Jacksonville City Councilman Asks Questions About Rock Region Metro Deal For City Small Transportation

An agreement between Jacksonville and Rock Region Metro to offer an on-demand pickup service in the city is not the same as the one that the former Pulaski County Transportation Agency CEO promised last year, according to a Jacksonville city councilman.

“I thought we should have asked more questions,” council member Brian Blevins said. “I got a bigger vote. This is one of the worst deals I’ve seen we get into.”

In a presentation seeking to persuade city officials to offer the service, former CEO Charles Fraser said it would cost users less than $1.35 per trip, including serving the McCain Mall in North Little Rock as a point of interest and providing free rides for six. up to eight months to make residents comfortable with the concept. Frazier left the agency in December, 10 days after the agreement was signed.

None of these items are included in the final agreement calling for Jacksonville to provide service for three years starting at $228,624 in the first year.

The District of Rocks, using some of its federal funding to offset losses from the COVID-19 pandemic, will contribute $141,139 while the city will contribute $87,485. The city’s share of the cost will increase as the subsidy rocks area ends.

By year three, the city will pay $136,695 of the $242,547 cost, according to the agreement.

The Rock Region, for its part, said that clauses such as fare rates and points of interest are not usually part of a final agreement. For example, rates are never considered part of a final agreement because they need to be adjusted based on market conditions, according to Rock Region spokeswoman Becca Green.

But Greene said agency staff will meet with city officials to consider implementing a point of interest at McCain Mall as well as offering a free ride to “surge interest,” something that has already been discussed with Jacksonville Mayor Bob Johnson.

The Rock Region is promoting on-demand service to smaller cities, including Jacksonville and Sherwood, after the Pulaski County Transportation Agency canceled express service for both communities because it didn’t attract enough passengers. Each city contributed about $84,000 annually to the highway.

On-demand pickup service – similar to a passenger carrier – uses truck-like vehicles instead of regular buses to transport passengers at their homes in a designated service area or area after passengers call or arrange to be picked up via the app. They are then taken to a destination within the area, such as a doctor’s office, pharmacy, or grocery store.

More than one rider may share the car, but Rock District officials say they want to keep the area at a manageable size to allow riders to pick it up in 15 minutes or less.

The Rock Region has also replaced some of the regular, low-performance bus lines in Little Rock with the Mini Shuttle service. These smaller transit areas usually have one location, such as a downtown bus hub, where passengers can be dropped off to use regular bus lines to continue journeys outside the transit area.

Blevins voted against the proposal when it came to council last year, and he hasn’t changed his mind since then. He said he was particularly upset that the cost was a quarter of a million dollars for “one man and a truck.”

“It blew my mind,” he said in an interview.

One truck was driving around the area 12 hours a day, six days a week.

The city is committed to this concept because it would be costly to roll back the agreement, especially in the first year.

“If we don’t, we’ll have to pay $100,000,” Blevins said. “We don’t even maintain the truck.”

Under the agreement, the flights will cost $2, not the $1.35 that Blevins said he thought would cost. He only knew from watching The Rock District officials walk up to Sherwood City Council meeting last month. The council has scheduled it until this month, according to Sherwood Council member April Broderick.

The $2 fare will remain, according to Greene.

“A $2 per person per trip cost for all pending and proposed citywide microtransportation areas (Conway, Jacksonville, Sherwood) has been determined after a fare analysis conducted by our professional transportation planning firm,” she said in an email. “It’s a very reasonable fare compared to other agencies’ small transportation fare.”

Green noted that trips within the Conway, Jacksonville and Sherwood areas are likely to be longer than the current Little Rock areas.

Nor did she rule out increasing ticket prices for Little Rock and North Little Rock, given that prices haven’t gone up since 2009.

Green said it was a “professional recommendation for the agency… [to] Not adding a “point of interest” to McCain Mall at this point, as this will degrade overall wait and travel times for all riders and may only serve the basic needs of the secondary interest group, rather than catering to Jacksonville residents’ needs for access to health appointments, groceries and other destinations in Jacksonville.”

But Green reviewed a transcript of Frazier’s August presentation.

“Obviously, now that I’ve seen the August bid, we’re going to plan to tell City Council all of these concerns, including trade-offs for having a point of interest in McCain Mall,” she said. “We are not imposing a tough city decision either way on this element, but it is a best practice as the transportation experts in the room to allow everyone involved to understand how the quality of service will be affected, should there be a point of interest at McCain Mall to be implemented.”

Green also acknowledged that free rides will be part of the new service’s introduction.

“I learned of the August presentation when I spoke with Councilman Blevins on Monday, so I couldn’t tell you why that wasn’t part of the agreement,” she said. “I initially thought the councilman was suggesting that the city does not pay fees during the planning period prior to the launch of active service. Now that I have seen the video of the August meeting, I see that 6-8 months of free passenger flights have been proposed. Our team feels that we can determine An initial period of time for free rides to increase interest, and we discussed that with the mayor.”

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