Transit boss awaits first electric buses

Transit boss awaits first electric buses

Updated: 22 days, 9 hours, 17 minutes, 38 seconds ago

In his eight months as head of the Rock Region Metro transit system, Justin Avery has expanded three permanent micro-transit services in Little Rock and North Little Rock.

In October, he launched the first public transit service in Conway and it was "wildly successful."

Now, he looks forward to the arrival of the system's first electric buses.

Ultimately, Avery's vision for Rock Region Metro is to provide multiple mobility solutions to residents so they can conveniently live without a car.

"I envision a future where more residents choose public transportation because it's easy to use," he said. "It's more convenient, it's more efficient, it's better for the environment. I envision a future where employers choose to invest in our community because we offer multiple solutions for their employees to get to work."

The agency is facing a few challenges like every other in the industry with hiring Certified Driver's Licensed operators. Also, a new "R.I.D.E. 2020" plan was set back, Avery said.

R.I.D.E. 2020 -- or Route Innovation, Development and Evaluation -- was the name for the agency's 2019-2020 comprehensive operational analysis project to see how the public transit agency could better serve the area's needs and gain ridership. The analysis re-imagined the fixed route network – which had not undergone a major change in 33 years at the time of the project's launch.

Nicole Hart, Rock Region's board chairperson, said Avery has "come in and exceeded our expectations." One way he has done so was to engage with the Arkansas Deaf-Blind Community organization to help the disabled understand the microtransit process.

"That's probably been my greatest enjoyment," Hart said, "seeing him get down in the weeds and work and make sure ... that they understand the process and how to use it, and making sure that they're good. Sometimes CEOs have to operate at such a high level, so to see him being able to operate at a higher level but also being on the ground level to really talk to people and help them understand how to navigate the systems that we create."

Becca Green, director of public engagement for Rock Region Metro, said she likes how Avery takes a "critical thinking approach" to every situation.

A project the two are currently working on is to expand the micro-transit system to North Little Rock's Rose City zone. Green explained that the agency is working through logistics, as there are supply chain issues still present from the pandemic for smaller vehicles.

Jacksonville, Sherwood and other Little Rock suburbs have new mayoral leadership that the transit agency is meeting with to see how microtransit could be brought in, Green also said.

In 2021, the agency won a competitive federal grant through the Low/No Emission Program to purchase the first battery electric vehicles in the region and the state. They will arrive in March or April and have equipment installed to deploy later in 2023, Avery said.

"We're still working as a team to see how we deploy those and which routes we put those out on," he said. "But ultimately, we're going to be equitable, we're going to ensure that these buses are going around both cities and throughout the county to really show off this new technology for our customers."

A total of five buses were purchased for $1,062,024 each. Avery noted that it was a team effort to be awarded the grant and gave a shout-out to Green for "getting support from our stakeholders."

He said that getting support from Metroplan, which is the Central Arkansas planning agency, and Arkansas' representatives and senators in Washington, "really helped put us over the top."

Avery began working with the transit agency when he was a staff auditor for Craft, Veach & Company, an accounting firm in Maumelle and North Little Rock.

A certified public accountant, Avery joined Rock Region Metro, the state's largest public transit agency, as accounting manager in December 2012. He was the agency's chief financial officer for three years and was appointed chief executive officer in June of 2022. He had been interim chief since late November 2021.

While he was the agency's chief financial officer, one of his goals was to increase the agency's disadvantaged business enterprise participation for minority and women-owned businesses, he said. Their spending increased from 1% to 17%.

Avery never thought the place where he'd make a true impact on his community would be public transit, but said, "I got lucky."

"People truly believe and truly depend on us to get them where they need to go," he added. "And that's to their job, to their healthcare appointment, to schools now, right, and even to church, to see their family, or to provide just a little bit of independence in their life, and so the second I experienced that, I knew this is where I wanted to be. I love Little Rock. I've got a lot of faith that Little Rock will continue to grow and evolve and be better and I want to be a part of that."