Columns » Warwick Sabin

Catch the bus


Little Rock is the first place I have ever lived where I have not used public transportation. I rode public buses to school as a child, and used them again as an adult to get to and from work every day. I figure that if a guy like me, who is familiar and comfortable with public transit, doesn’t patronize our local version, there must be something wrong with the system. For me, it comes down to frequency and reliability. If I am going to use the bus to get somewhere on a regular basis, I want to know that the bus will pick me up and deliver me to my destination at the same time each day. And if I have to leave a little earlier or a little later, I want to know there will be other buses coming by often. That is not the case with the buses operated by the Central Arkansas Transit Authority (CATA), but you can’t really blame them for the problems. Despite the fact that Little Rock is growing rapidly, traffic congestion and pollution are increasing, and fuel prices are rising, CATA has not had enough funding to be able to significantly enhance its service since 1994. Part of that has to do with changes in how local transit systems are financed. The federal government significantly reduced its support for public transportation in the 1990s, leaving municipalities to take up the slack. But as we all know, Little Rock has been experiencing considerable economic difficulties, and it can barely cover the costs of police and infrastructure needs, much less adequately fund CATA. But there are also more subtle cultural pressures at work. Very few people remember that lots of people rode public buses in Little Rock in the first half of the 20th century, before it was common to own an automobile. As long as gas prices are affordable and parking is readily available, most people will prefer the freedom and convenience of driving their own car. And that has created a stigma attached to using public transport, because it is accurately viewed as the reserve of the poor, aged and disabled. However, a transit system is necessary precisely because it is the only way those people can get around. If an altruistic impulse and the concept of a public good don’t entirely satisfy some taxpayers, there are numerous economic studies that show the efficiencies achieved by offering an inexpensive transportation option to disadvantaged people. For instance, if you own a business that employs low-income workers, the public bus gives you more options. If it didn’t exist, you would either have to depend on your immediate surroundings for an employee base (making it more difficult to hire and fire), or you would have to pay a wage high enough for someone to own a car (making your product more expensive, which would cause inflation in the retail economy). That is why great cities have great public transportation systems. If you think of workers as just another good, then you want to move them as cheaply and efficiently as possible. And among middle- and higher-income workers who ride the bus, the money saved on transportation is likely to be spent at local businesses. Little Rock is reaching a stage when it would be optimal to make a larger commitment to CATA. The city’s expansion in all directions is bringing more people to the region, but there are only so many roads that can be built or widened. As the physical distance between prosperous and working-class neighborhoods grows, the former is becoming more dependent on the latter for services. It makes sense to begin planning for a future when gasoline prices rise, rush hour and parking become bigger problems, and environmental concerns are elevated in the public consciousness. Keith Jones, CATA’s executive director, says that a quarter-cent regional sales tax would be the “silver bullet” to reduce the burden on city government and provide for the system’s growth. Alternatively, a UALR task force proposed a hotel/motel lodging tax for Pulaski County as a far more modest way to compensate for recent revenue shortfalls. Poor people rarely have political advocates, but there are so many good reasons for Central Arkansas to have an ambitious public transportation plan. Anyone who has ever commuted to Little Rock from Conway, Benton, Bryant or Pine Bluff probably could see the benefit of a light-rail line connecting those cities to the state’s largest city. Think of the public money that could be saved on highway maintenance, and the private money that could be saved on fuel and parking. Plus you could read the paper on the way to work, and maybe a novel on the trip back home. It’s called progress, which is what happens when our government responsibly allocates its resources for the benefit of society — which means everyone.

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