This is the report on the December 10, 2022 ORBTS public meeting held at Ozark Regional Transit Authority HQ on 2423 E Robinson Avenue in Springdale Arkansas at 2 PM.
The agenda of the meeting was a presentation on our community’s transportation history, a brief recap of ORBTS history, a survey of where we stand today, and plans for the next year.
History: In the 1860’s President Abraham Lincoln asked the US Congress to create a version of the Bank of the United States, a commercial bank chartered by Congress to make long term low interest loans, to fund the building of the Intercontinental Railroad. In 1880 as part of a national trend of expanding railroads, work began on the railroad that runs through Northwest Arkansas to this day, popularly known as The Frisco. Revenue service began in 1882 for both passengers and freight. The Frisco shaped the population and business layout of our area and influences residential/retail development to this day. For one thing the reason we don’t have one large city with a number of bedroom communities around it, is that people used the Frisco to commute and thus residential development was spread up and down the line. This creates a challenge for ORBTS, instead of one big city council, we have 6 entities to corral. The 6 being the 4 Cities, and the Quorum Courts for Benton and Washington Counties.
Before the1950’s there was a desire and interest in the American public to drive on highways in their own cars. The Eisenhower Administration (1953 – 1961) made a policy decision to stop supporting the growth of railroads and build the Interstate Highway System. Usage of railroads for transportation slowed down. The last Frisco Line passenger train ran in NWA in 1966. In the intermediate time experience in the USA as well as international experience was that railroads were far more efficient for transporting people and goods than highways. For instance a railroad can move one ton one hundred miles on one gallon of diesel fuel. Railroads don’t get stuck in traffic jams either. There are exceptions but not many. Last highways don’t make money, pay employees, or pay taxes. Railroads do all three.
I grew up in Arkansas but lived most of my adult life in Texas. I witnessed Houston, and Austin Texas in particular sleepwalk through rapid growth. When a vote on light rail to run through Austin came in the early 2000’s, only 8 percent of the voters showed up. And that was a largish turnout, many times only 3 – 4% of voters turnout in local elections. The folks who opposed light rail were organized, the folks who supported light rail weren’t. the currrent attemp to build light rail in Austin costs many times what it would have in 2005. Lesson learned.
In 2017 I returned to Fayetteville my early childhood home. I was struck by the “good bones” our area has for a world class public transportation system. In November of 2018 I started a Facebook discussion group about passenger trains, though under a different name. After a few months to emphasize that this group belonged to its members I opened up a contest for a new name. After a nomination and voting process Ozark Rail and Bus Transit was selected. At the time North West Arkansas Regional Planning Commission conducted a public survey to get citizen input on the future of public transportation. NWARPC and ORT(A) weren’t planning on using rails for the new system, but ORBTS changed that by showing that there is citizen support for passenger rail; both commuter and light rail. And we asked for an airport shuttle bus. These ideas were addressed in the report of the survey results that came out in 2019; Connect NWA. We made an impact. Since then ARDOT knows about us and so do members of local government.
In 2021 I turned ORBTS into a 501c3 nonprofit. We formed a Board of Directors in March of 2021. We had four positions for President, VP, Treasurer, and Secretary. Thomas Brown was an unofficial At Large Board member. Mr Brown does a lot for us and I didn’t want to overburden anyone so we didn’t vote on making him an official board member. We will change that during the January 14th. More on that later.
Where we stand now: We now have usage of the conference room at ORTA’s HQ the second Saturday of the month. We will meet at 2 PM for now. We are currently updating and upgrading our website. I have had some difficulties with the donation button in particular. We haven’t collected very much money in donations but we want to increase our donations in 2023. We are due to elect a new Board of Directors at the January 14 meeting.
On the local political scene; our County Quorum Courts in both counties are hellbent on building new county jails or expanding what they have. High bails, vendors for personal items, and high charges for phone calls, the county jail system in Arkansas is a racket. Statewide our Governor Elect and the Arkansas legislature want to build private for profit prisons. Or at least more prisons. Out of state contractors make huge profits building this facilities. If the state income tax is eliminated as the Governor Elect wants to do, sales taxes which are already sky high and property taxes which are high too, will go up. Property taxes alone go up by 3 times if experience in Texas and Tennessee are anything to go by. Why you ask. Because for profit prisons built at public expense still need money and that bread is going to come from somewhere.
Not to forget the State of Arkansas has a $1.2 BILLION dollar budget for building highways. There are only 3 million people living in our state. That’s $40,000.00 a person. Including people who don’t or can’t work. If you know where a 2 week old baby or a 97 year old great-grandmother are going to get $40K please let me now. I could use 40 grand myself. Also most working people in Arkansas make less than $40K a year.
In local city council races real estate developers won a number of seats. None of this bodes well for mass transit. What do we do? We work on getting what we want. We don’t come at this from an attitude of scarcity. We ask for everything we want including high dollar asks like Very High Speed passenger rail from NWA to Little Rock. As anyone can see from the examples above it’s not like there are any fiscal conservatives to stand in our way. Let’s go for it.
Goals for 2023: Issac Stevens and I are upgrading the ORBTS website. And we going to start a YouTube Channel and a TikTok channel. More on that below.
As stated above the January 14 meeting at 2 PM will elect a new Board of Directors. In addition to the four major positions, I want to nominate and vote on 2-4 At Large Board Members. We are a volunteer organization; people have families, work, sometimes two jobs, and let’s not forget that illness is something to factor in too. We need a quorum for meetings, let’s have some back up board members. Also for Treasurer I want to find an accountant with experience in nonprofits. The current Treasurer and I have tried to keep up with paperwork but we have questions. There is no shame in this, it is simply more complex than either of us expected. Once we fix the donation button on the website I want to start to have dues paying members and sell ORBTS merch. Yea! More coffee cups for me (and you).
I envision a Committee for Public Engagement. This is a work group that is split into two jobs/tasks/types of engagement. One is a Letter to the Editor Campaign. Above I mentioned that typically only 3 to 4% of the voting public turn out for a local election. Political Science research shows that these same people also read the newspaper and read the Op Ed Page including the Letters to the Editor (LTTE). This is a very cost effective way to reach the people who will turn out in the local elections that ORBTS wants to influence. It will help us get around any resistance in local and state governments. We need a team of at least 4 members and a team leader. Each member agrees to spend one hour a month crafting a 300 word LTTE. The team leader keeps up with who is submitting the letter each week. Since keeping the letters clear, and succinct is necessary for promoting our message, the team leader may offer advice on wording. This is a great way for busy people to still contribute valuable service to our community.
The next job/task is Attending public meetings. We need a larger team to attend city council, County Court, ORTA board meetings (held once a quarter) and NWA Regional Planning Commission meetings. For the city council and County Court meetings one must be a resident. For the city council and County meetings we will have a 2 person team go to the podium during the public comment period. One team member will say simply, “I support public/mass transit/transportation.” Then sit down. The other team member will make a video of the exchange which we will post on our YouTube and TikTok channels. Most JPs and city council members say they never hear anyone in the public say they want buses or light rail. This fixes that. Also we want this team to keep it simple. Do not get into a debate on taxation or cost. We must put pressure on city and county government to come up with solutions. Another goal is that this happens at EVERY MEETING so we put max pressure on local government to focus on mass transportation.
For our TikTok and YouTube channel we want to encourage you to make your own short video when you find broken sidewalks, or inadequate street lighting, or a busy intersection with no protected crosswalk. This is providing to be an effective way for other local groups like ours around the US to point out transportation infrastructure that needs attention.
In each of these teams we can use both environmental (climate change) and economic arguments for our position. When I rode the Acela train back in March of 2022, Amtrak informed me that my trip cut carbon emissions 75% over flying and 83% over driving. In Arkansas currently our state population is decreasing everywhere but NWA. This decrease hits economically in that with fewer people there are fewer jobs, and less economic activity. And with that we see spreading food, pharmacy, and medical care deserts. This trend also opens up Arkansas to become a colony for large business interests like the prison construction industry. If we want Arkansas to be a state and not a colony we need to do something now. Raising teacher salaries and building infrastructure is a great way to put financial capital to work in our communities. This will reverse our state’s downward economic trend. Plus planning for the future and building high capacity mass transportation will look good for our brand and attract more business to come to Arkansas.
The Arkansas Legislature is in session and I want to get a few ORBTS members together and go meet with state representatives and state senators, including making an address to the Transportation Committee. I am a member of the Rail Passengers Association and in March we have our national meeting in Washington DC where we meet with our state’s congressional delegation. For me that means setting up meetings with the staff of Tom Cotton, John Boozman, and Steve Womack at least. I also want to see if I can meet Transportation Secretary Pete Buttiguige. “Why not go for it” is ORBTS general theme this year and I’m going to do that while in DC.
Future monthly meetings will including getting the city planners for the 4 Cities together. Getting someone from NWA Regional Planning Commission to come explain their function including how they operate as a Metropolitan Planning Organization. Working with the MPO is very important if we want to accomplish our transit goals. ORBTS is also looking at more cooperation with fellow travelers like the Climate Change Lobby and the Trailblazers so a meeting or two in conjunction with other groups is in order. Since there is so much misinformation on railroading I will look at putting a presentation called Why Trains? on the schedule.
To sum up we need volunteers to write some letters, speak up at some meetings, throw a couple of bucks in the collection plate, and generally turn out. Also if any of you own video equipment and want to help us film/video some of these meetings for our upcoming YouTube Channel please DM me. It’s going to be a good year.
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