Our view: Questions need answering before we get on the bus

November 8, 2012 10:59:24 AM



Last week, Lawrence Transit System, an Indiana company that wants to establish a bus service in Columbus, sent a letter to local media via Travis Jones, the city's director of federal programs. The letter solicited private donations to aid in the construction of bus shelters around town. It was on Lawrence Transit's letterhead and was signed "City of Columbus, MS and Lawrence Transit System."  


According to multiple city officials, the city was not aware of the letter; no formal relationship exists between the city and the company. 


At the end of August, Jones first told the Columbus City Council that Lawrence Transit System wished to propose a "public" bus service for the city. The service would establish both fixed bus routes and provide a taxi-like service. Speaking on behalf of Cliff Redden, owner of Lawrence Transit System, Jones said the proposed service would not require any out-of-pocket expense for the city. Instead, the company asked that "in-kind" services be provided by the city. The establishment of bus stops and signage, as well as assistance in applying for federal grants were noted as possible in-kind services. 


"There may be some matching funds required on some grants -- nothing is certain at this time," Redden said.  


It's unclear whether matching funds would come from the city or the company. And, just to be clear, "in-kind" services require the spending of taxpayer dollars and the diverting of resources normally used for maintaining our city. 


In September, the council unanimously voted to allow Lawrence Transit to bring three buses and allowed for the possibility of more. Though the city has given the company a green light to operate a transit service, contract negotiations defining the exact relationship between the two are ongoing. 


If the city needs a public bus service, this is not the way to establish it. 


Studies should be done to determine where routes are most needed. The company reportedly asked each councilman to propose a bus route. With all due respect to our elected officials, what do councilmen know about establishing bus routes? 


Bus shelters will presumably be placed in front of businesses and residences. According to the above-referenced letter, the company is accepting donations to build these shelters as "a gift of love to your community," but they give no indication as to what the shelters will cost or look like. 


As we said above, the "in-kind" services being requested are not free. Signs, benches and matching funds will all involve out-of-pocket expenses for the the city. What are we really looking at, cost-wise? 


According to the Indiana Secretary of State's office, Lawrence Transit System was incorporated a mere four months before proposing the deal to the Columbus. Their current bus system began operating in Lawrence, Ind. -- a city almost double the size of Columbus -- in May. Although there have been reports of conference calls between Redden and city officials, Redden has not been to Columbus to survey the area. How, then, have the bus needs for the city been determined?  


Questions abound. Is this the best option for a city bus service? Do we even need a bus service? Is our population density such that a bus service makes sense?  


We should answer those and other questions, first, and then choose a suitable bus service, not the other way around.