“I said I’ll come to work there and we’ll go to election and I’ll get dedicated funding and boy, then won’t it be great.” State law at the time quickly squelched his plans. “We didn’t have the right to go for an election. I found out sales tax could not be used for public transit.”
Plodding forward, his first order of business was to go to the Arkansas legislature. As for attempt No. one, “We got killed. We couldn’t even get on a committee,” he recalls.
Perseverance pays off and four years later in 1991 Jones recalls, “We finally got enabling legislation where we could have a sales tax election.” First obstacle overcome. Next mission — going to general election in 1992.
Second obstacle? “This guy named Bill Clinton decides to run for president and every do-gooder in Arkansas, every political dollar, every volunteer all went to work on his campaign and we were totally lost in the shuffle,” says Jones.
“The conventional wisdom about transit issues is that it takes three times to win polls and that assumes you’re going fairly frequently — that you don’t have to start over educating the public,” explains Jones. “We didn’t get back on the ballot for ten years. It was one thing or another — police, the arena, the river project. All these things kept coming up to the top for sales tax issues… and now we have a jail crisis.”
Jones’ optimism and humor show through as he adds, “There’s always the chance that if a jail ballot issue is proposed we might be part of it. We could use the slogan Bars, Jails and Rails.” He explains that the funding they did receive in 1994 was part of combined proposal.
An HBO special in the early 1990s, Gang Banging in Little Rock, was hurting the area’s reputation. Due to the gang problem at the time, “It did have a lot of truth to it,” says Jones. Little Rock came up with a public safety plan to hire double the police force and put more money in the jails and they went through a thorough public input process. The community wanted something positive done and as Jones says, “we were right there at the time, at the right moment and said — transit.” With that funding, CAT was able to start night service and Sunday service and the funding helped in other areas including helping to get the local funding going for CAT’s travel center.
During all these funding tribulations, Jones was still able to begin improving the system. First on the list was getting out of the old facility, “That was their first marching orders to me, to get this thing built.” The Administration and Maintenance Headquarters opened in 1991. “That bought me about five years of honeymoon period once I got it built,” he adds smiling.
In 2000, the Travel Center opened. “We told our drivers that we were building them a $3.5 million dollar bathroom,” Jones says with a smile, “They had no restroom on the line.” More than just a bathroom, the spacious main building provides indoor comfort and restrooms for riders and a pleasant break area for the drivers. The architecture is reminiscent of train stations from years gone by and the space is a variety of textures and colors. Outside I walked under the covered plaza along a paved path that integrates colored bricks to create a “river” the length of the concourse symbolizing the Arkansas River. The grounds are impeccable and inviting with plants, flowers and a garden water fountain.
Jones explains the funding of the travel center, “It was 80 percent federal, we hardly do anything major without it being 80 percent federal because there’s a lack of capital money here. The 20 percent match comes from six cities [Cammack Village, Little Rock, Maumelle, North Little Rock, Pulaski County and Sherwood]. Little Rock is 75 percent of the service base so we have a formula based on miles, Little Rock picks up 75 percent of the local cost. “
Jones sums it up best when he says, “You don’t always have the win-win situation but this really was.” Last August there was a birthday party for the travel center for its fifth year. Keeping in character with his humor he recalls a call he made to the developer, “Why don’t we go over there and reenact some of our arguments,” explaining to me they did not agree on the site. Now Jones says, the developer is remarking that he cannot believe he is selling million dollar condos across from a bus station.