He pays his $1.50 fare and takes a seat in the middle of the 17-passenger vehicle as it eases from the curb back onto the busy street.
This bus serves the Western Gardens route, making a broad loop that includes downtown, two housing projects, several commercial districts, the WIN Job Center and the new Walmart Supercenter.
Five passengers, including Hopson, share the ride.
“I take the bus almost every day,” said Hopson, a recent high-school graduate who was returning home after a morning spent shopping for his mother and siblings.
He’s the man of the family, he says. But he doesn’t have a car. He relies instead on the Meridian Transit System for transportation.
It’s a luxury afforded to the residents of this Mississippi city, whose population of roughly 38,000 people nearly mirrors that of Tupelo – with its 36,000 residents. But while Meridian has public transportation, Tupelo does not.
City leaders in the Northeast Mississippi hub are now considering a taxpayer-funded bus system similar to Meridian’s. That’s after a $25,000 study released this summer determined a need for it exists. But while officials generally agree some residents could benefit, they cringe at the estimated price tag: about $440,000 a year in municipal contributions.
The rest of the nearly $1 million annual operating budget would come from fares and federal subsidies.
It’s the City Council’s decision whether Tupelo gets public transit, and members still are mulling their options. But most have said the system, as described in the study, would cost too much and serve too few.
For that price, the study states, Tupelo would have 20 employees and eight buses. It’d run four routes, six days a week and provide 62,000 rides the first year. It’d jump to 103,000 rides the second year.
“I don’t think you’re going to get that many riders,” said Meridian Transit System Executive Director Patricia Flowers. “That doesn’t sound right.”
Flowers has led the MTS since August 2005, during which time ridership has slipped from about 23,000 passengers – or rides – annually to 19,000. But those figures are climbing again.
Meridian also runs a leaner system than the one envisioned by Tupelo’s study. The MTS has six full-time and six part-time employees and nine buses, not all in use. It runs five routes, five days a week and has an annual budget of $586,000. Of that, the city provides $109,000.
Last year, it had given $146,000.
But the city earns some of that money back from the MTS, charging it nearly $8,500 annually in rent and about $15,000 annually in bus maintenance and repair.
The rest of Flowers’ revenues come from the state Department of Transportation reimbursement grants, bus fares, advertising, corporate contributions and other donations.
It’s a well-run and efficient operation for nearly half Tupelo’s proposed budget – and with nearly a fifth of its local taxpayer contributions. But both the director and the passengers said they want more.
Flowers dreams of a $1 million annual budget with nearly half coming from city and county allocations. Currently, Lauderdale County supervisors provide no funding, even though the bus goes outside the city limits.
With the extra cash, MTS could employ a full-time human resources director and maybe even a sales associate, Flowers said. Currently, employees wear several different hats. It also could run evening and weekend buses, something it hasn’t yet been able to do – much to the dismay of frequent bus rider Calvin Shanks.
“There’s no night service, no weekend service, no holiday service,” said Shanks, who takes the bus to run errands and seek employment. “If they would extend the hours, it would help a lot of people.”
Flowers agrees, but she said the system is limited by its funding. If Tupelo pursues public transit, she said, it ought to solicit corporate sponsors as soon as it can. Meridian gets small and sporadic contributions from area businesses, but nothing substantial.
Flowers attributes the lack of corporate cash to Meridian’s failure in developing those relationships early in the process. The buses have run nearly 40 years without it, she said, so businesses don’t think they should start supporting it now.
“They assume we’re fully funded by the city,” Flowers said, “which obviously is not the case.”
City leaders created the Meridian Transit Commission by municipal ordinance in 1972 to run the bus system. The group is led by a five-member board appointed by the mayor and approved by the city council.
It hires the executive director, who in turn hires the staff.
The MTS doesn’t have a line item in the municipal budget. Rather, Flowers requests funds each year and the city decides how much to provide.
While the city continues to support the MTS, its members sometimes lament the lack of ridership. Ward 1 Councilman George Thomas told the Daily Journal in an earlier interview that too few people use the system.
Flowers said she hears those comments frequently. But those who complain usually don’t ride the bus, she said, and therefore don’t hear the other side of the story.
Said James Harvey, MTS operations director and part-time driver: “We hear a lot of, ‘Thank God for y’all.’ A lot of people don’t think there is a need. But there is a need.”
According to MTS statistics, 56 percent of passengers use the bus for employment-related travel. The next largest category, at 26 percent, is shopping. Education, medical and social services eat up the rest.
Of those riders, 28 percent are elderly and disabled.
Sabrina Diane Hood fits within that last group. Hood, whose years of medical problems have left her unable to drive, now relies on the bus for transportation.
“For a person who depends on the bus, it’s good,” said Hood, who rode the MTS downtown. “You can get on the bus for $2 and go anywhere. As long as it’s not an emergency, I can use it.”
Others in this category also can benefit from the system’s paratransit or demand-response services. Both are curb-to-curb services available by appointment. Paratransit serves the disabled only; demand-response is for everyone but with limited hours.
Flowers points to Hood, Hopson, Shanks and the other passengers sharing the Western Gardens route bus as evidence the system is needed. Providing transportation isn’t a financial issue, it’s a human issue, she said.
“Do city streets make money?” Flowers asked. “No, they don’t. Are they needed? Yes, they are. We’re in the same category as streets. We help people get where they need to go.”
As the Western Gardens route bus pulled into downtown’s Union Station, Hopson stood from his seat and chatted with the driver until the vehicle stopped. The door opened and Hopson bounced off.
Home is three blocks away, he said. He’ll walk there in a matter of minutes, knowing he can catch another bus should he need it – anytime between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, for $1.50 a ride.
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or firstname.lastname@example.org.