By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – Some Tupelo City Council members’ financial and procedural concerns related to public transportation efforts didn’t stall the project for a room packed with pastors, individuals in wheelchairs, a blind man and others ready to ride a bus.
Ward 7 Councilman Willie Jennings looked at the packed council chambers Tuesday and said he knew others would have liked to have attended.
“A lot of people probably aren’t here because they didn’t have a way to get here,” he said. “I’m here to support a program we can afford.”
The meeting began with a revival-like feel as council President Nettie Davis’ minister prayed for guidance from a higher power to encourage city leaders to support efforts by a volunteer committee with city officials’ support. A handful of persistent public transit advocates have pushed for years toward a public transit reality in the Northeast Mississippi city of about 35,000 residents.
“Let us move forward, Lord, that we will not leave anyone behind,” prayed the Rev. Gloria McKinney of St. Paul United Methodist Church, a public transportation supporter.
City Council members heard from community members and volunteers from the transportation committee request approval to proceed.
Longtime public transportation supporters Jim Casey and Jim Newman asked council members to approve sending out requests for proposals to transportation companies that could provide the service.
No known cost to the city exists yet, and city officials and transportation committee volunteers believe the requests for proposals will provide an idea of how much the city can expect to pay without paying for the second $25,000 public transit study. The first was in 2010.
Newman said proposals received from companies could give the city an idea of how much outsourcing transit services could cost and help determine the project scope.
“It may be a more limited scale than what we’ve proposed,” he said. “It may be more, but we don’t know.”
Businesses will provide costs to provide two different proposals – one for a fixed-route system and another that picks up riders in zones where buses can deviate from standard routes. Fares will cost between $1 to $2.
Davis and Jennings supported pursuing a public transportation system in the city during the previous four-year term but couldn’t convince other council members after a transportation study showed a city-operated initiative would cost from $337,500 to $677,750 to operate the first year.
All but one other council member supported advancing to the next step, although some had reluctance.
“I have reservations for the cost of the transit system as a whole,” said Ward 1 Councilman Markel Whittington. “We have a responsibility to all taxpayers.”
Councilman Lynn Bryan previously served on the transportation committee and said he supports public transit efforts but not moving forward with RFPs. He suggested hiring a consultant to update the transportation plan.
The audience applauded after the council, while not unanimous, granted informal permission for efforts to proceed.