Columns » Max Brantley

Another good use for $200,000

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The city of Little Rock budget almost foundered over unhappiness about a $17,000 increase in spending on the River Rail trolley.

The trolley is an easy mark as it slowly trundles along with empty seats. But nobody ever really believed it was to be a commuter tool. It's a Disneyland amenity, a clanging marketing gimmick for the River Market and Argenta neighborhoods.

Instead of raising the fare, the trolley fare should be lowered to a dime or quarter, maybe even free, as cities such as Portland have done with core transit options. More people would ride, perhaps including some of the growing number of people living along the line on both sides of the river.

But the trolley is a distraction from the real ridership issue.

Nothing makes a greedy conservative madder than seeing a bus go by with only one or two people aboard. It is the nature of running a scheduled bus service. You must run buses on a regular schedule all day, lest people never ride them at all. Peak times will have good ridership; other times not so much. Some needs aren't met at all.

As Kathy Wells noted in a newsletter to the Coalition of Greater Little Rock neighborhoods, someone asked during a City Board discussion last week why there weren't more bus routes to serve poor neighborhoods. Easy answer: more routes cost more money.

One director asked specifically about service for overnight hospital shift workers. It once existed, but the city board cut revenue some years back and with it went the service, Wells wrote..

The day after a city director lamented about this shortage of bus service, billionaire financier Warren Stephens was the keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, which receives a $225,000 subsidy every year from city taxpayers and city water customers. That's the trolley deficit times 13 or so.

Stephens touted the idea of a tax deduction for contributions to the Chamber of Commerce. This would further deplete public revenue and increase taxpayer subsidy of an organization devoted to political causes damaging to lower-income working people.

Wells noted that Stephens had remarked, barely 12 hours after the City Board bus service discussion, that the public often overlooked vital economic engines — hospitals (UAMS alone employs more than 11,000), UALR and Little Rock Air Force Base.

No kidding they get ignored. When you drive a Mercedes or better, it's sometime easy to forget the people who can't afford a car at all. If they are to work at our economic engines, many people need a bus to get there.

Try reaching the hospitals, UALR or the air base by bus. It isn't easy. There are three commuter runs a day to-and-from the base front gate. Four routes serve UALR somewhat irregularly. There are popular bus routes along Markham that serve hospitals and the Walmart shopping center on Bowman Road. But guess what? The bus can get you to nightshift work or a UALR night class if you start work in mid-afternoon or evening, but it can't get you home. Last bus is 8 p.m.

This cessation of bus service is also hard on the low-wage staffs of restaurants, who work late into the night after the last bus rolls.

Yes, let's not forget those economic engines. But let's think about the people who keep them running before we pass out more corporate tax deductions.

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