Local volunteers are hoping to cash-in on what would be the most money Starkville would receive from a federal grant in history.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has set aside $600 million for the second Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER II), this time with the intention of investing in long-term improvements across the country.
“Why not try?” said Dr. Bethany Stich, who spent 200 hours along with Jim Gafford, chair of Starkville’s transportation committee, to write what they can proudly call a “good solid proposal” for a grant that could radically change Starkville’s transportation system and better connect cities and counties of the Golden Triangle as a region.
Determined to do whatever possible to make Starkville less car-centric and more pedestrian friendly, the duo received no pay from the city.
“We love Starkville and we want to make it a better place for everybody,” Gafford said.
And he does mean everybody - not just those who can afford a car, but also those who would rather cut the expense of not only owning a car but traveling to and from work on a traffic-infested Highway 12.
The problem with Starkville’s infrastructure system, according to the grant proposal entitled “Starkville: A Model Livable City for Small Town America,” is that its growth is a product of the post-interstate era that has resulted in car-based development, generating poor air quality, high transportation costs and sprawl.
This type of development can burden taxpayers as they provide excess roads, water, sewer, utilities and their maintenance, all the while eroding central neighborhoods and commercial districts, the proposal states.
Public health is also an issue related to sprawl, as it is a major cause of obesity and heart disease, the duo gathered, citing the October issue of the American Journal of Medicine.
If the U.S. DOT awards Starkville the TIGER II grant, its funding could fuel a multi-model system that could serve as a model for other cities in the Southeast.
And, according to the criteria set forth by the TIGER II application, Starkville has a fair shot in the $140 million rural category because of both the city’s weaknesses and strengths.
Labeled as “economically distressed” Starkville holds a majority of Oktibbeha County’s poverty stricken and lower-income residents, and many employees run into difficulties traveling to and from vital places, such as employment centers and the grocery store, resulting in “cowpaths” along roads and highways without sidewalks. And that defect could bump Starkville ahead of other applicants in the heavily competitive TIGER II race.
“One of the reasons for this proposal is to get us out of that category,” Gafford said.
At the same time, many community organizations and leaders have a vested interest in making Starkville more walkable and pedestrian friendly with the onset of ordinances such as the one mandating sidewalks with new development.
In fact, the grant proposal includes many letters of support from the following public leaders: Alyson Karges, manager for the Starkville Community Market; Linda Southward, Healthy Hometown chair; Dylan Karges, president of the Starkville Area Arts Council; Mark E. Keenum, Mississippi State University President; Troy DeRego, board chairman of the Starkville Young Professionals; Devon Brenner, Starkville in Motion president; Nisreen Cain, Green Starkville president; Thomas L. Sellers, MSU student association president; Mike Tagert, administrator for the Tennessee Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority; Michael P. Hainsey, executive director for the Golden Triangle Regional Airport Authority; Arthur C. Kelly, administrator and CEO of the OCH Regional Medical Center; Jamie Mixon, president of the Starkville Central Neighborhood Foundation; Heather Carson, president of the Starkville Foundation for Public Education; Matthew Rye, director of Starkville Parks and Recreation; Jefferson C. Rowell, president of the West Point/Clay County Community Growth Alliance; Joe M. Higgins Jr., CEO of Link; Cookie Leffler, Safe Routes to School coordinator; Gregg Harper, U.S. Representative and Jennifer Gregory, Vice President for Tourism Development and Starkville Main Street manager.
“By creating this high quality multi-modal system in the region with Mississippi’s largest university — home to youth from all over the nation — long-term national impacts will result as students graduate and return to their home states to develop similar cities,” the grant states.
Additionally, the city’s improvements could serve as a testing site for what are typically viewed as “subjective benefits of pedestrian-based connectivity,” Stich said.
For example, while Starkville could not measure public health improvements with 100 percent accuracy because it’s not in a “closed system” for experiments, wellness specialists could calculate obesity levels over a period of five years following the improved infrastructure.
“And we’ll have sidewalks and bike lanes that if nobody else uses, I will, and I won’t charge anybody for using my sidewalks,” Gafford said.
Awards will be announced next month.