15 new buses running on compressed natural gas will roll onto the streets of central Arkansas later this week. The new buses are the visible face of an overall rebranding effort in which Central Arkansas Transit Authority will become known as Rock Region METRO.
Executive Director Jarod Varner hopes the new brand will be the first step in improving public transit for the area. According to Varner, the lack of a flexible, dedicated funding source has been the main obstacle to rapidly adjusting to customer needs and requests.
"How do we make sure that we’re doing a good job of attracting and retaining businesses and young talent. Millenials want transportation options. Some of our routes are every hour and 15 minutes. A bus coming by every hour and 15 minutes is not going to generate ridership,” said Varner. “We have to be frequent. That’s why we’re looking at bus rapid transit routes that operate like light rail that are going to operate every 10 to 15 minutes on some corridors.”
Currently the transit system is funded primarily by the cities served by the bus. Varner recognizes that city budgets can only be stretched so far and is exploring new revenue streams. “Unfortunately in the state of Arkansas transit is limited to a quarter cent sales tax," he said. "There are no millage opportunities; there are no other funding opportunities that generate the revenue needed to modernize the system."
The new Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) buses are part of ongoing effort to be what Varner described as “good stewards of public funds.” He pointed out, “There are clearly some significant environmental benefits to burning a much cleaner fuel. There are also some significant cost benefits because natural gas is quite a bit less expensive than diesel.”
According to Varner part of the reason for lower cost of natural gas is its availability in the area.
“As we well know natural gas has become a fuel source that has become more prominent within the state of Arkansas. We have some major natural gas providers.”
For now Rock Region METRO is focusing the money they have on improving the customer experience. In addition to 15 new buses, 30 new bus shelters, wi-fi on every vehicle, and a mobile app for real-time bus arrival times are all scheduled for release in the coming months.
The public is invited to preview one of the new buses at an unveiling ceremony at 10 a.m. Tuesday outside the Statehouse Convention Center. Varner hopes the event to be a celebration of the next step forward for public transportation in the area.
“Hopefully the community will come out and support transit. This is the community’s bus. We want them to see it and touch it and enjoy that new bus smell.”