Tupelo can avoid Jackson’s transit woes, advisers say

As this city embarks on a mission to establish public transportation, another city to the south struggles to sustain its own transit system.
Jackson’s JATRAN hit a financial roadblock after bus-fare profits dropped by more than a third while the city-funded operating costs rose by two-thirds, both in the past four years.
Officials in the state capitol now are debating about what to do: Slash services from the 13-route system or dip deeper into the municipality’s budget to keep it alive.
Could Tupelo face the same financial woes if it moves ahead with plans for bus service here?
Anything is possible, transit officials say, but Tupelo and Jackson play by entirely different rules when it comes to public transit funding. And Tupelo’s rules probably give the city better odds at winning.
According to Charles Carr, Public Transit Division director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation, large urban cities like Jackson receive no federal dollars for operating costs. They get assistance only on capital expenditures.
Compare that to municipalities like Tupelo, Vicksburg or Meridian whose public transportation systems can get half of their operating costs and 80 percent of their capital costs covered by federal subsidies.
But that still leaves a funding hole that cities must plug. And that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year or more. In Jackson’s case, it will cost $5.4 million to keep JATRAN afloat without cutting service.
“There is no serious effort to reform the system down here because that will involve maybe laying people off or moving folks,” said Jackson’s Ward 1 City Councilman Jeff Weill, a self-described fiscal conservative. “The sensible thing would be to cancel those big empty buses on routes people don’t ride. One of our routes costs $29 to run and brings in 50 cents in revenue.”
Weill advised Tupelo to start small and grow only as fast as the ridership and economy will allow.
“Once you plant a seed and grow a new institution,” he said, “it’s impossible to root up later.”
The same advice was offered to members of Tupelo’s Public Transportation Commission on Friday by Cleveland Joseph of the Three Rivers Planning and Development District.
Along with Carr and other transit experts, Joseph attended a nearly three-hour meeting at City Hall with the five-member group to plot strategies for launching a bus service in Northeast Mississippi’s largest town.
And while those members said Tupelo taxpayers might bear the brunt of the post-subsidies costs of a bus system, they hope area businesses will share some of the expense.
Chairman Brad Prewitt said he wants Tupelo to partner with several organizations willing to split the costs.
That kind of collaboration can mean the difference between a situation like JATRAN and one like Oxford’s OUT or Vicksburg’s NRoute, both of which previously got or currently receive private dollars.
“One of the reasons Vicksburg was so successful,” Carr said, “was because of the political will to get support from the business community.”

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

Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal