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Can mass transit find financial support? by NWA Democrat-Gazette | June 8, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

What might be the best advice to get more people on board with expanded funding for the region's bus system? Rename every vehicle in the fleet the "Muss Bus."

That, of course, is a popular reference Razorback fans have adopted to show support for Head Coach Eric Musselman as he builds on the success of the University of Arkansas basketball program. Although the Muss Bus, as an actual vehicle, is about as real as The Magic School Bus, people respond to it with a high level of energy.

Ozark Regional Transit could use some of that energy. Most people recognize Northwest Arkansas is continuing to grow in population and anyone who drives can see that the region's traffic congestion isn't easing up. For years, people surveyed in Benton and Washington counties have indicated a desire to see expanded and better mass transit because it's unlikely the region can pave its way out of the challenges of more vehicles.

That realization, though, hasn't translated yet into what Ozark Regional Transit officials say they need -- a reliable, direct source of revenue to support a more robust system that can actually convince people to leave their cars parked and rely on mass transit.

It's been almost 10 years since ORT asked Washington County voters for a quarter-cent sales tax to support its operations. Only 36 percent of voters backed the measure. In Benton County, the county leaders wouldn't even agree to put the question on the ballot.

Have things changed?

Joel Gardner, ORT's chief executive, hopes the region's four largest cities will put a quarter-cent sales tax for mass transit on their November 2022 ballots. Local funding, Gardner said, is critical to getting future federal or state grants.

A survey in 2019 showed dissatisfaction with the status quo. People seem to recognize the region will need to invest in mass transit for the future. Generally, nearly four out of five people said expansion is needed in Benton and Washington counties.

U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, who was mayor of Rogers before entering Congress, visited ORT the other day. He described the tax idea as an "uphill climb." We couldn't agree more. Even as a lot of people recognize the need, getting them to pay for an expanded system has been a tough sell.

If the cities, in particular, don't expand mass transit, we can easily predict a day in the future when government leaders and residents will look back and wonder why the region didn't better prepare itself for what was to come.

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What’s the point?

Even as people recognize the need, it’s been difficult to marshal support for an expanded bus system the region will need in the future.


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