opinion by Scott Shackelford
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It’s a thought that was on my mind as I rode public transportation all the way from Fayetteville to Bentonville and back one recent afternoon. I was aboard Route 54, which Ozark Regional Transit uses to rapidly ferry students north along I-540 to the Northwest Arkansas Community College, and then back to Washington County to start again.
Outside my window I saw freshly cut highway grass, and the wealth of our growing region popping up here and there in the form of big-box churches, multitudinous vendor locales and a litany of chain restaurants which, when I was growing up, usually required driving to a neighboring state to enjoy.
And I was thinking that same thought, be thankful, later that same evening as I strode into Fayetteville’s City Administration Building to attend a public meeting hosted by the League of Women Voters, an event meant to shed some light on an upcoming tax vote that could greatly expand the reach of public transportation in the area. Upstairs and down, there were protestors with signs in tow, but they were few in number, and appeared to be listening to a proponent for giving public transportation a boost by raising taxes.
How blessed we are, I thought, to live where people can be so civil about public affairs.
Sure, Northwest Arkansas has its fair share of complications — and loudmouths — but if our big public problem of the moment is deciding whether we should fund an expansion of the wonderful services ORT provides on a daily basis — if that is the hugely important issue before us at this moment — well, I’d say we’re doing pretty good.
About that vote: An election is scheduled for May 22 (early voting begins May 7) seeking approval from Washington County residents for a quarter-cent sales tax that would increase ORT’s budget from $2.8 million to about $7.5 million. The Benton County Quorum Court declined to let its residents help decide this issue.
Supporters say a tax increase is necessary to give the region the public transit system it deserves and will require in the years to come. Dissenters argue that Ozark Regional is doing just fine with its current budget, that its managers needn’t more than double ORT’s budget to operate a proper bus service, that improving transportation needs via a statewide highway election this fall would be a much better use of tax dollars, and that potential future funds flowing to our area from Little Rock and Washington D.C. should give the transit authority a slight bump in its annual funding formula.
Critics like to needle Ozark Regional for spending too much as it is, but I was impressed with what I found on my recent adventure. Every inch of the bus I rode was clean and tidy, the drivers couldn’t have been more professional, or more polite in their public interactions. A handful of riders appearing to lack the means to transport themselves were lost in conversation until their destination arrived. Following some stops, there were few students, and many more following others. A smaller bus on its way to Fayetteville’s Hillcrest Towers was nearly full. All in all, I was left with the impression that ORT adds to the community’s bottom line. Experiencing ORT keeps us in touch with the world around us, and at minimal cost.
Later that night, from the back row of that Fayetteville forum, I watched Jeff Hawkins, executive director of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, and Jerre Van Hoose, the current ORT board chair, debate the issue in the most polite terms possible. Both sides made their case at length, and though most of those in attendance likely came with surefire views about how they will be voting, I doubt anyone has a solid idea of how this month’s election will turn out. Nor do I think anyone left the hall Wednesday night much convinced that the world might end should the tax proposal pass or fail.
Hawkins’ outfit would prefer to support a unified approach to solving the region’s multiple transit woes. Van Hoose thinks better buses using more routes will subtract from the congestion that is forcing the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department to seek newer, wider roads.
Van Hoose (still the best former mayor in Springdale history) believes in the worth of providing something of value to help people get where they are going.
“That’s the way America works,” he said.
I would venture to guess Ozark Regional’s request for higher funding will lose, possibly by a lot, if only because people are in an anti-tax mood in general these days unless the request seems terribly necessary — like, for instance, the expansion of Interstate 540 the statewide highway proposal on the ballot this November would give us. That’s something all Northwest Arkansas residents could use today.
Me? I’ll cast my ballot in support of Ozark Regional.
I don’t want higher taxes any more than the next person. But not all of us possess the financial advantages that keep us from ever having to use Ozark Regional. For everyone else — be they a student looking to cut costs, handicapped or simply financially lacking – ORT is a lifeline, one that will be in greater demand as the region continues to grow, and likely would be today if more buses and routes were readily available.
Washington County voters ought to be thankful for all they have, including the realization that everything good about the place we call home will continue regardless of how this vote turns out — and thankful, maybe, for the upcoming opportunity to make life a little fuller for the rest of this wonderful community.