Earlier this week I spoke with a city official from NWA. We discussed the state of our mini-MegaRegion. The likelihood of a new sales passing is an uphill battle, why trains are a necessary piece of infrastructure but may be rejected by elected officials, and why ORBTS is seen as too pro-rail. We didn’t talk about the elephant in the room, how is the election going to affect what we do from November on? I’m going to address these issues in this blog post and let’s see if we can come up with solutions to address these matters.
A quarter cent sales tax for the 4 Cities is in the planning stage, however it may stay there. New taxes of any kind are not popular. Unless you want to spend a whole bunch of money on jails. Gee, I thought we got more than enough from high bails to finance all the for profits prisons anyone could want. There are some things to think about. One, have special elections and don’t publicize them. ORBTS can spread the word and get the spending through. Of course that’s sneaky and not right, but it can work. We are at the By Any Means Necessary stage here. Two, we can pester our elected representatives in city and county office to come up with the required spending from their current budgets. Some of this is already happening. Honestly we would get more from a sales tax. Three, I’ve written about this before, we have twenty some odd police departments in NWA. Each one has an HR Department. Each has a training and each one has a safety Department. Why not combine all these non-law enforcement functions into one and take the money saved and put it into public transit?
Rail being a popular thing to talk about and ORBTS being too pro-rail I think can be addressed together. ORBTS is first and foremost a pro-democracy group. More than anything else we are about creating a path for citizens to tell their government what they want. We want you to be advocates for what you are looking for. If you aren’t getting it, then change how you vote. It is more complex than that but the basic idea is sound. Stop hoping and wishing that an elected official will learn in office and start treating you seriously. Pay attention to who is running even for school board and vote accordingly. By the way, your vote isn’t just about who you want in. It can be used to kick some people out of office. Or block them.
ORBTS is also a research and education group. We all have experience with riding buses. Arkansas, and America’s, biggest public transportation project is taking kids to public school. Passenger train experience not so much. Because we, as a nation, decided in the 1950’s and 60’s to switch to freeways (autobahns) and leave rail transport behind. As a result there are a lot of things about railroads that we have forgotten as a nation, and we have developed some false assumptions. The more I research railroads the more I see that we made a huge mistake in not keeping railroading up along with the interstate highway system. There is so much rethinking we need to do that it does take a lot of our time and space here on the blog. This has led to the misconception that ORBTS is solely pro-rail. No, we are also pro-sidewalk, and pro-trail, and pro-bus, including Battery Electric Bus. BEBs have some technical issues but we can have faith that these will be worked out.
Another result is that while we acknowledge how important rail is, we also don’t see it as something needed as soon as possible. We can resolve this schizophrenic response by telling everyone, that yes, we will want light rail to take us around the 4 Cities. But it takes time to plan, and build. We must start now if we want light rail in 10 or 15 years. If we start now, we can reduce costs.
As the attentive reader will see, rail is both popular and a tough sell. And rail can’t be the only reason we want to raise sales taxes. Our work as an advocacy group is to try to sway our city councils and county courts and public opinion. We have discussed this before too and now with an added strategy. We are going to try public meetings unless flu and COVID stop us during the winter months. I am going to let all the politicking die down too. It doesn’t matter who wins, we are going to have to up our game. If politicians who don’t share our concerns win, they can still hear from us. If politicians win who are more sympathetic win, they definitely need to hear from us.
What we will do in our public meetings is train you how to write letters to the editor. We are going to train you how to go to city and county meetings and ask for public transit. There is a period in most of these meetings where citizens are allowed to speak out. We want you to go up to the microphone and say you support mass transportation. Then go sit down. Trust me, the less said the better. If you are questioned by a JP or a councilperson, we will work with you on simple answers. Keep it short and sweet. The reason is that way too many city and county officials say they don’t know of anyone who asks for public transit. We need at least one letter to the editor in the paper every week. We need a rotating group in every city council and county court meeting. We can’t ever let up. We also need people who will go to farmer’s markets, and other public meetings and hand out pamphlets. And if anyone dares, go to Little Rock while the Legislature is in session and ask for money for public transportation across the state including increased Amtrak service. I am planning on going to LR myself but any of you can join me.
We are going to have more opportunities to participate in surveys, especially ARDOT’s updated rail plan this year. And it makes a difference. We have a history of impacting surveys in the past couple of years. We can do more letter campaigns too. It is about keeping pressure up on those in office who ought to be representing us. I know that is debatable. But the pressure from us is something they will feel. We can do this. And if we do, we will win. I will let you know when I am able to plan a meeting. We have permission to use the meeting room at Ozark Regional Transit Authority. We may use other spaces but this will be fairly central.