February 7, 2014 10:39:58 AM
I know they thought I was some crazy person. I drove slowly by a couple of times and waved so they wouldn't think I was hostile and then turned in and sat observing them for a few minutes. It was on a recent Saturday when I saw three Mississippi State University trucks near the mailbox stand on Lynn Lane. They were erecting the new bus shelter.
I have been watching the progress of that construction for a couple of months because it has the distinction of being one of the few new locations for the bus stop serving the transportation project between the city of Starkville and MSU. I believe it is symbol of a significant occurrence for Starkville and by extension MSU and the county.
The shelter consists of a concrete platform installed by the city and the shelter itself installed by MSU. It includes technology that tells the waiting passenger when the bus will arrive and has a scrolling message board for additional information. It also updates itself regularly as the bus is being tracked by the GPS software which, by the way, has a phone app. Since the start of the spring semester I have had a very real sense of pride in watching the new buses with their distinctive markings traveling throughout Starkville. They operate from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Even though the times are not quite as full service as you might like, it feels like we are moving forward as a city when we offer something so basic to life in any metropolitan area.
Before I left the city's employ I was fortunate to work with MSU staff on the application and implementation of the grant for this service. It's a testament to the MSU staff that an excellent bus route and scheduled services have long been in place for the university. It is very professionally managed and has provided a much needed service since the cost of parking has increased dramatically and availability has been reduced based on the steady growth of the student population.
Prior to SMART service, the only buses running off campus to the city were the "night route" that provided transportation from the campus to downtown restaurants along University Drive and buses MSU provided to the international students for runs to local grocery stores or shopping areas. Money for the night route bus service actually comes in part from 2% funding from food and beverage sales tax in the city.
As part of the early planning our committee had to come up with a name for the bus service. Having traveled a good bit, what came to mind for a name was what was in other cities. Atlanta has MARTA; Dallas has DART and San Francisco has BART. All are rapid transit themes but while we admit that buses aren't so rapid, they are faster than bikes and traffic jams and it was really catchy. So voila, SMART, Starkville-MSU Area Rapid Transit was born. It also played well with the purpose of a university which, when last I checked was not known for winning games but for education, which makes us SMART(er). Additionally, it is infinitely better than the school up north which has OUT (Oxford University Transit). Arguably aptly named for what to do when you are done visiting there, as in "get out."
All of that aside, the most important feature is that it allows the residents and students of Starkville access to locations they might not otherwise easily have. The routes stop in residential areas that are economically less able to make that run to the grocery store every day or have transportation to the hospital or get out to the university to work. Starkville can now offer a service that many of us take for granted. As employers in Starkville we should be very excited at the prospect of this service providing opportunities for a regular transportation source for current and potential employees. Maybe there is even a future in using it for younger, school age children to get to school as a part of the consolidation requirements.
It is an economic development marketing tool that speaks to our ability to serve all facets of the community. SMART gives us a leg up on our regional competition in attracting residents and businesses that want the higher levels of service that come with a community interested in "smart growth" principles (not to be confused with SMART). Those principles are grounded in sustainability and clean development.
Let's hope this time a transportation system for our city will be a lasting part of what makes us one of the best places to live in OUR STATE. If you haven't ridden it yet, it is free and it might be an interesting new way to see your town. Join me in making the trip for a full circuit through Starkville the SMART way.