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SPRINGDALE -- Stakeholders agreed Thursday a bus rapid transit system on U.S. 71B through the Northwest Arkansas metro area is feasible and would be a good investment for the region but a dedicated funding source is needed to make the venture sustainable.

A pilot program would cost about $20 million to get up and running and finding that money, preferably through a public/private partnership of some kind, would have to be a priority, according to Ken Hosen, a consultant heading the study said. Annual operating costs would be about $3.2 million.

Bus rapid transit

A system usually involving dedicated lanes for buses and bus stops designed to reduce traffic delays from passengers getting on and off a bus. Buses get priority through intersections. The Northwest Arkansas study looked for a less expensive and less intrusive option for the U.S. 71B corridor.

The service would likely use medium-sized buses and without dedicated lanes. More drivers and staff would have to be hired with about 21 new buses.

The study envisions the route operating, at a minimum, from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Fayetteville to Tiger Boulevard in Bentonville from about 6 a.m. to about 10 p.m. Monday through Friday. Buses would be on 10-minute intervals during peak hours.

Source: Staff report

Take a look

The final draft report, Smart Bus Rapid Transit Study for the U.S. 71B Corridor, is available online at:

"Without some kind of promise of funding of some level of sustainability anything thing else you do is meaningless," Hosen said. "So, if there's some ways you guys can start hunting around for funding sources and working with the private sector to generate revenue, that's critical, along with the planning stuff you're doing right now."

Federal money would be difficult to get for starting up system because the region would have to show enough people were using the service to make it a viable investment, Hosen said. Federal transportation money is also in limbo in Washington because of potential budget cuts, he said.

"Even if we did go through the federal side and we got the wonderful startup grants for everything, those things only go so far," said Joel Gardner, executive director of Ozark Regional Transit. "Without a long-term strategy, we would then shut it down after the federal funding was over."

Hosen urged the group to do it right or don't bother.

"Don't put something out there that's half-baked," Hosen said. "Do it right or wait 'til you get the money to do it right."

Options for a dedicated money source could include local sales taxes, commitments from local governments or sponsorships from philanthropic organizations. The Walton Family Foundation helped pay for the bus rapid transit study.

Melissa Reeves, a new ORT board member, said passing a sales tax for transit would be difficult.

"I'm not confident that avenue would necessarily work and I know there have been issues among all the communities with increasing funding for ORT and a lot of discussion about that," Reeves said. "I like the idea of the investment. I'm concerned about the sustainability."

Adam Waddell with University of Arkansas Razorback Transit suggested there needs to be someone or some organization to push the idea through, similar to the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport project.

"I think probably that the key in this is that this discussion be led by a non-transit group," Waddell said. "I think that we are going to have to find a champion, somebody that's going to support his project that's more of a regional capacity. I'm still firmly convinced that we won't get transit in Northwest Arkansas unless it's pushed by more of a regional propensity."

Keaton Smith with Iberia Bank said that is also what happened with the Razorback Greenway, which got a boost from the Walton Family Foundation.

"That's exactly what we're talking about here, it's the same type of need, potentially even a larger base of need," Smith said. "We've already done it in Northwest Arkansas. It's entirely possible to do. It just takes pushing the right buttons."

Gardner said an effort is also needed to change the mindset in the region about public transit which he said is, aside from the UA moving students, often looked at as a social service at best and not as a part of the infrastructure of the community.

Stakeholders in the study include cities, large businesses, chambers of commerce, planning agencies, transportation providers and other interested parties, such as the Northwest Arkansas Council.

NW News on 02/16/2018

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