Early voting has begun for the May 22 ballot on which Washington County voters will decide whether to approve a sales tax that would pay for the expansion of mass transit in the county. The sales tax, which would be the equivalent of 25 cents for each $100 spent, would provide $7.5 million for the transit services. Current funding is split between Razorback Transit and Ozark Regional Transit, however, Razorback Transit declined to be included in the ballot’s provisions.
Conversation surrounding Washington County’s mass transit infrastructure began in 2010 when unexpected population growth pushed the county into a different category of federal funding. For more than two years, officials at Ozark Regional Transit have been investigating plans to secure additional money and expand the current service to accommodate the population growth. According to the Northwest Arkansas Transit Development Plan, the existing transit system is inadequate to meet the current and growing transportation needs of the Northwest Arkansas Region. The report goes on to say that if the region hopes to make mass transit a viable alternative to single occupant vehicles, an expansion is needed.
Michale Lanier, a member of Advocates for Public Transit, echoes this sentiment, saying, “We don’t want to just maintain the transit system that we have, we want to expand it to be a viable alternative to automobile travel.”
Advocates for the tax say the time is right to begin addressing mass transit infrastructure in Washington County. In the past 20 years, the population of Washington and Benton Counties has increased from 70,000 to 295,000 — more than fourfold.
Phil Pumphrey, the executive director of Ozark Regional Transit, points out 15 percent of that population is at or below the poverty level, and low-income residents currently make up a larger percentage of the ridership.
Seniors and those with disabilities also benefit from paratransit services, which are designed to provide transportation to those who are not physically capable of accessing a fixed bus stop.
If the tax passes, it would add about $38 in sales tax per year for the average resident, Lanier said. He said those with low incomes are the ones most affected by sales tax increases.
This tax, however, would work to aid them. It takes thousands of dollars a year to run and maintain a car; but a resident can ride the bus for $360 a year.
“It will bring back more to those in the county than it will take away,” Lanier says.
In addition to significant savings for riders, advocates for the tax say by spending money to promote local transportation, they will be keeping more money in the local economy.
When paying for gas directly at the pump, less than a nickel of the purchase remains in the local economy. By cutting down on individual gas purchases and investing in mass transit, consumers can keep dollars rotating through the local economy.
Currently, only 22 percent of residents living in Washington and Benton counties live within a quarter-mile of a bus stop. If ORT receives the requested amount of money, that radius will apply to 46 percent of residents.
Not to mention 68 percent of businesses — another selling point for advocates who stand behind the tax as a booster for the local economy.
In a Northwest Arkansas Times article, Pumphrey said, “It’s a local solution to a local need.”
Mike Malone sees this as a potential problem for future regional infrastructure. Malone, who is the president of Northwest Arkansas Council, said in the same article “They’re bringing you a one-county solution to a four-county problem.”
Currently, Ozark Regional Transit serves Carroll, Madison, Benton and Washington counties. The Benton County Quorum Court did not accept the bid to put the sales tax on the ballot. If the sales tax is passed, Ozark Regional Transit will continue to serve the Rogers and Bentonville as long as the local funding is provided.
Another concern among critics is the upcoming statewide tax on the November ballot. If approved, the half-cent tax will provide $400 million for roads. Those who support the state highway tax fear approving one increase in sales tax will be a deterrent in receiving approval for the other.
However, according to a survey conducted by the University of Arkansas, when voters were asked to choose between public transportation and highways and roads, 66 percent said both should receive funding.