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More Arkansans using public transit amid prising gas prices

Officials say riders aren't the only ones feeling the impact of the high gas prices. At Ozark Regional Transit, they're considering electric transportation.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Transit officials say their ridership numbers are coming back up after losing half of their riders during the pandemic.

The Ozark Regional Transit Authority serves Washington, Benton, and Carroll County. The executive director, Joel Gardner, says they've experienced an increase in riders since the start of 2022.

"we're starting to see an additional uptick in ridership," said Gardner. "We do have people that are using it more often now than when they were when gas prices were low" 

In Fort Smith, Transit Director, Ken Savage, said they experienced a loss in ridership but learned lessons for the future.

"While our performance suffered due to the pandemic, the lacking ridership opened up more seats on our bus system increasing social distance space that became a value to our routine passengers that rely on transit to meet their transportation needs," said Savage.

Nile Parks is a part-time driver for Razorback Transit. He's been driving for the transit system for nearly 20 years, including through the pandemic.

"It is really back up to point, we don't use the on-demand van carrying around people from union station to downtown." 

Even as more people are choosing public transportation, officials explained that transit systems nationwide were experiencing a driver shortage.

"We can use some more drivers and they keep hiring them but we're still short," said Parks.

"We're at probably about 30% loss of employees right now. I've got employees that are working doubles quite a few days out of the week just to help us keep the service levels that we're at right now," said Gardner. "People would leave us with a Class B CDL, passenger endorsement, airbrake endorsement and go to other areas that were paying 2,3,4,5 dollars an hour more."

Transit officials also say they are experiencing the impact of higher gas prices. Gardner explained that ORT transit could return to charging a fare of $1.25 instead of the no-charge currently. 

"As we start to see our ridership performance return, we are thankful the new buses (to be delivered in the August/September time frame) will operate entirely from compressed natural gas so as to help offset the rising cost of fuel and provide an improved carbon footprint," said Savage.

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