© 2024 KUAF
NPR Affiliate since 1985
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

NWA bus systems expand, adjust to growing pains

Ozark Regional Transit reported 1,166 riders for the month of August, just up from their pre-pandemic average.
D. Caruth
Ozark Regional Transit reported 1,166 riders for the month of August, just up from their pre-pandemic average.

With an estimated 36 people per day moving to Northwest Arkansas - traffic congestion is becoming a problem and cities are turning to public transit to try to solve some transportation woes.

Jeff Hatley is the communications director for Ozark Regional Transit or ORT- and he said ridership has steadily been going up. For the month of August, the number of daily passengers hit 1,166 - which is above the pre-pandemic ridership average.

"We are almost back to our record numbers we had back in 2016," Hatley said. "But in 2016 we had less routes, so we're doing more with less."

ORT has been serving the region since 1974 with the help of a federal grant to give rural communities access to transit services. It started with a single route from Fayetteville to Elkins.

A lot has changed since that first route, Hatley said. ORT now operates 13 regular, fixed bus routes with 248 stops. He said one of the biggest challenges was re-establishing service after a fire at their headquarters in 2017 destroyed 20 buses.

Eventually, they secured a $3.6 million dollar federal grant that allowed them to buy 12 new buses - and branded them to look uniform, which he believed has been a huge help in raising ORT's profile and attracting some new riders.

"I hear people all the time say, 'Oh, I see your buses everywhere,'" Hatley said. "We don't have any more routes than we did back before we had the fire, but now they look like city buses and they've got a brand."

Still, ORT is one of just two public transit systems in Northwest Arkansas and the only one that serves multiple cities - they operate in Fayetteville, Rogers, Springdale and Bentonville. Razorback Transit is the other.

Adam Waddell, director of Razorback Transit at the University of Arkansas, said the bus system is operated by the university, but it is free for anyone to use.

"We're public transit, just like any other public transit agency that you may run across," he said.

Razorback Transit only operates in Fayetteville and splits service with ORT. Both Razorback Transit and ORT are free - ORT stopped requiring bus fare in 2020 thanks to a grant from the Walmart Family Foundation. Razorback Transit operates on a mix of funding from federal and local grants as well as the state's rental car tax, but Waddell said the majority of funding comes from University of Arkansas student fees.

Waddell said ridership for transit ebbs and flows with each semester, but interest is always there. For the month of August, the university reported over 101,000 riders. So while public transit services do exist in the region navigating the web of bus routes and getting to and from the bus stop can still be complicated.

Tim Conklin is the director of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission and said the region's infrastructure has some major gaps that need to be addressed to accommodate a more robust bus system.

"There is a lack of sidewalks, lack of bus stops with shelters," he said.

Earlier this year, the group landed a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation for $180,000 to improve bus stops in Fayetteville, Springdale and Rogers. Conklin said the region is growing, which means the need for better public transit is growing too.

"As we continue to add 100,000 people per decade for the past three decades," he said. "We do need to be improving our roadways to have more infrastructure... to support transit."

And Jeff Hatley said one way to improve the public transit system is for more people to take the bus. One of the biggest barriers he sees from people in this region is fear.

"The last thing I want it to try it and not be able to find my way back," he said. "Familiarity, I think, is the biggest thing to overcome."

And ORT is trying to help familiarize people with the service through a new on-demand application. In 2022, they began offering a ride-hailing service similar to Uber or Lyft, which lets riders within the ORT service map schedule a pick-up and drop-off completely free.

"People love it," Hatley said. "But it's not our bread and butter; our bread and butter is moving 20 to 25, 30 people at a time down major thoroughfares to major destinations... but that can be fed through the on demand transit."

But the bus system is not quite to the level Hatley wants it to be yet. He said there are gaps in service hours and a lot of areas in the region that the bus system just can't cover because of infrastructure - like the Northwest Arkansas Airport, for example. But, Adam Waddell said as the region grows the need for public transit is going to become more apparent.

"There will be a time where traffic will be so dense and trying to get from point A to point B in your own vehicle is going to be challenging," he said. "So we need to invest now and to build out a on-road bus system."

Stay Connected
Daniel Caruth is KUAF's Morning Edition host and reporter for Ozarks at Large<i>.</i>
Related Content