TUPELO – The crowd at Tuesday’s public transit meeting blindsided City Council members, who had anticipated an intimate work session to hash out the details of a proposed bus system.
Instead, council members felt stymied by the audience of more than two dozen bus supporters.
As a result, officials asked few questions and made scant comments about the possibility of a government-subsidized, long-term public transportation program to ferry residents without cars.
Many said Wednesday they want another chance to debate the pros and cons of the issue – this time alone.
“The council members need to sit down together without the (Public Transportation) Committee or the citizens to talk about this,” said Ward 6 Councilman Mike Bryan. “We need to talk amongst ourselves without public input to see where we want to go. Then we can get input from citizens after that if we want to move forward and see what our budget looks like.”
Tuesday’s meeting was a work session, a weekly gathering in which the council meets in an unofficial capacity to discuss municipal business.
But state law says any meeting of the council – whether unofficial or not – is open to the public. And any subsequent meetings where a majority of the group is expected to gather also would be open to the public.
Among the lingering questions for council members are the true cost of implementing a public bus system, whether more grants or corporate money would be available to offset the city’s investment, and how many people actually would use the system.
A city-funded, $25,000 study by Neel-Schaffer proposed several options costing around a half-million dollars annually. The preferred option by members of the Tupelo Public Transportation Committee is a four-route system running Monday through Saturday and costing $436,050 a year.
It would provide an estimated 62,200 rides the first year and 103,400 the second year.
On Tuesday, council President Fred Pitts said such a system would cost too much and serve too few. He doubted it would ever happen. Ward 3 Councilman Jim Newell also said the city likely couldn’t afford it, even after studying the issue further.
Other council members cited similar concerns, but they didn’t immediately reject the plan.
“If our city budget comes in at a good number, then we might be able to find some funding for it,” said Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington, who warned caution nonetheless.
“If we decide to move forward with it, the city will have this expense for a long time to come,” Whittington said. “We’re going to saddle future councils and mayors with a transit system that may or may not be good. We need to move slowly with this and make sure the city can afford it.”
Ward 5 Councilman Jonny Davis echoed those comments by saying a one-time, half-million-dollar expense doesn’t seem as frightening as obligating the city into it year after year.
“That’s 5 million in 10 years,” Davis said.
Only Nettie Davis of Ward 4 and Willie Jennings of Ward 7 said they support a city bus system regardless of cost. Nettie Davis and Jennings represent Tupelo’s two majority-minority wards and said many of their constituents need public transit.
Mayor Jack Reed Jr., who attended this week’s meeting but remained silent during the proceedings, said Wednesday that he’d like to see more discussion.
“I appreciate the work the Public Transportation Commission has put in so far. I respect the findings of the Neel-Schaffer report,” Reed said. “I do believe the council would benefit from some further investigation into a lower-priced introduction of a system. I’m just as interested in a fixed price for the city as I am a fixed-route system. I do hope we can move the thinking process along.”
Disabled residents also want to see the issue advance. Many said it’s unfair for the city to spend $25,000 on a transit study and then do nothing.
Michael Sullivan, who is blind, attended the meeting this week but left before it ended, saying he was disappointed with the council’s response to what he calls a dire need for public transportation.
“The government is a service to taxpayers,” said Sullivan. “It’s not a business.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal