Leader Blues

Friday, June 27, 2008

TOP STORY > >High gas prices force look at other options

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

With rising gas prices cutting into the household incomes of commuters, Metroplan staff will investigate implementing a computerized ride-sharing database to encourage carpooling.

Increasingly in recent years, the Metroplan Board of Directors—mostly mayors, county judges or their designees—has warmed to the idea of mass transit, but the area doesn’t have the population density or money to maintain and sustain it.

That’s still true for major mass transit, such as light rail, but at the June Metroplan meeting Wednesday, the board members expressed interest in exploring a variety of relatively low-cost, easy-to-implement ways to reduce traveling costs and congestion.

Work on the Web-based ridesharing program could begin by August 15, according to John Hoffpauer, a Metroplan planner.

While relatively inexpensive, “The program is not in our budget,” said Jim McKenzie Metroplan executive director.

“We would be derelict not to move forward and expedite this,” said North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays.

“The future of our economy dictates that we deal with these problems,” said Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines. “We have to have a transit system that is successful in many different areas.”

In addition to authorizing the staff to move toward operating a ride-sharing database, members discussed adding to the existing CATA bus service, purchasing vans to help groups of people get to work from outlying areas, getting area employers involved in promoting ride sharing or vans and continuing to identify and support bicycle paths or routes to work.

JACKSONVILLE EXPRESS

“I was ready to write a $75,000 check to add another Jacksonville Express Bus,” said Villines. Then he discovered that CATA didn’t have a bus to put on the route.

Betty Wineland, director of CATA, has said the bus company will have four new buses by the end of the year and that one of the older buses could be converted to use as a third Jacksonville to Little Rock express bus.

She said reluctance to ride the bus was waning in the face of increasing gasoline prices.

“We need real comprehensive education,” said Cabot Mayor Eddie Joe Williams. He suggested that mass transit could be outfitted with wireless Internet, allowing commuters to work on the way to and from work. If it took 30 minutes to commute each way, that would be one hour of the workday.

Villines noted that someone commuting to work in Little Rock from an outlying area in a gas-guzzling vehicle could be paying $4,000 to $5,000 a year for gas.

Even for a $40,000 a year job—and that’s pretty good pay in this area—that’s 10 percent or more of the gross pay that’s going to gas.

People have several ways to respond to higher gas prices, although not all options are available to everyone, according to Hoffpaur.

REVENUE DECLINE

As the amount of money residents spend on gas increases, the amount available for other purchases decreases, and so does the local revenue derived from local, county and state taxes, said Villines. “It will have little impact this year but a big impact next year,” he added.

Some may switch modes of transportation, say from car to bus or bicycle. Others may trade for or use a more gas-efficient vehicle. Some departments of the state and other employers are cutting back to four-day workweeks. Pulaski County Special School District does that in the summer.

Others can telecommute—work from home using telephones, fax machines and computers. People can move closer to work or change to a job closer to their residence. Of course sharing a ride with a coworker who lives nearby could also be an option he said.

Vans or vanpools could be implemented in the three or four month time period, while buying additional buses or trolleys could take months and it would be years before any sort of dedicated rail mass transit could be constructed.

Employers could help by providing preferential parking for those who carpool. One person suggested that employment cen-ters, like the Capitol complex or the Medical Center, could send vans to meet their employees at the Travel Center, which is where the express buses unload.

PROJECTS CONFIRMED

In other business, the board submitted at the request of the state Highway and Transportation Department a list of improvements approved in September 2005 for consideration over the next five years.

Several were in the Cabot and Jacksonville areas.

Those include the $32 million major widening of 2.2 miles of Hwy. 67/167 between Redmond Road and Vandenberg Road and also $300,000 traffic signal and interchange improvement at Hwy. 107 and Arnold Drive.

In Cabot, the plan calls for improvement and reconstruction of the Hwy. 67/167 at Hwy. 5 and also Hwy. 89. Each is expected to cost $10.5 million. Also in Cabot, the plan calls for a $3.5 million widening, access management and signal coordination on Hwy. 89 from Hwy. 67 to 5th Street.

Also on the list—but without funding identified—is the $200 million completion of the North Belt Freeway. Also unfunded but desired is a minor widening of Military Road from Redmond Road to Hwy. 440, and a signal upgrade in Sherwood at the intersection of Hwy. 107 and Brockington Road.