Sunday, May 4, 2008

Mass Transit Myopia

We are facing the prospect of $4 a gallon gas, and commuter traffic competing with 18-wheelers for space on our crowded roads in Northwest Arkansas. Traditional thinking trapped in the 1950s says just build more bypasses and beltways, but a more progressive vision for our regional transportation future includes convenient mass transit and a light rail system.

Steve Luoni, director of the UA Community Design Center, told reporter Marsha Melnichak that approximately 60 regions have light rail, about half are brand new, and many, such as Sacramento in the picture above, have a population density comparable to Northwest Arkansas. Furthermore, light rail would become a catalyst for creating denser, urban land uses around the train stations. It is not just a cost, it is also a benefit because it encourages economic development. He said rail transportation offers peoples a choice in transit, the opportunity to reduce the environmental footprint, helps neighborhood-based merchants, and is a way to revitalize communities by encouraging a denser urbanism rather than sprawl.

Jeff Hawkins, director of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, earlier this year asked our Congressional delegation to consider a $500,000 earmark for a north-south travel corridor study that would include the feasibility of light rail, as well as bus rapid transit and other possible solutions to alleviate traffic congestion now and in the future. That would be a good first step.

What happens if light rail isn’t studied and planned for now but then becomes necessary in the future. “In Northwest Arkansas, my personal belief is, we are ideally positioned if we have vision and foresight to capture an opportunity to show how things can be done right,” said Ron Goforth, president of Beta-Rubicon who worked with the late John Lewis on the project, but “rationality doesn’t seem to play a whole lot. There are strong vested interests in maintaining the status quo and continuing with highways and opening up more land for conventional real estate development and sprawl.”

“The people who bitch and moan and roll on the floor (about the cost of light rail ) are typically wealthy — driving Escalades or something. You’re never going to get them out of their Escalades. Bless them; let them drive it. But we all need to think about another segment of our population that is underserved and not as vocal, too,” Goforth said.

There is also plenty of moaning and skepticism from Phil Pumphrey, executive director of Ozark Regional Transit. If you can’t get people to ride the existing buses operated by Ozark Regional Transit, he asks, why would you want to spend more money on a rail system when you haven’t demonstrated that people will use mass transit that is already available? “You can’t build light rail then expect to fix the bus system afterwards. You’ve got to have a bus system that’s vibrant and meeting the community’s needs,” he said. It is about money, you see, and ORT doesn't think it is getting enough now.

County Judge Jerry Hunton and the other ORT board members are urging Northwest Arkansas constituents to call their city council members and justices of the peace to express their views on mass transit in the area. "When we hear more of that at the city council level and quorum court level, you're going to see more help," he said, meaning more local tax dollars to match the available federal funding. You could do that.

An even better idea is to contact the Northwest Arkansas Council and tell them that you would support a Regional Mobility Authority -- if they would put mass transit and light rail as Priority One, instead of just shilling for the trucking industry and pushing concrete bypasses. I can guarantee you, it is not even on their mind now. Their website lists XNA airport and the Arkansas Missouri Railroad as the only transportation resources in Northwest Arkansas.

If you want a modern, convenient, and efficient public mass transit and a light rail system for the citizens' 21st century future in Northwest Arkansas, call Mike Malone at 582-2100 or send him an email at Tell him you would use mass transportation and be willing to vote for local taxes to match state and federal funding.

If not, just sit on your ass and watch them continue business as usual and try to raise your taxes to build the Bella Vista and Springdale bypass projects for the benefit of the PTB.

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