Transit Tax Crashes
NORTHWEST ARKANSAS — Washington County voters Tuesday soundly rejected a quarter-cent sales tax for public transit.
With all precincts reporting, in final but unofficial results, the transit tax received 13,001 votes (64 percent) against and 7,391 votes for (36 percent).
Jeff Hawkins, executive director of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, said he thought voters recognized some advocating the tax were being less than forthright about funding and route reductions if the tax did not pass, hurting the measure’s chances.
“Of course, there are transit needs that exist, and a dedicated funding source for transportation system improvements is needed. I would hope that that could be considered at some point in the near future, as has been suggested by the Regional Mobility Authority,” Hawkins said. “It needs to be a regional approach, a combined initiative with roads and transit both being beneficiaries. Lord knows we need to make transportation infrastructure investments in the region.”
Turnout for the primary was 20 percent in Washington County with 20,616 ballots cast out of 100,218 registered voters.
A quarter-cent sales tax would be 25 cents on a $100 purchase. The tax was expected to raise about $7.5 million for transit in Washington County.
The issue was only on Washington County ballots because the Benton County Quorum Court declined to place the issue before voters.
The transit’s budget for the two-county area is about $2.8 million a year, which includes federal transportation money, fares and payments from cities, counties and social service agencies.
Backers of the transit tax promised riders in Washington County expanded routes, more buses, faster service and better facilities if the sales tax passes.
Critics of the transit tax proposal also argued the jump in funding from $2.8 million to $7.5 million was too much. They also argued rural and small-town residents would be paying for a system that would not benefit them.
The Regional Mobility Authority wanted to develop a comprehensive approach to meeting the region’s transportation needs, including public transit, after the outcome of the November ballot question is known.
Ozark Regional Transit would likely receive less money under that plan than the sales tax.
Ozark Regional Transit operates 10 buses on eight fixed routes in both counties. It also provides paratransit services for the disabled and elderly on a call-up basis.
Regional planners opposed the tax because they support a unified approach transportation needs. They didn’t want voters considering a local sales tax before they are asked to approve a statewide sales tax in November to pay for extensive highway construction.
The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department is promising work on several pressing regional highway projects and several million dollars a year to cities and counties for transportation projects if a half-cent highway tax passes.
Scott Bennett, Highway Department director, estimated the state’s road tax could generate $400 million for highway construction and about $60 million in turnback money for cities and counties. Benton and Washington counties would get about $1.2 million each per year, Fayetteville about $1.3 million a year and Springdale $1.2 million. Farmington would get more than $100,000 a year.