Fare chance: Catching a ride with Rock Region Metro
May 14-20, 2018
By Becca Bona
“Why can’t Rock Region Metro add a route to the Promenade at Chenal –
surely enough people want to visit the only Apple Store in the state?”
“Riding the bus is confusing. How do I find the best route for my trip?”
“Why don’t the buses run more often?”
Becca Green, director of public engagement with Rock Region METRO (RRM), hears these questions and more like them, if not once a day, at least once a week. For such a small metropolitan area (compared to larger cities like Chicago or Los Angeles), Little Rock boasts of an efficient, innovative bus system. In fact, many people rely on the bus every day to get to and from work.
If you’ve never ridden the bus, you likely still have thoughts about RRM. This week we examine the organization’s structure and talk about the future of mass transit in the Rock.
Breaking the stigma
Nearing her third year with RRM, Green started presenting educational programs on the bus system to community groups a little over a year ago.
“I have realized that a lot of people in our area have never really been exposed to mass transit. Many people from here – a surprising number to me – don’t get to travel to places where there are systems that have been historically heavily invested in,” she explained. “When they do visit these areas of the country – they avoid mass transit.”
Most people don’t know that RRM is responsible for over 2.5 million passenger trips per year in Little Rock, North Little Rock, Maumelle, Jacksonville, Sherwood, and Pulaski County. The system covers a fixed-route bus service in Pulaski County, the Streetcar in downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock, and a Links on-demand paratransit service.
That is largely why Green has taken to providing transit trainings – to educate locals on the system and how to use it.
“The challenge is bringing this notion that you can have good public transit in a city the size of Little Rock and its surrounding areas,” said Green. “We’re taking all the strides that we can to take to make the passenger experience as good as it can be.”
A ticket to ride
Understanding the funding structure can unlock a lot of unrealistic expectations people may have regarding RRM.
“Most of our funding is paid for by the local jurisdictions where we operate service,” Green explained. “It’s not a statewide system, so it makes sense for most of the money to come from local jurisdictions where the service operates. […] And, it is a public service, so it’s heavily subsidized. When you as a rider buy a pass, you are not paying the cost of what it takes to run the system – by a long shot.”
The local jurisdictions are the largest source of income, funding 74 percent of the overall cost of the system. After that, direct revenue – which includes fare price – comes in at 13 percent. Federal money accounts for about 12 percent while the state funds less than 1 percent.
“Little Rock only pays for what is running in Little Rock proper, and North Little Rock only pays for North Little Rock, and so on and so forth. This makes it a very equitable way for the cities to split up and share the cost of the system,” said Green.
The jurisdictions pay for service miles via a proposed budget created by the RRM that covers the status quo cost. This is why it is so difficult to change routes or create new ones, because the proposed budgets don’t account for any changes.
Depending on various factors such as the rising cost of healthcare, labor and fuel, as Green said, “The same service miles can increase in cost, and that’s still not getting you anything new.”
If then, you take the example of adding a route to Chenal’s Promenade, you can see why it gets expensive quickly. It goes back to the equitable splitting of funding between the jurisdictions, and ultimately, how much the community wants to invest in the system.
“We’re not in charge of dictating to the cities where we operate what they pay for the transit, we are just in charge of presenting a budget and saying ‘Here’s what it costs for this same level of service next year,’” said Green.
Considering this and the fact that most of the routes have existed since the ‘80s, it’s noteworthy that RRM has accomplished so much – from creating an award-winning website to receiving two federal grants in the past three years.
The organization received their first FTA Bus and Bus Facilities grant in 2016, which funded seven new Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) Buses. RRM recently applied for and received their second grant, which funds 7 CNG buses that will begin service in 2020.
“Federal grants involving buses come with an 85/15 match,” said Green. “That means the feds will pay 85 percent of the request and we’re responsible for coming up with a 15 percent match. It’s hard for us to set aside the funds sometimes to make these grant matches because the budget is so spread out among the jurisdictions and the funding structure is the way it is.”
What the current funding structure lacks is flexibility. Funds are so tied up to current service miles, there is little wiggle-room for dollars to go elsewhere.
In 2016 a quarter-cent sales tax was placed on the ballot to combat the rigidity of funds. The tax would have provided plenty in the way of flexibility – because dollars wouldn’t be tied to service miles. Unfortunately, it didn’t pass.
“It would be very freeing for us to say, ‘Here’s a brand new neighborhood over here with 400 apartments, and we need to get transit out here because it makes sense, not because of who wants to pay what,’” Green said. “We see these trends and we’re looking at the data and it makes sense.”
Planning for the future
Green recently attended a Metroplan meeting. One of the items on the docket included checking the status of the Metro 2020 plan.
Metroplan is the regional voice on issues in Central Arkansas, which, by law, is required to work on area transportation improvement plans. Metro 2020 refers to the long range improvement plan created in 1995.
“Most of the initiatives that were related to public transit in that plan have not been achieved,” said Green. “The main reason why is because we don’t have a dedicated source of funding for public transit.”
This particular Metroplan meeting also focused on tackling rising issues in the community. For instance, when considering a growing elderly population, one issue that arises is their growing need for reliable transportation.
Leaders are also concerned about retaining talent. Millennials are often vocal about things they consider important, and many would rather utilize public transportation than own a car, both to save money and the environment.
A better funded mass transit system would be able to help with those issues. Unfortunately, the current future plan RRM has outlined – MOVE Central Arkansas –would only be able to go into effect if there was ample funding.
MOVE Central Arkansas calls for Bus Rapid Transit – which would result in higher bus frequencies in areas of demand. And although the plan would only be finalized if funding became available, it also highlights flex zones, a West Little Rock express route, and community shuttles focused on fixed route service to West Little Rock, Maumelle, Jacksonville, and Sherwood.
“I think there’s a real misperception, maybe even a slight classist attitude toward taking public transit,” said Green. “I love to override any kind of misperceptions that someone might have. The reality is that we are doing a pretty good job of running transit for an agency our size with limited resources.”
Download the app, plan your ride, or catch the next transit training to truly get involved.
Read more about MOVE Central Arkansas here: https://rrmetro.org/move/.
Rock Region METRO’s Route 5 is an East/West route on Markham which passes the major hospitals in Little Rock including the above pictured University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. The route also stops at CHI St. Vincent, Veterans Hospital, and Arkansas State Hospital.