Rock Region Metro is using new technology and upgrades in hopes of encouraging more people to use public transportation and earn the public's vote for a sales tax increase.
Formerly the Central Arkansas Transit Authority (CATA), Rock Region Metro serves riders in five cities: Little Rock, North Little Rock, Maumelle, Jacksonville, Sherwood. Last August, it renamed and rebranded itself, unveiling and a series of improvements, including new buses and services.
Some if its bigger plans, though, were shelved after Pulaski County voters rejected a new quarter-cent sales tax in March, which would provide money for new routes, more service frequency and other upgrades.
But Executive Director Jarod Varner is not deterred. While he aims to try again on the sales tax, in the near-term he's focused on making smaller improvements to the transit system and aiming for greater efficiency by gathering more data about riders and routers.
"We now have data that can give us some leverage and the ability to really specifically answer questions when we start making some service changes," Varner told Arkansas Business. "We want to be as efficient as we can."
In August, when Rock Region unveiled its new branding, it rolled out 15 brand new compressed natural gas-powered, Wi-Fi-enabled buses. On those buses and all others, Rock Region Metro launched new passenger counting technology, providing rider data by stop rather than by hour, allowing for detailed analysis of current routes.
"You can imagine from a planning standpoint that's huge — with limited resources you're trying to figure out where to cut or add," Varner said. "Now we can be very, very precise. We anticipate being able to move service around a little bit, but it also helps justify it with elected officials. They'll scrutinize plans as we move through the planning process, and now we're equipped with real data to help them understand."
Varner said that the data they've collected so far has confirmed much of what they thought they knew — but in greater detail. It also shows an uptick in ridership.
In 2015, Rock Region Metro had total ridership of 2.7 million. From January to April, the service recorded 888,210 in total ridership, up from 873,299 for the same period last year, according to Becca Green, Rock Region's director of public engagement.
Earlier this month, the organization requested public comments about the service and received about 425 responses, Green said. The most popular requests were for later hours and more routes in new areas. Right now, bus service ends around 8 p.m. on weeknights and 6 p.m. on Saturdays. Some routes aren't serviced on Sundays.
Varner pointed out that a large portion of the population doesn't work a 9-5 job. Without more funding, the system has not been able to "expand in the way it needs to," through later service hours and new routes.
"You can do a lot of things to make it appealing, like new buses and free Wi-Fi and a mobile app and all this stuff. But what you really want to do to move the needle is provide service to match the demand," Green said. "There’s definitely a demand out there for public transit service."
While the demand may there, support for a tax increase — any tax increase — proved to be another matter. Appearing on the March 1 primary ballot, Rock Region's quarter-center tax was defeated 57 percent to 43 percent. But Varner says they'll likely make a second attempt to pass the measure.
"We've been very encouraged by the tremendous amount of support we received near the end of the campaign," Varner said. "The response we saw from voters was not a 'no' but a 'not right now.' And so I think we're looking within the next year or so at actually coming back and seeing if the voters are willing to support greater investment in transit."
Varner also suggested local leaders considering a gas tax for funding. He said he believes the state must diversify its investments in transportation, and in many places a gas tax is used for both highway improvement and public transit.
"If you properly fund a transit system you can have it both ways," Varner said. "You can have your car and that flexibility when you need it, and then you have transit that's there to help you save money, improve the economy and impact air quality."
Varner said that around October, they'll begin implementing some service improvements, potentially rearranging service into busier areas. They also plan to begin a study looking at streetcar alignment in downtown Little Rock.
"We have a lot of folks who are interested in redevelopment in downtown and want to see some streetcar expansion to help fuel that," Varner said. "So probably near the end of the year we'll at least start that process and seeing what, if any, opportunities there might be."
The system has been making other improvements. Rock Region's new METROtrack Mobile App, which debuted in February, allows riders to see exactly where their bus is along the route so that they can better time their arrival at the bus stops. The app has 1,892 users.
Rock Region is also installing new shelters at its stops. Right now, it has shelters at 99 of its 1,600 bus stops but is working to add 55 more, 25 of which will have solar powered lights. Varner said the solar-powered shelters were funded through a $360,000 Transportation Alternatives Program grant.
One of the challenges the organization faces is to overcome stigmas about public transit and inform people about the benefits they believe public transit offers, even to those who elect not to ride it.
"We need to educate folks on the benefits of transit; even if you're not using transit you still benefit from it," Varner said. "We'll do some marketing to help people really realize that even if you live in far west Little Rock and you're not able to ride the bus, we're still taking cars off the road, we're still getting people to work, to Starbucks, to the restaurants."
Rock Region's Busiest Stops
Based on data collected from Oct. 15 to April 15, the top 10 stops in the Rock Region Metro system are:
- The River Cities Travel Center, the main transfer hub, where all but one of 26 routes stop
- The Midtown transfer hub, the stop behind the Midtown Target on Midtown Avenue
- The Shackleford Walmart
- Fort Roots
- Main and 17th streets in Little Rock (near the Edwards Food Giant, Walgreens)
- 4600 Richards Road in North Little Rock (Walmart)
- Willow and Pershing in North Little Rock (multi-family housing, library)
- Walmart and Sam's Club at Bowman
- Colonel Glenn Road and University Avenue (UALR, shopping centers)
- Baseline Walmart