Council uncertain of Tupelo transit plans

town_tupelo_greenBy Robbie Ward

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Public transportation advocates’ renewed optimism for a year-long pilot shuttle system is tempered by concern that City Council support may run out of gas.

Conceivably, a low-fare shuttle system could begin in the summer or sooner if four members of Tupelo’s city council approve an expected lofty investment of taxpayer money.

Two council members have indicated strong support to devote necessary city resources to a formal transportation operation. A third supports a trial program and others have caution or a desire to hit the brakes.

“It’s a need,” council President Nettie Davis of Ward 4 said in January. “But I don’t know how we’re going to convince some of the councilmen.”

Council members Willie Jennings of Ward 7, Buddy Palmer of Ward 5 and Davis of Ward 4 support a year-long pilot system. Mayor Jason Shelton has also vowed support for the project.

Davis still worries about who among the remaining four council members will raise his hand in a few months to support funding for the project.

In the meantime, a lot of legwork will continue before a transit vote appears on a meeting agenda. Two resident volunteers on Tupelo’s transportation committee will ask the council Tuesday to approve sending out requests for proposals from companies that provide transportation services to communities.

Council members will hear project details but not any costs until proposals arrive, likely in late March. However, transportation committee members agree fares for riders should cost between $1 to $2, depending on the type of shuttle route used.

The proposal request asks businesses to provide plans for two options – a fixed-route and a flex-route system. Fixed routes involve passengers walking to bus stop locations with set schedules. These routes are fixed and do not deviate.

Flex-routes involve zones that would pick up and drop off passengers at fixed locations and other areas throughout each zone.

Both options include service to areas in east, west, north and south parts of Tupelo.

Council members Tuesday can expect all eyes on their reaction to volunteers Jim Casey and Jim Newman discussing plans to send out the RFPs.

Ora Baldwin, retirement director for the city and a public transportation supporter, organized a pep rally a few weeks ago to rally support. Davis led a gathering Thursday at her church to encourage local clergy to rally their congregations to attend the work session.

“We pray that all decisions made related to transportation in the community will be made in favor of the citizens,” Daniel McCollum, pastor of North Green Street Church of Christ, prayed as discussion began.

In the seven years residents have pursued public transit options in Tupelo, momentum stopped in 2010 when the council silenced the issue after a $25,000 transit study showed city operating costs the first year ranging from $337,500 to $677,750.

Among council members who haven’t committed to the project, they say obstacles to their support includes finding sustainable funding and balancing existing needs like lowering personnel costs and paying for millions of dollars in street overlay.

Ward 3 Councilman Jim Newell declined to support public transportation four years ago, saying city funding shortfalls threatened sustainable funding to start the initiative. He said Friday he’s now open to supporting public transportation but only under certain circumstances.

“If it’s affordable, reasonable and meets the needs of the community, then we ought to consider it,” he said. “The ultimate question is if that’s what it is.”

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