NWA EDITORIAL: Get on the bus

Region can’t skip bus system for sexier projects

Thomas Jefferson once said he liked the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.

Ol' Tom's comment didn't address the reality of the present.

What’s the point?

Northwest Arkansas must address its basic bus system before dreaming big about light rail or other amenities.

Any dreams of a big future naturally begin with the status quo and ask the question: How do we get there from here?

For several years, we've doubted the grand designs for a high-speed train to haul people quickly along the Interstate 49 route between Fayetteville and Bentonville. It's not that such a transportation option wouldn't be a huge convenience. It would. After all, wouldn't it be grand for all those Walmartians, vendors and others to be able to relax while a speedy locomotive -- not the kind roaming on tracks around here today -- hurtles them to and fro in their daily commutes? And imagine how it would relieve pressure on the interstate and other roads that tend to get clogged up in the daily traffic jams.

We remember in the early 2000's when there was lots of chatter going on about the merits of so-called "light rail," and the vision of how incredible that would be for a growing region has continued to linger in the backs of many minds. Indeed, when it comes to mass transit in Northwest Arkansas, it seems people are far more interested in the fantasy land notions of light-rail than in the more down-to-earth possibilities of buses.

The region is served by a bus system called Ozark Regional Transit. It's not a sexy, dream-like project that conjures up images of a train traveling hundreds of miles per hour (perhaps just a little too fast for the Fayetteville to Bentonville distance). But the bus system's advocates have accomplished more real-world transportation of people than the charts and drawings of a rail system of the future ever have.

If a rail-based system of mass transit is ever to become a reality, what might have to exist first? Maybe a way to get from the train stations to final destinations? Are people going to own cars at both ends? Will everyone ride bikes or scooters? No, a robust local bus system must operate before some of these other, more elaborate creations can ever move from dream to reality.

So count us among those applauding when experts at the Alliance Transportation Group outlined a bold idea: Improve local bus routes.

"The focus is on fixing the core, fixed-route, urban transit system on a regional and local basis," said Tim Simon, a representative of the firm hired by Ozark Regional Transit to examine transportation needs for the next decade. "So, looking at a regional level, but making detailed recommendations for each community."

Continuing to conjure up visions of elaborate systems ignores the immediate need, Simon suggested. He told the Ozark Regional board they need to "fix your foundation" rather than devote time, money and energy to lofty and cool projects.

"You can build light rail that runs every five minutes up and down the corridor, but what are people going to do when they get off, just wait 15 minutes for a bus? It doesn't work," Simon said. "I think we're going to make recommendations to get your core service up and running."

What great advice from a consultant. And what great common sense for Northwest Arkansas.

The regional transit system struggles already to get leaders in the communities it serves to embrace its value and mission. What good will a top-end system of transportation with costs approaching $1 billion be for the region's population if the greater foundation of mass transit is incomplete and insufficient?

The time will come when an inadequate mass transit system will stifle Northwest Arkansas growth. Creating a system that meets today's needs and can scale up for tomorrow's population will be a critical piece of the region's economic puzzle. Is that buses? Who knows? Maybe it's driverless cars a few years down the road. But whatever it becomes, it's got to be vibrant before all those other ideas have a chance of working.

By all means, dream big. But our heads can't stay in the clouds for long. There's work to be done right down here on the section of earth known as Northwest Arkansas.

Commentary on 02/05/2019

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