Connect NWA Summary

Here is the summary of Connect NWA. Please read it and give your feedback. This will guide us in crafting a letter to our local officials to support this plan. 

Here we go: Connect Northwest Arkansas: 10 Year Development Plan is a 278 page report on a through study of existing and potential transit needs in our region. It is detailed, based on facts and evidence, provides a foundation for building a transit system, and advocates a proactive approach to building our transit system. Overall I say job well done.

This is going to be a long post but not nearly as long as the report. There is a time factor here. NWARPC will vote to adopt this plan in their October 29th meeting. Then the Board of ORT and Razorback Transit will review it and adopt it as well. Then the plan goes to the various city councils of Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers, and Bentonville. As you will see given the financial commitments and the future development of NWA this is an important vote.I’m going to go through each section and attempt to summarize the contents. I will also note pages with information some members will want to follow up on. I hope the break down what is useful for those of us who can’t justify the time spent on reading 278 dense pages.

I’m also going to address some issues I would like members of Ozark Rail and Bus Transit to take a closer look at as I go through the document.

This report is important to kitchen table politics. What will our area look like in a few years? How will we live here? This is our future. The transit plan was done in partnership with Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, Razorback Transit, and Ozark Regional Transit, and prepared by Transit Alliance Group.

The Executive Summary starts on page 9. The summary states that Connect Northwest Arkansas plan is a blueprint and that NWA faces challenges over the whole region that one justification cannot address alone. This is very important when we remember that ORBT advocates for a Regional Transit Authority.

The first issue for ORBT comes up on page 11 under the heading Why Does Transit Matter? There is a list and one of them is the benefit to the environment. The reason given here is public transit saves the USA 4.16 billion gallons of fuel a year. There is no mention of CO2 emissions, or other gases and liquids leaked or sprayed into the environment.

Poison gases, not just CO2, emitted by diesel engines circulate through the bus. The riders and driver breathe that gas. The impact on rider, and operator, health cannot be overstated as many of these gases are carcinogenic. Beyond that we must keep in mind internal combustion engines we release an overwhelming amount of carbon pollution into the air. ORBT members must make the point that mass transit is a silver bullet aimed at carbon emissions. We are in a position to address this issue with our local government and I implore you to use this chance to save our lives.

Next there is a breakdown of how TAG engaged the public and collected information. Then a projection of future growth in NWA broken down by city. The study members think NWA will reach 1 million population by 2045. Based on my experience in Texas we will hit the 1 million mark by the early 2030’s if not before.

The discussion about population and population density is important because density predicts ridership. Population growth and traffic congestion share the same characteristic, they are asymmetrical. As NWA grows some may not notice, “feel”, how many people live here until we are near the overload point. This is why NWARPC taking a proactive approach is the best way to deal with the coming population boom.

To understand a little more about what I am concerned about, use this traffic congestion scenario as an example. Let’s say that if a certain section of I-49 reaches 100 cars, traffic will slow to a crawl. Since congestion is asymmetrical, you can have up to 95 cars on the section of road with no reduction in speed. Everything looks fine. But add another car and everyone slows down. Add another and traffic slows further. By the time traffic reaches 100 cars, everyone is inching along.

Now go to page 16 to a chart that gives an idea of what population will be. Fayetteville will have about one half million. Springdale will have about 350,000. Rogers a little over 200,000. Bentonville with about 100,000. Once again I think it will be much more by 2045 and in talking to people around NWA many of you think this way too.

The next parts are about the state of transit and the benchmark analysis in which NWA is compared to cities of a similar size such as Eugene OR, Bolder CO, and Madison WI among others.

This is followed by a market analysis which includes a density map on page 19. There are more density maps later in the study.

There are other components to the Executive Summary but this is all an overview of what comes later in the study.

Chapter 1, pages 29 to 44, is Public Engagement. This is how the study went to the public and asked them about their experience riding transit, what they wanted, how it could be improved, and so on. We can skim right over this. I will say I studied statistics and study design in grad school and if the team did all they say they did, they followed good practices. Earlier I reported that ORBT provided 43% of the respondents of the 491 online surveys. I should add that there were 808 in-person surveys at various public events. A number of us were there to provide input also. In total there were 1299 surveys collected. ORBT had an impact on getting more respondents, and what feedback went into the report.

Chapter 2, pages 47 to 92, is Market Analysis. The purpose as the study states, “… is to analyze demographic, economic, and social characteristics of the Northwest Arkansas community to identify areas suitable and in need of transit, and to help inform service development and implementation decisions.”

The study looked at transit need, transit potential, and transit supply and gap analysis. The results of the analysis were used to come up with the 3 phase plan we will review below.The study broke down population by age, income, language as the riders first language, and physical ability, i.e. if they were disabled.

Page 54 discusses population and employment density.As I talk to people around NWA lack of population density is a main objection to building out a world class green mass transit system. The study shows that NWA in fact, does have density to justify mass transit. In addition projected growth further justifies the goal of public transportation.

One omission here is Centerton which has a population density of 12-20 people per acre. Many of these folks work at Wal Mart HQ. Why aren’t they included in the planning for new routes?

Page 55 figure 2.4 is the map of study area population density by acre. Look at the brown areas on the map that indicate more than 20 people per acre. One area is around the U of A, and there are two in Springdale. I can’t tell where they are though one seems to be a Tyson Plant. I imagine the others are related to employment. Please comment below if you know where these area are.

There are a number of reddish areas that indicate 12-20 people per acre. These are located around the U of A, Wal Mart World HQ, what must be close to Mercy Hospital in Rogers, Tyson in Rogers, and the others I can’t identify. Once again comment below if you can tell.

On page 56 figure 2.5 is the employment density of NWA. The dark blue areas of more than 20 jobs per acre are the U of A and Wal Mart HQ. And look at the other shaded areas for significant 12-20 jobs per acre. The main point here is, we do have density. It isn’t density you feel like you do in an urban area in a big city. But it’s there. When it comes to funding this is going to be very important.

On page 57 check out table 2.1 for study area transit demand. Page 58 is about transit dependent population in NWA. We can make people’s lives better by helping them get around. The rest of the chapter is spent overlapping populations/jobs/transit dependence together by city to form a need analysis for how to design routes.

I would add here that we must keep in mind that U of A is a Class 1 Carnige research university. As U of A’s reputation grows we could have more student growth around the campus. Also keep in mind that we have 3 Fortune 500 companies with world HQ here in NWA. Of these Wal Mart employs about 10,000 currently. In Bentonville with a population of about 35,000 (but likely more). Wal Mart is aiming at taking on Amazon dot com in eRetail sales. When the new Wal Mart HQ is built in 2024 there will be as many as 17,000 working at HQ. Traffic congestion is already heavy and getting heavier in Bentonville.

Chapter 3 Operational Analysis starts on page 93. This chapter examines the service ORT and RT provide currently. I encourage you to read it for yourself to understand the contrast between what we have now, for roughly $8 million per year, and what ORT and RT goals are in phase 3 with more than $42 million.

In this section look at the definition of Frequency which is how often the bus runs. And Span which is the the hours of operation the bus runs. Before we start to build out a world class mass transit system with commuter trains, light rail, and Rapid Bus Transit we have to increase both frequency and span, days of operation need to extend to 7 days a week, as well as the number of bus routes. Except Fayetteville which has the routes it needs but will increase the number of buses during peak times. The rest of the chapter uses the details of route operation to build a case for increasing service.

What isn’t addressed, but is very important, is employee pay. In other transit markets of similar size, such as the markets in the graph cited above, pay is much higher, as much as twice as high. We need, and will depend on, a professional cadre of drivers, dispatchers, mechanics, and road managers if we are going to offer 5:30 AM to 1:00 AM service 7 days a week service, including holidays. That means raising pay perhaps twice as much as now, and increasing benefits.

Chapter 4 Regional Transit Framework starts on page 155. On page 156 the report begins the presentation of the 3 phases of recommended service growth. Once again the team tells us about the methodology and how they determined what increases in service fit into each phase.Page 164 starts a discussion of mobility hubs. This is another subject of concern for ORBT. We have discussed multimodal transportation hubs/stations in our group before. Basically a mobility hub is a site where several types of transportation converge. For example a place with easy access to I-49, that intersects with A&M Rail, a major street, and the Razorback trail. The station doesn’t have to have all these but it is ideal.

One of the things not discussed in the study is the possibility of drawing in economic development. A mobility hub/station, will drive economic benefit. When I read about transit developments in the business section in the news, the proponents are quick to point out the economic benefits. While an analysis of the economic impact requires its own report, we can anticipate that public transportation will stimulate private investment. This puts financial capital to work on the ground, literally, in our community. A mobility hub, or station, can be developed by a Private Public Partnership. I was talking to my State Senator Greg Leding about the possibility of declaring such a station an economic development zone where customers of Arkansas based business don’t have to pay sales tax. The businesses could include Asarga Coffee, Slim Chickens, and wait for it, Wal Mart. A mobility hub/station creates density in both population and jobs. Throw in residential and retail development near the station and you start to have an idea how positive impact this can have. Clearly this subject bears more discussion and education to the public. Which is why ORBT exists. (wink)

On page 165 the study looks at several possible locations for a station. I feel there are more. Northwest Arkansas Community College on 14th Street in Bentonville is already a multimodal hub. There is parking for cars, it is a major bus stop with several routes converging there, and a few brave souls ride their bikes to school. Additionally there are old A&M Railroad tracks behind Burns Hall. You know for a commuter train. Another place that is a natural place for a hub is NWA Mall. Hillcrest Towers also functions as a hub.

The study marks Union Station on the U of A campus as an outlier. I’m not sure why. It is certainly functioning as a hub now. One thing I’m not excited about is ORT using Union Station as a hub. I’m not stingy, it’s that it is crowded up there now. Add ORT buses and I don’t know how we will manage the traffic. That includes heavy pedestrian traffic when the University is in full session.

Starting on page 183 is Chapter 5 Service Standards.

On page 184 there is a comment on tracking transit operator’s performance on an annual basis. However, given the unusual circumstances during the Covid-19 pandemic I would ask that NWA RPC use the previous year’s data. The health crisis will end as early as next year or drag on another year. At some point it will be behind us and the data for 202 will not reflect the needs post-pandemic.

Page 188 focuses on future types of transit defined as High Capacity Transit such as light rail or Bus Rapid Transit. This is another area of interest to ORBT since we advocate for light rail, commuter rail (which was not mentioned in the study), and BRT. What I found interesting was that Federal Transit Authority grants for New Starts, that we will need to build commuter rail, light rail, and BRT require a population density of 6,000 per square mile or higher. There is an exception for high density areas like U of A. Keep in mind that is true now, but NWA is growing at a rate compatible to urban areas of Texas (Austin/Dallas/Houston) back in the day. We can still prepare for introducing HCT services down the road. And we can advocate for that now.

The rest of the chapter describes how to expand service. It is worth a read. It is so detailed I would have to split this summary in two.

Chapter 6 is Implementation and starts on page 201. There is a description of the 3 Phases. Phase 1 is for 1-2 years. On page 207 you will Phased Costs for Phases 1-3 on Table 6.2. Costs Per City is found on Table 6.3. When the city councils meet to discuss this they are voting to agree to pay these costs for each phase.

Above I cited that the current operating budget is $8 million per year. That is from all funding sources. The existing funding from the 4 cities is $1,760,365.00. By the end of Phase 1 it will be $27,700,302.00. Phase 2 will be $29,972,955.00. Phase 3 will be $42,342,146.00. We have been discussing how to find more money for transit, I think we can stop now. Also remember the cities need not come up all the funding themselves. Right now there is a 1/2 cent sales tax used to building roads. A portion of that is given to cities as a turn-back share. This sales tax is up for a vote to add it to the Arkansas Constitution as Issue 1. Currently there are also $2,000,000.00 in U of A student fees used to pay for transit services.

Chapter 7 Transit Investment starts on page 221. This chapter deals with future funding sources. Once again worth a look to let us know what we are going to do. There may be opportunities for ORBT to help but we will have to start to have meetings to discuss this.

One source that I find interesting is on page 223. This lists several of the funding sources like U of A student fees and other Federal Transit Authority grants that available. Section 5339 grants cover the cost to buy or rehab vehicles to operate at low emissions. If I read this right and I think I did, we can buy EV and build the necessary charging stations with 5339 money. Leverage this with VW DieselGate money and other grants and EVs could be well funded with minimal impact on tax payers.

On page 224 the authors discuss the Regional Mobility Authority Act. We do have a RMA. But an investigation by Thomas Brown and I showed that the RMA has too many other cities and towns outside NWA, meets too infrequently, and other than authorize improvements to Razorback Trail hasn’t done much. We still need that RTA.Chapter 7 continues with more charts for recommended funding and on page 229 Table 7.2 we find a more complete breakdown of where total funding comes from by Phase 3 for a total budget of $42,342,146.00. The chapter ends on page 235.

Starting on page 237 we have appendices A – C. Appendix A breaks down loads of financial information including detail of how much we spend on transit vs other cities of a similar size cited above.

Appendix B Mobility Hub Analysis starts on page 252. It goes into much more detail about placement and what the hub/station will look like.

Appendix C XNA White Paper starts on page 278. This is the study of the feasibility of an airport shuttle. It makes sense to me. However the authors don’t recommend an airport shuttle now. It isn’t cost effective in their view and will cost too much. Once again I would say start to prepare for an airport shuttle to reduce costs for the future.The study ends on page 278. I tried to point out items that would be of interest to us. Please let me know if there is something I missed or there is a subject you want to discuss further.I will post further recommendations later this week along with a form letter to send to our city leaders and county court JP’s as well.

One response to “Connect NWA Summary”

  1. Hey! I’m at work surfing around your blog from my new iphone 3gs! Just wanted to say I love reading your blog and look forward to all your posts! Carry on the great work!

    Liked by 1 person

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