TOP STORY > >Save on gas, catch a bus
Leader senior staff writer
These are the good old days, in so far as gasoline prices are concerned, according to Robert Hirsch, a senior Bush energy adviser. He says gas over time could rise to $12 to $15 per gallon, even resulting in rationing.
While few have agreed with him publicly, the high and climbing cost of gasoline has people throughout the nation and in central Arkansas changing attitudes and behavior regarding driving and mass transit.
Central Arkansas Transit Authority (CATA) has seen an increase of about 600 riders a day compared to this time last year, according to Betty Wineland, CATA director.
Jacksonville and Sherwood contract with CATA to run two morning buses and three evening buses between Little Rock and Jacksonville, with stops in Gravel Ridge and Sherwood.
Called the Jacksonville/Sherwood Express, ridership is up to about 32 people a day with people having to stand sometimes, Wineland says.
In the past, it has picked up as few as nine and probably averaged about 15 riders per roundtrip.
Those buses originate in Little Rock with the first arriving at Jacksonville and Marshall at 6:35 a.m. and the second at 7:07 a.m., she said.
CATA has ordered 10 new buses to replace older buses in the fleet, but by the end of the year there could be a third morning bus from Jacksonville into Little Rock, particularly if high gas prices stimulate more ridership.
The Jacksonville-Sherwood Ex-press service is provided by contract with CATA, with Jacksonville, Sherwood, Pulaski County and North Little Rock each chipping in, Wineland said.
Jacksonville’s current share is $27,480 a year, according to Mayor Tommy Swaim. It could cost the city another $3,000 to $4,000 a year to add a third morning bus, he said, an idea he would present to the city council should the need and opportunity exist.
Swaim said a bus also goes from Little Rock Air Force Base to the River Market on Fridays and Saturdays.
“One of the concerns of the base realignment and closure process was lack of public transportation for Little Rock Air Force
Base,” Swaim said. “It always gets asked, ‘Is there public transportation available?’”
BRAC is a tool for Congress and the Defense Department to evaluate military installations around the country in an effort to close some and reassign their missions.
“And for people commuting from the Cabot area to Little Rock in a car or truck getting less than 20 miles per gallon, that’s $8 a day in fuel costs,” the mayor said. That translates to about $160 a month.
Although central Arkansas doesn’t currently have the magical 800,000 population density required to help support mass transit, rising fuel costs encourages use of what mass transit there is.
Metroplan executive director Jim McKenzie says higher fuel costs change development and land-use plans.
The higher the fuel costs, the greater the incentive to live near work and the greater incentive to take a bus or other mass transit if available.
In the Little Rock area, mass transit so far is attracting mostly low to moderate income riders, but in New York and Washington D.C., bankers, doctors, lawyers and architects are among daily commuters on the rail-based transit systems.
EVEN HIGHWAYS SUBSIDIZED
Mass transit won’t completely pay for itself any more than highways pay for themselves, Wineland said. Both have to be subsidized and are ultimately paid for by taxpayers.
In its 2030 long-range transportation plan, Metroplan recommended doubling the size of CATA, but because it depended upon approval of a quarter-cent tax, the federal government would not allow it on the transportation plan.
While there are no current plans for mass transit other than some expansion of CATA and perhaps its River Rail system, Metroplan has been for years looking for the best paths in the high use corridors for future use.
Two of the highest-use corridors are the I-630 corridor between Little Rock and west Little Rock and also the Hwy. 67/167 corridor between Little Rock and Cabot.
Because the state Highway Department is moving toward widening I-630, Metroplan has commissioned a study to establish the best route for a dedicated mass transit system, according to McKenzie. That can be factored into the Highway Department’s widening plan.
With all of the hospitals and medical facilities located along the corridor, the east route, not always sharing a right of way with I-630, is likely to have the first dedicated mass transit in the area, probably light rail or bus rapid transit.
McKenzie, a professional planner, has been saying for a long time that world oil production had leveled off and that gas prices were headed to $4 and higher.
“I do see higher prices still yet,” said McKenzie. “Oil was up $30 a barrel in the last month. It’s exactly what I predicted would happen when the markets realized that we were at a production peak with surging demand.”
Speculators are driving prices up, and the dollar is dropping like a stone.
Because the world market in oil is made in dollars, a weak dollar itself boosts the price of oil in dollars.
State-owned oil companies, McKenzie said, produce 70 percent of all oil and they are mercantilistic rather than market-driven.
With worldwide production either flat or declining, they’ll get as much per barrel as they can, but there’s no incentive to pump a lot more oil.
So with production declines in Mexico, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia at the same time they have increasing domestic markets, prices will continue to trend up.
Meanwhile, the global population, which was 2.5 billion people in 1950, is now 6.6 billion and estimated to be 8.8 billion by 2040, McKenzie said.
TOO IMPORTANT TO BURN
McKenzie said petroleum is too important to burn.
“Our plastic drink, shampoo and detergent bottles, plastic in our homes, used in cars—it’s from petroleum. A lot of the drugs we take come from petroleum. Pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers are made from petroleum.”
Several billion people trapped in poverty will want to move into the middle class. Oil prices will move up and down, but the curve is up, he said.
Rising oil costs increase the demand rapidly for mass transit, according to McKenzie.
“Our entire urban form and economy is based on cheap petroleum in abundance forever. We’re readjusting to new reality.
ROADS OR TRANSIT
“Do we not build roads and shift money to public transit?” asked McKenzie, “Or raise revenues significantly.”
Raising new revenues—taxes—is not popular with public officials or the public.
But mass transit requires lead-time, even after people realize the need.
“Right now you wait 18 months for delivery of new buses,” he said. As more communities realize the increased need, it will take even longer.
“We’ll make assumptions about the price of gas, including doubling and tripling in the future, said McKenzie.
That will cause changes in land-use patterns. It will increase demand for housing that’s closer to the metro area and lessen demand for housing further away from jobs.
Metroplan officials hope they can form a regional mobility authority with taxing authority to begin working toward a mass transit future.
In central Arkansas, “We have a tremendous opportunity,” said McKenzie.
“We’re small and compact. We have the opportunity to take the lead and be aggressive in restructuring,” he added.
“National leadership has been terribly wanting. I hope a new administration changes that,” he said.
“T. Boone Pickens has invested billions of dollars in a Texas wind farm,” he continued. “Windmill manufacturers are locating in the Little Rock area.”
“Perhaps the three power companies could take the lead in weatherization and if the government provided incentive for solar cell deployment at the state level, the government could help buy down the premium to hybrid vehicles,” he said.
“We need to get serious about transportation and land-use plans and investment making plans for the future. Those (communities) who do will be economically rewarded, while others overly dependent on the petroleum industries will not,” he said.