Oxford-University Transit’s ridership has officials planning expansions

OXFORD – Ridership on Oxford-University Transit has risen steadily since its launch in October 2008, reaching nearly 12,000 passengers in March.
“We started out the first day with 91 passengers,” said Ron Biggs, the system’s general manager. “On Monday (April 13) we had 624.”
Oxonians began pushing for a transit system in the late 1990s when they executed “Vision 2020,” a resident-led, long-range planning initiative.
“There has been somewhat broad community support for a long time, as well as doubters,” said Mayor Richard Howorth, one of the transit system’s earliest champions.
The ridership is so strong that city of Oxford and University of Mississippi officials hope to add three more routes to the present circuits that follow thoroughfares such as Lamar Boulevard, Jackson Avenue and University Avenue as well as visiting parts of the Ole Miss campus.
“No bus system ever breaks even, but I think in everybody’s mind, the ridership is good. It went beyond our expectations,” said Oxford City Planner Tim Akers. While the feasibility study performed before the system was launched actually projected more riders, those numbers reflected additional routes that had to be cut to fit within the initial budget after Lafayette County officials pulled out of the consortium.
Several factors favored the growth.
“We have postponed charging a fare, which has certainly helped ridership,” Akers said. “And we selected the most obvious routes for high ridership.”
Biggs added, “We try to make it economical, comfortable and convenient. In 30 minutes you can be anywhere you want to go.”

Filling a need
Passengers seem almost universally pleased with the still-new bus service. Blake Barnes, an Ole Miss senior from Boston, said he feels right at home commuting by public transit, although he wishes for longer hours than the current 6:15 a.m. to 6:15 p.m. schedule.
“I come from where I never needed a car,” he said. “I have 8 o’clock classes, and I get to them right on time. I wish the buses ran later … because I’d like to go out at night.”
William Cliburn says he and his wife were recently given a car, but their limited income still makes it impractical to drive all over town from his Brittany Woods’ home. In the past he sometimes had to take a taxi, which cost $10, but now he depends on the bus.
“I use it to go different places – Walmart, Kroger, the doctor’s office and the hospital,” he said. “I go on it to try to find a job, too.”
A spokesman for Angel Taxi, who declined to be identified, said OUT “has not affected our company at all.”
Adam Malone also has used the bus to try to find a job.
“I was checking on a job on campus,” said the Molly Barr Road resident on Thursday. “Before, I pretty much walked everywhere.”
Curtis Miller rides the bus five days a week to and from his job near the old Oxford Mall, and then uses it for recreation on Saturday.
“At least once a week I get my grandchildren on it, and we ride out to Walmart,” he said. “Sometimes we spend a couple of hours riding the bus and seeing the town.”
Howorth said the bus also gives new options to youths.
“Kids can come home from school, even out at Brittany Woods, and not have to stay there. They can get on the bus and go to the library, to the activity center, to Lamar Park,” he said. “For a young teenager, that’s a great thing.”
Barnes said the transit system’s diverse clientele offers a benefit that has little to do with either economics or convenience.
“It’s hilarious on the bus, all the stories people tell,” he said. “You get to know people you wouldn’t otherwise meet.”

Expansion planned
Currently, the Blue Route radiates from the Square to the low-income neighborhood of Brittany Woods on the east and cuts through the Ole Miss campus on the way to major shopping areas on the west.
The Red Route also begins at the Square and serves Baptist Memorial Hospital, many clinics, North Mississippi Regional Center, a public housing development, a few student apartments, two retirement complexes and Ole Miss.
If federal stimulus funds become available as expected, OUT could receive $2.7 million for three new routes and system enhancements that include bike racks, bus-stop benches and shelters, security cameras and GPS systems.
Two of the new routes would serve apartment complexes on Highway 6, Old Taylor Road, Anderson Road and Hathorn Road, along with much more of the university campus. Another would link downtown with the new city-county sports complex on Old Sardis Road (FNC Park at Oxford/Lafayette Fields) and the Oxford Conference Center.
Plans are now to begin charging fares of $1 or less a month or two after the expansion takes place.
With a daily average of about 500 riders, the system is making a small dent in the community’s traffic and parking problems, but officials expect that dent to grow.
“When we add those routes that reach most of the student apartments, we’ll have a lot more riders,” Biggs said. “It’ll alleviate a whole lot of parking problems, traffic and emissions.”
Howorth will leave office June 30 after eight years as mayor, but he does not fear for the transit system’s future.
“I think the community is so broadly supportive that the system will continue to thrive under the new administration,” he said.

Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or errol.castens@djournal.com.

Errol Castens/Daily Journal