OUR OPINION: Public transit talks face expense, expanse

By NEMS Daily Journal

Renewed public discussion about public transit in Tupelo – and perhaps the region – started Tuesday in meetings spurred by AARP Mississippi, the state’s affiliate of the national association that represents broadly the interests of people 50 and older.
People interested in the issue gathered at the Lee County Library for mutual support and to brainstorm ways to stir public interest and gain official attention for another discussion about providing public transit in and around Tupelo.
Ward 7 Councilman Willie Jennings has been outspoken and consistent in his support for public transit, and he attended the library meeting, but so far the City Council has been unwilling to make a financial commitment that would undergird a meaningful system.
Two years ago, the City Council did not act on the recommendation of a communitywide study committee it had appointed, and since then, the issue has been all but invisible.
While this week’s AARP-backed meeting increased its visibility, it seems doubtful that there’s enough energy on the council for meaningful action.
Jennings and other supporters cite the needs of handicapped and disabled people, of employed people without their own transportation, and for the sake of convenience and in the name of energy conservation.
Mayor Jack Reed Jr. said Wednesday afternoon he does not sense “any new appetite” within the City Council to undertake the expense and work of starting public transit.
Reed said he’s personally open to the idea and would like for Tupelo to have public transit serving all directions of the compass. However, he noted several points that consistently work against starting a transit system:
• Tupelo is not compact. It is spread out across the middle of Lee County, which makes transit more expensive and difficult to design;
• Tupelo doesn’t have natural partners like a university (note the transit systems serving Oxford/University of Mississippi and Starkville/Mississippi State University). Yes, the medical center employs thousands, but most employees drive to work, filling expansive parking garages virtually 24/7.
• The commercial district anchored by The Mall at Barnes Crossing is fed by people in their own cars, and the demand for public transit to and from is not calculated.
Reed said the alternative is to make maximum use of the limited transit-for-hire services available to individuals, and to help individuals as much as possible within available resources.
Reed also noted many communities that have had public transit have scaled back or eliminated it because of expense and uncertain ridership.
Discuss the issue, but keep ideas practical.