Consultants back city-operated bus system for Tupelo

By Emily LeCoz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Attempts to reduce the estimated $500,000 cost of a proposed bus system by outsourcing it either won’t work or will result in substandard service, two transit experts said Thursday.
Both also said cities of Tupelo’s size and demographics need public transportation and should be willing to spend the money to provide it. But they admitted it’s a philosophical debate not always based on facts and figures.
“It depends on what kind of city you want to have,” said Bob Bourne of Iowa-based Bourne Transit Consulting, which partnered with Neel-Schaffer on the $25,000 public transportation study recently commissioned by the city.
The study, which presented six different transit options costing an average $500,000, was presented Tuesday to the City Council. Its members now must decide what to do with it.
Although two said they want a bus system regardless of cost, others fear the hefty annual expense outweighs any need some residents might have for it.
“It’s an intense public debate across the nation,” Bourne said. “Every municipal service is subsidized, and they don’t all serve everybody. We have a public swimming pool, but not everyone swims. We have a library, but not everybody goes there.”

Need for Tupelo
Bourne said some communities – low-density areas with high-income households – truly don’t need public transportation. Tupelo, he said, isn’t among them.
Bill Powell, a longtime transportation consultant and contractor with Transit Capital Support Services in Atlanta, agreed with Bourne. Powell was not involved in the study. He argued that every city needs some type of public transportation system, that it’s a basic service.
It’s a sentiment shared by members of the Tupelo Public Transportation Committee, formed last year to study the issue and make recommendations to the council.
Chairman Brad Prewitt lobbied hard for the council to adopt the recent study and to solicit price quotes from independent transit operators.
Prewitt said the city could reduce the half-million-dollar price tag by outsourcing a bus program rather than doing it in-house, which is what the report recommends.
But both Bourne and Powell cautioned against looking outside, saying private companies have profit – not service – as a goal. Both men agreed Tupelo would have to spend about $500,000 annually for a decent, reliable bus system.
But while Bourne recommends a regular-route system traveling four routes across the city, Powell said Tupelo should start smaller. Two routes, he said, is plenty at first.
“Please don’t encourage the council to adopt a four-route system initially,” Powell said. “You will fall flat on your face. You’re going to have four buses with four drivers carrying, what, two people on each bus.”

Suggested routes
The four-route system proposed in the study would cost an estimated $436,050 annually. It would travel from The Mall at Barnes Crossing south to the North Mississippi Medical Center and from WalMart east to Tupelo’s Itawamba Community College campus.
It would provide about 62,000 rides the first year and 103,000 the second year.
The two-route system, by contrast, would cost Tupelo $337,500 annually and go from the mall south past NMMC to Mitchell Road. It would provide an estimated 40,000 rides the first year and 60,000 the second year.
Neither consultant would predict how many actual people the systems might serve, saying the total could range from 400 to 40,000.
“Transportation only measures volume, it doesn’t measure individuals,” Bourne said. “How many people at any point are traveling on Gloster? We don’t know. We only know the number of cars.”
Tupelo’s study did provide an annual passenger estimate for four other Mississippi cities with bus systems. Meridian, whose population size most closely reflects Tupelo’s, runs a five-route system carrying roughly 19,000 passengers a year.
The city’s Transit Authority has run the program for the past decade with annual allocations approved by its City Council. Two years ago the council gave it $240,485; last year it gave $105,020. Other funds come from fares, grants and subsidies.

It’s a service
The city’s portion is a hefty sum, but it helps provide a needed service to a disadvantaged portion of the community, said longtime Meridian Councilman George Thomas, a self-described fiscal conservative.
“It’s a tremendous service for the people who want to use it,” Thomas said. “Our problem is we just don’t have enough people who want to use it. We have lots of people who are uneducated about the bus system. They’re not sure where it stops, when it’s available.
“If the people here were sure that the bus was going to run as it’s supposed to and stop where it’s supposed to and be on time, possibly some more usage would occur.”
Thomas urged Tupelo to seek public input, find out how many people want a bus service and how many truly would use it.
“They’ve got to understand that it’s a service,” he said. “It’s like parks or pools or any other service we provide. You won’t break even on it. I think the council needs to decide if it’s worth the investment and if there are people in town who will use it.”

Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com.