OXFORD & TUPELO: A tale of two bus systems

Just because Tupelo looks at Oxford’s public-transit system for ideas doesn’t mean it will build the same one here at home. Hardly.
“We know our needs are going to be different from those of Oxford,” said Brad Prewitt, chairman of the newly created Tupelo Public Transportation Commission. “For one, Oxford is a walking city … Tupelo still has a car culture.”
That hasn’t stopped the commission’s five members from meeting with Tim Lett of McDonald Transit Associates, which runs Oxford’s year-old bus system. Nor has it deterred them from wanting to see Oxford University Transit firsthand. Members will schedule a visit in the coming weeks.
But Prewitt said the group isn’t interested in copying Oxford. And it plans to visit other bus-friendly communities, as well.
“We want to go to Vicksburg and Meridian and Natchez,” he said. “We want to see what everyone else is doing, even though we know our formula for success is going to be different from other communities.”
The commission got started this month with a mission to study Tupelo’s public transportation needs and recommend the best system to serve them. Its five members were appointed by Mayor Jack Reed Jr. and the City Council. Since then, work has been rapid. They’ve already held two meetings and now want to hire a professional consultant.
A consultant will evaluate Tupelo’s transit needs and produce a report projecting ridership numbers, start-up costs, operating costs, routes and management styles.
Some projections already exist in a regional study done last year by LSC Transportation Consultants. After looking at all of Northeast Mississippi’s, LSC recommended that Oxford implement a fixed-route bus system with six buses a day and Tupelo run a flexible-route system with four buses daily.
It predicted Oxford would spend more money, have more passengers and operate more frequently than Tupelo.
Maybe so, but it underestimated Oxford’s success. LSC figured Oxford would get roughly 180 riders daily, when in fact it ferries closer to 800 people a day. Nearly half of those riders are University of Mississippi students, and Ole Miss pays for half the system’s cost. The city of Oxford pays the other half.
“The University of Mississippi plays a huge role in the success of Oxford-University Transit, but every study in every city is different,” Lett said.
Tupelo doesn’t have a large college campus or thousands of pedestrians milling around its square. It does have the North Mississippi Medical Center, The Mall at Barnes Crossing, the Itawamba Community College and Ole Miss Tupelo campuses and the Tupelo Regional Airport.
“Tupelo is more spread out than Oxford, but it’s not that big,” Lett said. “It’s just a matter of designing the system properly.”
Vicksburg offers another example. It doesn’t have a big university or bustling downtown, but it does have a hospital, a mall and nearby community college. And its public transportation system has been a success, according to its executive director, Evelyn Bumpers.
The community launched NRoute three years ago with six vehicles and seven routes. It later added five more buses, two vans and a couple new routes.
Like most communities with public transit, Vicksburg gets federal funding for 80 percent of administrative and capital costs and 50 percent of operating costs.
Bumpers said the city and county split the rest, with the county paying roughly $35,000 annually and the city $200,000.
Passengers pay between 50 cents to $1.50 per ride depending on their age, but fares account for a fraction of the system’s cost.
“What you really don’t ever want to depend on is your cash fares covering the cost of the system,” Bumpers said. “No matter where you go in the United States, your systems are going to have to be subsidized.”
Vicksburg had private partners contribute to the bus system early on. Wal-Mart, Pemberton Square Mall, casinos, an outlet mall and an area hospital all supported NRoute financially. But Bumpers said they all pulled out when the economy tanked.
Nevertheless, the system continues to thrive. NRoute has provided more than 50,000 rides so far this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. That’s compared to 33,500 rides during the previous fiscal year.
“It’s really growing,” Bumpers said, “and the community is very supportive of it.”
Oxford’s system is also gaining steam, according to George Price, a member of the Oxford-University Transit board, who said his system has been a success by any measure.
“We’ve had over 100,000 riders,” he said. Already, more routes and buses are being added, and officials hope someday to offer limited nighttime routes – especially between downtown and student housing.
What can Tupelo learn from Oxford’s and Ole Miss’ transit startup experience?
“One thing we learned was you need good leadership,” Price said. “We got that with Tim Lett.”
Price noted that City Planner Tim Akers has also been invaluable. Coming as he did from Jackson, Akers’ experience with mass transit planning overshadowed that of anyone else in City Hall.
Lett agreed that each city needs a transit “champion.”
“It’s extremely important that for someone on the city staff be identified as the transit coordinator to spearhead and aggressively push for transit,” he said.
Lett said it would be “treacherous” for him to give too much advice to Tupelo’s transit committee, but he suggested flexibility and openness above all.
“I would think they should be very open to change and to be open to public opinion,” he said. “There should be open public hearings about the service, about the fares.”

Contact Daily Journal reporters Emily Le Coz at emily.lecoz@djournal.com or (662) 678-1588 and Errol Castens at errol.castens@djournal.com or (662) 281-1069.

Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal