CAT: Making More with Less

“Nobody, including me, for awhile there thought we could pull this off and the fact that we built it, built it well and it’s operating as a success has elevated our own image here.” – Keith Jones

What a way to start the year. A phone call on New Years Day from your biggest political transit supporter breaking the news to you that they have other issues to focus on and that they cannot do anything transit-related for the year ahead. That may instill consternation in others but not Keith Jones, executive director and general manager of the Central Arkansas Transit Authority (CAT).

Well, maybe it did just a little. After recounting the story, he mutters with a laugh, “Retire now.” I am not sure if it is just part of that southern charm and hospitality but after spending a couple of days at CAT, it was clear that nonchalant attitude has been with Jones throughout his career and 19 years with CAT. And, despite that troubling news at the beginning of this year, there are big plans for the future.

CHALLENGING BEGINNINGS

You would never know the dire state of the agency when Jones started by looking at it today with its inviting transfer center, modern maintenance facilities and, of course, its acclaimed streetcar. Examining photos of the previous maintenance facility, I stood there agape with wonder as to how they got to where they are today. As Jones says, “It was a trip. The mechanics that worked over there in those conditions for like 15 years, it’s amazing they got the fleet out everyday. It was incredibly bad.”

He isn’t exaggerating. There were not any lifts, any jig hoists and lighting so bad the mechanics had to carry trouble lights. Betty Wineland, CAT’s Deputy Director adds, “They didn’t even have wheel chucks. They borrowed them from this trucking company that rented another half of the building.”

Not only was the headquarters in dire condition, the state of the buses were in rough shape as well. “The average age of the fleet was about 13 years. When we got the Neoplans in, the rest of the fleet was so bad that we ran most of them day and night, all the time,” says Jones. He emphasizes, “If they could get them running just to get them out on the streets — we were operating one of the oldest fleets in the nation.”

Now able to laugh about it, Jones describes the system back in the day, “We had to do a complete realignment of the bus route. We hired consulting back in ’88 or ’89 to look at the routes and they recommended a hundred changes. We did about 95 of them. There were more changes in a small system then they had ever recommended before.”

Part of the comprehensive operations analysis was to follow all the buses. He explains, “There were bus routes that actually did figure-eights. There were two trippers nobody knew about except the drivers and some of the supervisors,“ With a cautious laugh he adds, “We’ve had two COAs since then and I tell them go follow the buses, you never know.”

GETTING ON BOARD

The scenario might have been one that most people would run from. Jones looked at it as an intriguing challenge. He recalls, “I worked for the MPO back here in the 70s, my first year after college. It literally bought CAT just as I came there so I had always been curious about CAT and said if it just had good money it would really be a fun system.”

When CAT reorganized in 1986 it contracted with the MPO to keep running it for a year. “I started talking to the folks who were on the board there, some who I knew and some I didn’t, and they ended up hiring me in ‘87 with one of the Reagan privatization demogrants to see if we could get some privatization here. “

Jones recalls, “When the board had hired me there were lots of long-standing problems. Well for one thing, the MPO, the transit system was sort of a stepchild — there were only two or three cases in the country where the MPO owned the bus company and so they just didn’t have anybody dedicated fulltime to pushing things along.

“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.

MOVING FORWARD

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.

FULL STEAM AHEAD

Well, not steam — electric. The idea of the streetcar did not come from CAT Jones explains, “This project came to us from the mayors . We didn’t invent it. Frankly I thought they were kind of nuts.” There was a one-year tax to build the Alltel Arena and double the convention center on the Little Rock side. Keith says, “In the promotional literature, which I didn’t pay any attention to, they talked about rail service.” Initially it was going to be a bridge shuttle, just to go over the railroad bridge. “

The idea was instigated by Mayor Dailey of Little Rock, Mayor Hays of North Little Rock and Pulaski County Judge Villines . “They had all three been in office over 10 years, one of them almost 16 years. We hadn’t had any turnover with the three principal elected officials which is great when they get you on a project like this,” Jones explains. “A lot of times you see a project like this started and the political leadership changes and they maybe campaign against the rail project and all of a sudden the political reason for building something is gone.”

Focusing on the bus system, the River Rail Streetcar was not something Jones had been planning on, “I never had any desire to build a rail project here. I didn’t really think it was all that feasible. I was here trying to get the bus system bigger and better.”

“We got an earmark and started studying it and it grew into this streetcar project,” Jones explains. “The way we got our earmarks in funding, it took about five years of piecing this stuff together and every year we didn’t know if we were going to have enough money to finish this thing.”

He adds, “There was a lot of skepticism. A lot of folks even like me that said you know this isn’t going to happen.” Jones explains that even as they started laying the tracks there were people asking if a train was going to be coming through.

When it was first clear that this was going to be a reality, Jones admits he had a lot to learn about construction and operation of a rail project. “Instead of going to lots of conferences I’ll often send myself to some place — just call a manager and go visit,” he explains. He tells me what everyone I have met in transit has said, “There’s just a natural sharing of information, mentoring and that sort of thing that goes on in this business.” He adds with a laugh, “I just sort of made a pest of myself in different places.”

Phase 1 of the River Rail project began revenue operation in November of 2004. The 2.5-mile route connects the River Market District of Little Rock with North Little Rock, crossing the Arkansas River along the Main Street Bridge. Keith explains, “The River Market was something that was going to happen, maybe we intensified it. When we put the car there, there was already a market, there was already development there and it was instant success.”

Construction for Phase 2 started at the beginning of this year, a .9-mile extension to the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library and Heifer International. Phase 2 will be up and running by the end of the year. Jones tells me the track construction is complete with the exception of a section of specialty track they are waiting for and they will string the wire once the track is in place. He explains, “Our problem is you don’t want to string the wire until you have all the track in, particularly on the curves because it’s more art than science.”

BLAST FROM THE PAST

Currently they have three streetcars to run the line. With the expansion, they will be adding two more cars. Jones explains, “We had street cars in Little Rock up until 1947 and the last street car was 407 so we started with 408.”

When I visited the carbarn, Danny Edwards, CAT maintenance something, Tom Johnson, CAT Shop Foreman and Travis Ellis, general manager of Gomaco Trolley Company were busy inspecting one of the newest cars, No. 411. As we walk up Keith mutters to them with a smile, “Okay, try to look busy, we may take your picture.”

The streetcars are replica cars, built to look like the cars of days gone by but as Jones says, “I’ve never seen an old car that had this much great wood and brass in it. Gomaco really does a great job.” The cars are vintage streetcars made by Gomaco Trolley Company with electronics by Lakeland Engineering. Jones explains, “…the trucks and wheel assemblies, the motor and controllers are all from a supplier in Milan, Italy and were about 75 years old when they were retired.” Ellis continues, “They’ve been rebuilt several times with the wars and everything. We bring everything home and rebuild it.”

I happened to ask Jones about the striking bright yellow and red color scheme. “We stole the Tampa colors but with [their] permission,” he explains. “Our street cars were green and white here. Travis brought the Tampa car through here years ago, left it for a few days here on Main Street and everyone fell in love with the yellow color — it’s very visible.”

The colors aren’t the only thing they got from another agency. Sitting in the corner of his office is a vintage farebox. “Memphis gave us those to put on our streetcar,” he says. “We have GFI on the bus but we didn’t want to put GFI on the streetcar, they’re modern-looking and they take up a lot of room.”

He explains, “My maintenance manager, Barry Beaver, his twin brother was maintenance manager of Memphis, so we had a little connection there. They shipped us over about 20 of their old ones sitting around.” He adds, “That one will probably end up on a streetcar, I may lose that.”

FALLING INTO PLACE

“Everyone’s been very enthusiastic, not a negative word has been said about the streetcar since we’ve opened,” says Jones smiling. While sitting there in his office, he and Wineland digress for a few moments as they share stories with each other about previous non-supporters they have recently seen getting on and riding the streetcar. Jones finishes their divergence and emphasizes, “The people who were grumpy about it, you catch them riding it.”

After it started operation, there were 200,000 riders the first year and Jones says CAT is expecting about the same for this year. He explains that they haven’t done any studies yet, “I didn’t see any point in doing [a market study] last year because it was so new and we were having so many… one time riders. … let’s wait until the second year and do a little demographics of who are these folks …”

He shared a story of one of his recent trips on a streetcar, “There are a couple of old guys — older than me — in their overalls and I just went up and I asked them, so where you guys from? ‘We’re farmers from Humnoke, Arkansas. It’s just a rainy day and we had heard about this and we’ve come to ride the streetcar. Too wet to farm.’” He and Wineland share other stories about people they have talked to that have not been downtown for a long time that come just to check out the streetcars.

As we were driving past the Peabody Hotel, Jones and Wineland told me about some of the more unusual riders. The Peabody Hotel had bought the naming rights to the stop near the hotel as part of the corporate sponsorship program. In the lobby of the hotel, there are ducks that swim around in a pond. “For the opening of the platform down here we had the ducks ride the street car and they boarded down here on a little red carpet ramp,” Jones says. He adds laughing, “They were good riders but not housebroken.”

For another marketing endeavor, Wineland told me about the local humane society’s calendar, “You pay X dollars and you get to have individuals or companies, so we bought a page.” Jones adds, “We put a note out to staff to bring their dogs in if they can sit off-leash — sit and stay. I want a picture of just the dogs on the streetcar or the dogs hanging their heads out the window.”

“I said I may be out of town that day.” Betty murmurs with a laugh.

Virginia Fry, River Rail manager, chimes in, “I’m going to bring my cat.”

“Yeah, once.” Jones says smiling wryly, “You can do anything once.”

Back to being serious for a moment, Jones explains, “The $140 million in development, the streetcar is a factor in most of those but certainly not anywhere near the prime reason. It’s two to three cars in a day so we don’t have illusions about the fact that we’re bringing subway type numbers in business.” Wineland adds, “Almost any time you see reference to us now in anything, anything the cities of Little Rock and North Little Rock will publish have the streetcar on it. Come to Central Arkansas and see the streetcar.”

The cost of the streetcar project is one of the reasons that have made this project so interesting. “We built it for eight million a mile including the barn, the three cars, the design — everything. If you look around the country, I’m not saying anything bad about it,” Jones emphasizes, “but everything else is 20 to 30 million a mile.”

He continues, “There were just a lot of good factors, a good combination of things that let us do it that cheaply.” The lines utilize city streets, operating in mixed traffic for a majority of the route. The section on the Main Street Bridge is the only exclusive lane. Jones summarizes, “You don’t have to rebuild the entire city to do this. Keep it cheap and get it out there,” he says smiling. “We were really lucky to be able to do that.

“Nobody, including me, for awhile there thought we could pull this off and the fact that we built it, built it well and it’s operating as a success has elevated our own image here. We haven’t done any polling on that but you just know it,” Jones says. “That will sooner or later, when it gets back to the voters, that will pay off I think.”

PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE

As Phase 2 comes close to finish, it is still to be determined where Phases 3 and 4 will take the streetcars. The streetcar operation involves Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County and for Phase 1 they paid for the cost equally. Phase 2 is located in Little Rock. Jones says, “North Little Rock’s paying 25 percent of the local share and the county’s going to pay 1/3 of everything so the difference, Little Rock’s paying 41 and 2/3rds percent.

“North Little Rock has the option for Phase 3 and with the same funding arrangements in reverse.” When I ask about where Phase 3 will take the streetcar Jones says with a pause, “Phase 3 is, who knows?” quickly adding with a cunning smile, “We can pick it today.” Back to business he adds, “The mayor has really not decided where he wants to put Phase 3. He’s got quite a few options.”

Two options Jones mentions were another line on the Main Street Bridge or down to some city-owned vacant land that the city is considering for various uses including a possible aquarium. He adds, “If nothing else happens, I’d like to see them make the bridge two ways.” When the current line went on the bridge, it replaced a sidewalk and the median cap was changed. “In effect we stole a lane width and the cars didn’t know it,” he explains. “To do it in the other direction, it’s going to be hard to do without taking a lane or putting some added pavement on top of the bridge which the bridge engineers don’t want to let that happen.”

Jones thought the streetcar should have gone down Main Street for Phase 1. He says that it just may happen for Phase 4. “I think there was only me and one architect that felt it needed to go down Main Street. Everyone else was like no, it has to go to River Market.” He adds with a smile, “So we lost that argument.” Perhaps not permanently lost as he adds, “Now everyone’s saying yeah, we need to go down to Main Street. That’s really where some private money is finally arriving at last.”

Jones mentions another option that city officials have suggested, “There’s a lot of political will to take it to the airport.” He explains, “What I try to tell them going from the streetcar downtown — which was a big enough task for us — to building a line to the airport, it’s like going from the Minors to the Majors. Dealing with the airport, being on the airport grounds,” he pauses, “things start getting real expensive real quick.” He adds, “There’s no more $8 million a mile. Going to the airport is going to be more like $40, $50 or $60 million a mile.”

NOT TO BE FORGOTTEN

“For better for worse, we’ve become famous for our streetcar even though we like to make sure we don’t neglect the bus,” says Jones. In that light, CAT is conducting a survey of the bus system this summer. “We hired McDonald Transit Associates Inc. to do a five-year strategic and growth plan for the bus side to try and do a little catch up with all the attention — all the money that’s been put on the rail side.” He adds with a laugh, “As long as there’s 3 dollars a gallon gas out there, folks are going to say yeah, we want to hear about a bus plan.”

Jones says resolutely, “The bus state’s got to be upgraded.” He says about the ridership, “About 80 percent don’t have a car for their trip. Lower-income, 70-75 percent minority, African-American, about 50/50 female, male. These are just local folks wanting to get to work, get to school, do a little shopping.”

There are a myriad of developments he would like to see for the bus system including more bus shelters, bike racks on buses, biodiesel fuel, night service and AVL. He says, “I always felt like it’s more important, more beneficial for a small system to have AVL than a big one because our schedules are so much more critical or sensitive to failure,” he explains further, “In a big city, you miss a bus, you have 5 minutes, fifteen minutes at most. Here, it’s 30 minutes.”

Another way CAT is working towards building bus ridership into the future is through the school education program. As Jones explains, “When you look at what could pay off long-term for transit ridership, doing education in schools is an area where we really need to find some money to do that on a bigger scale. I grew up riding the bus but then my kids didn’t ride transit and the next generation doesn’t ride transit so you don’t have that connection here anymore.”

Wineland says about the program, “We probably present to anywhere between three and six thousand kids a year in the area and all the teachers want us there for their transportation day and we do field trips.” She adds, “I think it really has helped a lot. We try to have something for the kids to take something back to the parents.”

MAKING THE BEST OF IT

Whether or not CAT can make it on the ballot for 2007 still remains to be seen but no matter what happens, plans are moving forward on system improvements. “We just try to make what we can,” Jones explains. “Without dedicated funding it’s not as dramatic as we want. At least we’re not losing ground anyhow.”

More photos on the Mass Transit Flickr site at http://www.flickr.com/photos/93797754@N02/sets/

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