Apr 2, 2022 - News

ORT director to push for consistent funding in 2022

Illustration of a dollar sign made out of train line maps.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

In his role as executive director of Ozark Regional Transit Authority (ORT), Joel Gardner has two priorities for the next six months:

  • Making a case for a transit tax from the four cities where it operates so it has consistent funding;
  • And focusing on the performance of its Uber-like on-demand service.

Why it matters: Public transit is often the only way people who don't — or can't — drive a car are able to get to work, shop and access medical care.

State of play: It's a chicken or the egg situation, Garner and ORT board member Peter Nierengarten tell Axios.

  • To get more ridership, there has to be more transit coverage that's consistent and timely.
  • To get more coverage, ORT needs money to grow its fleet and employees. But cities are hesitant to fund a system without known demand.
Data: Ozark Regional Transit Authority. Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Ozark Regional Transit Authority. Chart: Axios Visuals

Context: Paying for ORT's services has always been an issue; it's not typically seen as a priority by the municipalities. ORT is largely funded by Federal Transportation Administration grants and 20% or 50% matches from local communities.

  • The amount of money each community decides to contribute to ORT fluctuates every year, leaving its budget in a constant state of uncertainty.
  • An unfortunate event — like the recent tornado in Springdale — could change the city's fiscal priorities overnight and potentially impact ORT's operating budget.

Gardner's hope is to change the mentality of NWA's leadership in the next few months to realize the service needs reliable funding.

  • "When we fund public transit we're actually making changes in the way that people are going to be using it because we're providing more frequency, we're providing additional coverage" and making wait times shorter, he tells Axios.

Yes, but: ORT has offered zero-fare rides in all four of NWA's largest cities since April 2020, an effort that was underway before the pandemic. Cities and private grants have made up the revenue, at least through this year, Garner says.

The latest: An on-demand service that started in Rogers last year became available in Bentonville and Fayetteville in February.

  • The app "ORT On Demand" works much like Uber, picking riders up from a specific address rather than at a bus stop.
  • Most of the time, a rider is picked up within 30 minutes of booking the ride.
  • At least for now, the service is free.

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