Art Hobson, firstname.lastname@example.org
NWA Times, 29 Jan 2012
The Northwest Arkansas Council and the Transit Tax Election
In August 2010, the Ozark Regional Transit (ORT) governing board, a representative body comprising mayors and county judges, set an election date for a quarter-cent sales tax to support the transit system.
The transit we have now is welcome, but it's too thin and infrequent. There are many reasons for expanding it, beginning with the needs of the poor, the old, the young, and the infirm; the need we all have for some alternative to the car; the car's $9000 per year expense; and the failure of our cars-only transportation system as seen in the congestion, ugliness, and boredom of I-540 along its commercial "developments" from Fayetteville through Bentonville. Continued expansion of regional highways is a one-way ticket to nowhere. This is because highways will pull even more suburban sprawl out into our Ozark countryside, making mass transit (which operates efficiently in compact regions and is our real ticket to a high quality of life) ineffective.
Because the region has become less rural, federal law requires our transit system to lose $1.6 million in operating funds by 2013. Without new funding, ORT must seriously reduce operations, canceling all its fixed routes. Thus the need for a tax election.
In a May 2011 survey conducted by the University of Arkansas Survey Research Center, Washington County citizens supported the tax proposal with 65 percent for and 23 percent against, while Benton County supported it with 55 percent for and 34 percent against. Despite this preference and the crying need for the tax, Benton County's Quorum Court chose not to even allow a vote on the issue. In contrast, Washington County's Quorum Court voted 11-1 to let citizens vote on the tax. That vote is planned for May 22. If it passes, the entire estimated $7 million annual tax receipts will be spent in Washington county, giving this county the transit system it truly needs and deserves. My guess is that Benton County, seeing marked improvements in Washington County's quality of life, will then do likewise.
Now, just three weeks ago, comes the Northwest Arkansas Council's Mike Malone to ask Washington County to cancel their election. Malone argued that regional transit funding should be handled through the Regional Mobility Authority (RMA), transit and highway needs should be considered simultaneously, and the transit sales tax vote in May would unfavorably bias a half-cent statewide highway sales tax vote coming up in November. Two days later the Quorum Court refused to cancel the election, saying they preferred to keep last year's promise to voters.
What and who is the Northwest Arkansas Council? It's a small, self-appointed, elite entity. It operates rather like a regional Chamber of Commerce, except that it's membership is closed and its proceedings secretive. If you check out their web site, you'll see a seven-person staff listed with Malone as President. But the Council's real power comes from the region's multi-national firms: Walmart, Tyson's, J. B. Hunt, and others. Present or former Council decision-makers include Alice Walton, former Walmart CEO Lee Scott, Walton heir and Arvest Bank Chairman Jim Walton, Simmons Foods owner Mark Simmons, J. B. Hunt, Don Tyson, Rob Walton, real estate entrepreneur Jim Lindsey, and regional airport CEO Scott Van Laningham. Several are among the world's richest people. Six Waltons collectively have more wealth than the bottom 30 percent of our nation (that's 90 million people). Certainly the Council and the Waltons have done some good things, including major funding for the wonderful planned Greenway walking and bicycling trail, the Walton Arts Center, and Crystal Bridges. They also launched the regional airport project. Today they are promoting their "Greater Northwest Arkansas Development Strategy" that includes lots of new highways, the Greenway, and little else.
Regardless of what we might think about these projects, the Council is entirely non-representative of the people yet they are determining the layout and planning the future of our region. They represent the upper one-percent for sure. They have gone over the heads of the Washington County Quorum Court and the ORT board. We need to know who these folks are, what companies they represent, and what is their influence on such other public bodies as the Benton County Quorum Court, the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, and the RMA.
The Council's move to cancel a public vote that was promised one and a half years ago by elected officials is arrogant and wrong. Please keep this incident in mind as you consider the coming sales tax votes for highways and transit.