Where Do We Go From Here?

Or the Politics of building a mass transit system (and funding it). 

Introduction: To build out the green mass transit system we want we need a Regional Transit Authority with dedicated funding. This paper details how we achieve these goals politically. 

As part of our commitment to educate and motivate our community, we talk about what we want out of a mass transit system. Think riding a bus to a park and ride station to board a light rail to XNA. Or ride a bicycle to a station to board a commuter train from Fayetteville to Bentonville. We, and I, talk mostly about the technology, especially the green tech we can use to move ourselves around and solve our climate change problems. To be honest technology won’t solve all our population growth and environmental problems. Although I don’t see us solving them without good tech to back us up. 

So what will solve these pressing problems that confront our community? Democracy. We the citizens of NWA need to own our political process and use the process to make change. As part of our mission to motivate and educate our citizens let’s talk about the specific political actions we need to accomplish our goal; integrated green mass transit. 

How do we get the integrated green transit we want? Who decides what happens, how it happens, and when? Where does the money come from? How do we get from here to there (in every sense)? We as citizens must own our government and political process. In other words government is a tool we citizens use to make things happen. We must address government on three levels; local at the city and county level, State, and Federal levels. Let’s look at each of the three and what we can do. 

On a local level to make things happen we need a political instrument to build and administer the integrated green transit system. That governmental instrument is called a Regional Transit Authority or RTA. This is the political tool used all over the USA. When I worked in paratransit in Austin Texas I worked for Central Texas Metro Transit Authority or CMTA. As another example Chicago has the Chicago Transit Authority. For now let’s just call our RTA the NWA RTA. 

We don’t have a NWA RTA currently. We have a Regional Mobility Authority but that isn’t the same thing. There are members of the RMA from outside Benton and Washington counties making this instrument not effective. We need to take into consideration what makes our situation unique. In most other parts of the US where you have 500,000 to 750,000 population, there is a small or midsized city surrounded by a number of bedroom communities and suburbs. For example Portland OR, Wichita KS, or Knoxville TN. The largest city then passes the laws necessary to create the RTA and the smaller communities go along. In NWA, our cities are split up in terms of population so that we don’t have one large urban center that can call the shots. Fayetteville and Springdale are almost the same size and Rogers and Bentonville though smaller are almost the same size. We need to focus on local races in Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers, and Bentonville for mayor and city council. This makes our job more complicated but we can do it. We want candidates who run specifically on, or at least as a major goal, creating and maintaining our RTA. County Courts, in our case made up of Justice of the Peace and County Judge, are given constitutional authority to pass laws to raise money for county governance. We want candidates for JP and County Judge to make the same pledge. If the Big Four city governments and both county courts work together we can create our RTA that will plan, build, maintain, and administer the integrated green mass transit system. Creating our RTA needs to be an issue that drives voters to the polls in local races. Arkansas voters don’t seem to vote for personalities. They, we, do turn out for issues. Running on issues creates voter interest and increases the number of citizens who vote in local elections. Raising the minimum wage and legalizing medical marijuana, no matter what you think about these issues, got people to go to the polls. 

After we get our NWA RTA we need a dedicated source of funding. So let’s talk turkey about where the money comes from. 

Typically local governments raise money for the RTA via sales tax. However, at 11 and 1/4% we are the most heavily sales taxed part of the USA. I recommend we look to State Government for a solution that won’t raise taxes.

Most of the sales tax money is slated to go to highway building projects by the Arkansas Department of Transportation, or ArDOT. Currently only 2% of the highway fund goes to transit. My personal suggestion is that we ask the State of Arkansas to increase that percentage to 9%. Once again we need to make this an issue that whole campaigns are centered around. The advantage is we have the funding for our RTA without raising taxes because we use existing taxes for transit funding. A big plus for voters in my opinion. I will add that this won’t be easy. We as a group have a lot to learn about how all this works. We will have further discussion on this. 

Now with our RTA and a financing platform let’s talk about good old Uncle Sam. In our history the US Government financed the construction of railroads, highways, and all other forms of infrastructure. In Arkansas before the Corona Crisis ArDOT had a $1 billion budget to build highways with 55% of that coming from the US Government.  

NWA RTA will work with the NWA Regional Planning Commission to help draw up plans for expanding and promoting transit usage. The Planning Commission is recognized by the Federal Government as a Metropolitan Planning Organization. As MPO the RPC measures the ridership of the current transit system via “boardings”. Boardings are the measurement that determine how much funding the Federal Government will grant NWA RTA. 

An example of how important boardings are is found in the case of the NWA Regional Airport or XNA. XNA was not supposed to be as successful as it is. It was “common wisdom” that our area was too small to support an airport. Just like we are too small to have a RTA. However, with over five hundred thousand residents in our area XNA has seen boardings increase every year. A number of boardings that justify XNA’s existence. We hope for the same result with our RTA. I think we will get it.

Right now most if not all Federal funding for buildings rail comes from the Federal Surface Transportation Act or FAST Act. FAST Act provides Amtrak with funding, builds and repairs railroads including freight railroads, and even helps build stations like the multimodal transit hub we have discussed. If we want to buy and refurbish old railroad tracks to build out commuter rail, FAST is where we get the money.  

In other words we need Congressional Representatives to vote for not only FAST but other infrastructure money used for mass transit and High Speed Rail. In this case a rising tide floats all boats. 

Other sources of funding. We need all forms of funding to see our vision for NWA through. Dedicated funding provides a platform, the US Government provides perhaps the lion’s share of the RTA’s expansion money. Tourism can help, locally we can increase hotel taxes to provide funding. But there are other sources that will help. 

There is money from the Volkswagen Dieselgate Settlement. When VW was caught cheating on emissions tests they were fined billions of dollars. Long story short, Arkansas got a piece of that money. $14,600,000.00 and change to be used to convert transportation from diesel power to other forms of fuel/energy. That is money that can help buy charging stations for electric vehicles (EVs) for instance. Or even make a downpayment on a EV train, or fleet of EV buses. 

There are other sources of funding that we may use to leverage the funding platform we receive from ArDOT. Various family foundation funds such as the Walton Family Foundation may be tapped to provide specialized funding for certain projects. Such as building hi tech stations, aka multimodal transit hubs. Building a parking garage that generates profit for the station. Even buying solar panels to help make our RTA more energy efficient. 

How about using capital from investors? Yes we can use that too. I would like a public system like Amtrak but Virgin Rail USA and other providers might be interested in a for-profit service. Virgin is building HSR from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, and the Texas HSR from Houston to Dallas is also a private project. Investors can help in other ways too. Small retail outlets in multimodal stations can be very profitable and renting space to retail helps pay for the station. Don’t forget housing developments near stations. Such development is convenient for residents who can bike or walk to the station on the Razorback Trail, making purchasing or leasing in this area highly desirable. 

In addition to voting there are more ways to get politically involved. There are citizen’s groups that petition, lobby, and speak out for the causes we believe in. One group is the Rail Passenger Association. RPA lobbying efforts in the US Congress are excellent. For a few dollars a year you can join RPA, a similar group known as Rail Users Network (RUN), or other groups like the Climate Change Lobby. You are part of a network and community of citizens who work on developing rail transportation like passenger rail. Commuter rail between Fayetteville and Bentonville is passenger rail. And while High Speed Rail Alliance works toward HSR once again a rising tide floats all boats. In fact, the development of mass transit in NWA may help make us a whistle stop for HSR. RPA includes work on integrating rail service with other forms of transit; it can even make rail travel faster than air travel. If you have ever been to Union Square in Dallas Texas you know you can step off an Amtrak train and board a bus or light rail within a few feet. That is an example of how rail travel can be quicker than air travel. 

Don’t forget that Ozark Rail and Bus Transit also issues alerts to petitions and surveys to sign or fill out. These can be very helpful to influence decision makers. They are a great way to speak out about what is important to you. Further ORBT will develop into a local and state government lobbying organization too. The more members we have for ORBT the louder our voice is. The same is true of CCL, RUN, and RPA. Oh, and we report candidates positions on transportation issues to help you make decisions on how to vote. 

Ride a bus. Last I heard we have 850 boardings a day in NWA on our transit buses. Over 800 a day are in Fayetteville where the city and the people give the most support to mass transit. There are about 50 boardings a day in the rest of NWA. All of these figures are way too low. Before our MPO can recommend that our transit providers ask for more money from the Federal government we need to show that boardings are on the rise. So ride a bus. Especially in Benton County. 

Last let’s go back to a statement I made above about housing developments near transit stations.  Tom Brown read this paper through and suggested we address land use planning. Another function of both the Regional Planning Commission and NWA RTA is to engage in local and regional comprehensive land-use planning in helpIng to make NWA transit ready. Population density is a practical necessity for the development of effective transit and the concentration of people and businesses in mixed-use centers (or areas with spatially combined residential and commercial development) like the Region’s downtowns or in smaller urban centers like the Fayetteville Uptown and the Rogers Pinnacle areas. Land use planning and regulation by Washington county, Benton County, and other Municipalities within the Regional Transit Corridor (or a mile radius of the A&M RR, 71B, I49 and the Razorback Greenway) are two policy tools commonly used to create the urban development patterns needed to support integrated (or combined bus and rail) transit. Leadership in insuring the proper application of these two tools by the appropriate jurisdictions is currently in the hands of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission (NWARPC) and hopefully, in the future, by a Regional Transit Authority(RTA). 

Thanks Tom! Land use planning means we can attain a one million population while maintaining the beauty of the Ozarks. 

That’s it, that is how we can make effective change and make our community more livable. No one has to use these services but they are there if you elect to use them. Supporting our cause gives people, all people, more freedom and more choices. Join in and let’s motivate and educate our citizens to git er done! 

One response to “Where Do We Go From Here?”

  1. Richard Billingsley Avatar
    Richard Billingsley

    Here is a an article that sums up US Congressman Seth Moulton’s vision for America. This elaborates the themes I discussed in the political white paper I posted above.


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