Conversation with Peter Nierengarten

I have been reaching out to some of our contacts in the local political community regrading Ozark Regional Transit and whether it a Regional Transit Authority or not. As you know there has been some confusion about that. Today I spoke by phone with Peter Nierengarten the City of Fayetteville representative on the ORT Board.

1st things 1st, we do indeed have a Regional Transit Authority and have since 2002. So it is Ozark Regional Transit Authority after all doing business as ORT, the bus provider. Later in the call I suggested that ORT, the bus service, change its name to differentiate it from ORTA. Peter Nierengarten said that was good feedback.

Part of the confusion around ORTA and ORT is that the Board was going to reorganize. Further down I do have a summary of Connect NWA the 10 year plan to make NWA transit ready. One of the recommendation in Connect NWA is to restructure the ORTA Board. Currently we have the Four Towns represented and four counties. That’s Washington, Benton, Carrol, and Madison Counties. Carrol and Madison don’t contribute much if anything to the funding of ORTA. Washington County only about $20,000.00 and Benton a little bit too. The Four Towns pick up the tab for most of the funding. So the Board is going to restructure so the Four Towns have more control of the ORTA. That meeting was supposed to take place this week. Now due to weather it is next week. Let’s hope all goes well. ORBTS throws its support behind restructuring the ORTA Board.

Peter Nierengarten and I discussed dedicated funding for our ORTA. Fayetteville uses money from the general fund to contribute to bus services. Peter Nierengarten didn’t know how the other towns do it. The only true dedicated funding comes from U of Ark student fees for Razorback Transit, about $2 million. We discussed the difficulty in getting a quarter cent ($0.025) sales tax passed now. This is due to ridership being down during the pandemic. ORT’s boardings are 50% down from last year. Which is less than some other transit agencies around the country because ORT is pressing on with full service.

So raising taxes is hard to justify. And raising sales taxes is difficult any time. I pointed out that one economic benefit from mass transit is that the employees are essential workers. We are able to keep our jobs and therefore pay our bills. People with stable income is a real asset in any economy.

Next this led into a discussion about EV’s or Battery Electric Buses. BEBs have been looked into by ORTA. The capitol costs, purchase price, are eye watering. We knew that here at ORBTS. I countered that the running costs are much lower and that over the service life of the vehicle the running costs pay for the vehicle. ORTA knows that too. We agreed that ORTA needs dedicated funding before they move forward on BEBs. There are grants to help pay for BEBs and installing the recharge stations. The dedicated funding is a platform to work off of to build out increased service and new electric technology. One of the problems we have here is that there is no one big town or city that moves something like an RTA along. In Austin, Texas where I lived for years, you had Austin the single largest town, then city in Travis County. They started a RTA and then bedroom communities around them bought in. We have to get the Four Towns buy in and if we can, all at once. If one or two towns pass a sales tax and the others don’t this is going to be a mess. The better solution is to get Washington and Benton Counties to pass the quarter cent sales tax, that gives a broader basis to collect money and offers more money too. Still this is a big challenge. In 2012 a countywide sales tax was attempted. In Benton County the sales tax didn’t make it to the ballot. It did in Washington County but was voted down. I know from previous conversations with other people here in the Ozarks, part of this is due to Americans for Prosperity, an outfit funded by the Koch Brothers, and from outside Arkansas, heavy campaigning to shut this down.

I informed Peter Nierengarten that we at ORBTS want to help. We agreed that if ORBTS could get people to ride the bus and bring the census up that would help a great deal. Riders are measured in boardings. So we have to work on riding ourselves, and getting our families, friends, and neighbors to ride too. ORT has some new buses. Check them out. Razorback as a couple of new buses too. Increase boardings today. For ORBTS members once we are a tax exempt nonprofit we can fund a PSA to encourage the NWA community to ride a bus. Even if just for fun once a week. Let’s think about it.

To sum up: we can work to encourage boardings on buses. We can help get the vote out on new sales tax/dedicated funding for ORTA. And if ORTA is willing, we can cooperate on finding a new name for ORT, the bus service. The more I think about it, renaming ORT after a pandemic, a huge winter storm, and when we are starting to revitalize our public transportation makes good sense. I’ll keep reaching out to our local leaders. Stay tuned and see where this goes.

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