Re­gional tran­sit provider re­builds

Di­rec­tor ex­pect­ing to buy eight buses for about $1 mil­lion by De­cem­ber

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - DAN HOLTMEYER

SPRING­DALE — Ozark Re­gional Tran­sit will be­gin re­plac­ing its de­stroyed bus fleet by the end of the year, the ser­vice’s di­rec­tor said Wed­nes­day.

Di­rec­tor Joel Gard­ner told his board he ex­pects to buy eight medium-sized buses by De­cem­ber for about $1 mil­lion, mostly from fed­eral grants. The pub­lic tran­sit provider lost 20 buses out of two dozen over­all in a wind­whipped fire in early Jan­uary and has re­lied on loaner ve­hi­cles from other com­pa­nies around the coun­try to keep run­ning.

The ser­vice hasn’t fully re­cov­ered from the event but is mak­ing progress, ac­cord­ing to data pre­sented Wed­nes­day. Daily rid­er­ship fell from about 1,200 pas­sen­gers at the be­gin­ning of the year to about 850 but has since made up most of the gap.

“We’re push­ing for­ward ev­ery day,” Gard­ner said.

ORT pro­vides a dozen com­muter and all-pur­pose routes and a pick-up ser­vice for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties through­out Ben­ton and Wash­ing­ton coun­ties. Fed­eral, county and city money and fees cover most of its rev­enue, chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer Mindy Camp­bell said.

The fleet’s re­place­ment will be slow go­ing, Gard­ner told the board. He said the ser­vice’s in­sur­ance will pay about $700,000 for a loss of more than $2 mil­lion, leav­ing ORT to make up the rest through grants or with its an­nual op­er­at­ing bud­get of $3 mil­lion.

Some de­tails of the fire are still un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion, but Gard­ner said rou­tine “burnoffs” of diesel en­gine ex­haust fil­ters mixed with 40 mph wind could be the cause. The burn-offs had been done nightly for years with no emer­gen­cies, but the wind could have trapped and am­pli­fied the heat to a few thou­sand de­grees.

Fayetteville sus­tain­abil­ity and re­silience di­rec­tor Peter Nieren­garten, who stood in for board mem­ber Don Marr, said he wor­ried fed­eral grants might be less forth­com­ing with the drop in rid­er­ship.

“It just makes it that much harder,” he said, rec­om­mend­ing the ser­vice’s pro­jec­tions and plans for ex­pan­sion be a prom­i­nent part of grant re­quests.

ORT is study­ing the fea­si­bil­ity of run­ning more routes along U.S. 71B and pos­si­bly In­ter­state 49 from Fayetteville to Bentonville. The Wal­ton Fam­ily Foun­da­tion gave $140,000 to­ward the study.

The study was orig­i­nally set to wrap up this month, but Gard­ner said Wed­nes­day he wants to dig deeper into the routes’ po­ten­tial, get­ting cor­po­rate data from com­pa­nies whose em­ploy­ees might use it, for ex­am­ple. The study should be fin­ished by Septem­ber.

The Wal­ton foun­da­tion’s 2015 Qual­ity of Life Sur­vey asked more than 1,000 res­i­dents what ameni­ties they wanted in the re­gion and found about one-third wanted more mass tran­sit. Only a lo­cal pro­fes­sional sports team was a more pop­u­lar choice.

ORT is let­ting vet­er­ans and chil­dren ride free dur­ing part of this sum­mer. More than 1,000 vet­er­ans used the op­tion in June, ac­cord­ing to the ser­vice’s data.

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