By STEVEN NALLEY
Starkville and Mississippi State University worked together to increase campus and city mass transportation options in 2012, and their efforts are set to bear further fruit in 2013.
The Starkville/MSU Area Rapid Transit system received $2 million in federal grant funding through the Mississippi Department of Transportation in October. An estimated $1.2 million of this grant will pay for 12 buses on three free, public routes, and the remainder will pay for drivers, fuel, maintenance and other operational costs.
Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman said discussion of SMART began two years ago at the Community Roundtable Luncheon, which brings together leaders from the city, county, campus and business communities each month, opening to the public once each quarter. This discussion led MSU and Starkville to establish a joint city-university transit committee, which oversaw the grant application process, he said.
“(SMART) was a pipe dream a couple of years ago, and we’re very excited to see it become a reality,” Wiseman said. “It’s truly a testament to what is possible when everybody in the community works together to achieve a common goal.”
The Starkville Board of Aldermen approved the committee’s grant proposal in February. At that time, MSU Parking Services Director Mike Harris said MSU had been meeting with MDOT and attending workshops preparing to pursue this grant.
“The way the grant works is, you have a point system where you get so many points for having services to lower-income public housing facilities, meeting (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements and partnering with other entities within your district or region,” Harris said in February. “Everything depends on this grant being successful. If it is, we certainly see that as a plus, not only for our campus but our community and citizens.”
When MDOT approved the grant in October, North Mississippi Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert said he expected buses to arrive in six to eight months, with full implementation starting this fall.
“We also have shelters that we’ve got to install in the city,” Tagert said in October. “There are few other logistical things we need to work out.”
Wiseman said SMART is still on track to make the fall deadline, with the transit committee currently working to establish logistics, including finalizing the bus shelter locations.
“I’m sure there will constantly be logistical issues to be evaluated with this program in terms of which routes serve the city best and most comprehensively (and) where stops are most effective along the routes,” Wiseman said. “This will be a living program whose constant objective is to provide mass transportation options to as many local residents as possible. I think this is certainly just the beginning of this program, and we hope not only to sustain it in the future, but to continue to advance it. We’re committed to making it work over the long haul.”
Wiseman said SMART will have three major routes aimed at covering the city nearly comprehensively by serving all of its densest regions. These routes include:
— A city-campus route beginning at the campus bookstore, going down University Drive, stopping in the Cotton District and at the old electric building, continuing downtown, turning down Washington Street to Lampkin Street and connecting back to Main Street through Jackson Street on the way back to campus.
— A route circling the city, stopping at medical facilities, lower-income neighborhoods and businesses while traveling down Miss. Highway 182, Stark Road and Miss. Highway 12.
— A route picking up passengers at the Sportsplex and taking them along Lynn Lane, South Montgomery Street and Blackjack Road to the university.
Beginning with the fall 2012 semester, MSU also boosted local public transportation through a park-and-ride option enabling students to park at either the RecPlex area near the Wise Center or the Sportsplex area near Lynn Lane and ride buses to campus. Wiseman said this park-and-ride program has exceeded expectations.
“We didn’t know exactly what to expect in terms of ridership, because that’s a small program, but it’s performing quite well,” Wiseman said. “It gives us a lot of hope that the comprehensive program we’ll roll out in the fall will be a success.”
Section editor Nathan Gregory contributed reporting to this article.