the system that people feel like meets the need, that goes to the high-density places, that has the frequency and the days of service that we want, it's going to take a bigger investment," Marr said.

Bentonville Mayor Bob McCaslin said he isn't convinced there's enough density and demand to justify more money for transit. The city pays about $125,000 to Ozark Regional for one route that includes stops at Northwest Arkansas Community College and Northwest Health's Bentonville hospital.

"I do not hear any overwhelming, you might say, shouts of 'more, more, more,'" he said. "We do recognize it's important to a very small percentage of our citizenry."

The mobility talk series is meant to bring together perspectives like these and see whether they can meet, said Tim Conklin, assistant director for the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission.

The commission back in 2010 released a transit development plan that envisioned millions of dollars more pumping into the system to multiply the number of buses several times.

"None of those expansions have happened, but there's still a desire within the region to look at how to improve transit," Conklin said, adding the commission is working on updating that development plan. "It needs to be everyone's plan."

The series will include more talks in the next several months, Conklin said.

A Walton Family Foundation survey of Northwest Arkansas' quality of life found about one-third of respondents wanted a mass transit system, and the foundation has sent groups to Seattle and Denmark to learn how those places run transit systems and integrate them with other kinds of transportation.

Buses and trains in Denmark accommodate bicycles, for instance, said Karen Minkel, home region program director for the foundation. In Northwest Arkansas, that integration might manifest itself as a bus route that runs parallel to the Razorback Greenway.

The foundation sees transportation, and the ability of all people to get to jobs and services, as a critical issue for the region to stay on top of, Minkel said. It's also paying for an Ozark Regional feasibility study looking into how the agency might expand its offerings.

"Transportation only becomes more expensive to address the longer you wait," Minkel said.

Metro on 12/10/2017

Print Headline: Talks focus on objectives for NW transit system

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