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story.lead_photo.caption File Photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/ANDY SHUPE A Ozark Regional Transit shuttle makes its way west on Backus Avenue earlier this year in Springdale. Transit officials, with help from a $140,000 Walton Family Foundation grant, commissioned a study for a bus system on U.S. 71B running at 15-minute intervals to connect the cities and form a spine for regional public transportation, fed by a system of local routes.

SPRINGDALE -- Ozark Regional Transit officials plan to take general recommendations for a bus rapid transit system through Northwest Arkansas to stakeholders in February. Then they'll try to figure out if they can pay for it.

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ORT Light Bus Rapid Transit Study

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Ozark Regional Transit, with help from a $140,000 Walton Family Foundation grant, commissioned a study by KFH Consultants. The idea is a bus system on U.S. 71B running at 15-minute intervals to connect the cities and form a spine for regional public transportation, fed by a system of local routes. Limited opportunities exist now for riders to go from one city to another.

Bus rapid transit

A full-blown bus rapid transit system usually involves dedicated lanes for buses and bus stops designed to reduce traffic delays from passengers getting on and off a bus. Stops are spaced out and the buses get priority through intersections.

The Northwest Arkansas study is looking for a less expensive and less intrusive option for the crowded U.S. 71B corridor that could be done relatively quickly. The study is considering traffic signal priorities, population densities, park-and-ride lots with bus stations and bus pullouts, among other things.

Source: Staff Report

On the web

To see the full report, go to www.nwadg.com.

ORT board members met with consultants for three hours Wednesday evening to hash out questions and talk strategy. They plan to present the study recommendations Feb. 15, then start work on an implementation plan, look at short and long-term costs and funding options, desired service levels, vehicles, stations, a step-by-step action plan and other details. Stakeholders include cities, large businesses, chambers of commerce, planning agencies, transportation providers and other interested parties, such as the Northwest Arkansas Council.

The study envisions the route operating, at a minimum, from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Fayetteville on the south end to Tiger Boulevard in Bentonville on the north.

The proposed service would operate from about 6 a.m. to about 10 p.m. Monday through Friday. Buses would be on 15-minute intervals during peak hours and 30-minute intervals on off-peak hours.

The service would likely use medium-sized buses and probably won't have dedicated lanes for buses. More drivers and staff would have to be hired, about 21 new buses acquired and about 50 stations located and equipped.

"You'll be tweaking up until the end," Ken Hosen, with KFH predicted. "Then the politicians will want to get involved and they're not very good at transit planning."

ORT is hamstrung to some degree by agreements with various governmental entities who dictate areas where they want bus service. Officials said a better approach may be to look at putting routes where the most potential riders are concentrated and where those riders want to go.

"The entirety of this spine means we would have to take the entirety of Ozark Regional Transit as it sits today and basically wipe it clean and start reconnecting everything," said Joel Gardner, executive director of the transit service.

Fayetteville and ORT officials plan to meet early next year to talk about restructuring routes and about the city's contribution to a public transit system, which is already facing a $338,000 budget shortfall next year. ORT likely will ask Fayetteville to up it's contribution to make up a portion of the shortfall.

Don Marr, chief of staff in Fayetteville and the city's representative on the transit board, said the proposal is going to be a hard sell.

Marr said Fayetteville wanted to look at adding service time and routes but Ozark Regional is essentially asking for more money to pay for less ridership.

The transit study puts the estimated cost of implementing the system at $12 million to start and about $3.6 million per year to operate, depending on the desired service level and amenities.

ORT's operating budget is about $3.5 million. Bus rapid transit would be a separate division with it's own funding stream.

The study recommends getting funding commitments from public and private sources. But, ORT has seen cuts in contributions from local governmental entities in recent years, most recently Washington County. Voters a couple years ago soundly rejected a sales tax for regional transit.

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 expected to pay for operations. Free fares are being considered to get the operation up and running.

Regional planners have cited a study from a couple years ago finding there wasn't enough potential riders to qualify for federal help.

Even a pilot program would require significant infrastructure improvement, particularly stations. In addition to curb cuts, sidewalk extensions, pads and crosswalks.

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.

NW News on 12/23/2017

Print Headline: Bus rapid transit system plan coming together

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