February 28, 2013 10:01:44 AM
Carl Smith - [email protected]
A proposed public transportation system linking the entire community is on track and should help lower traffic congestion, aid economic development efforts and strengthen the bond between Starkville and Mississippi State University, city and university officials said Wednesday.
During a Wednesday public forum, MSU Director of Parking Operations Mike Harris said 12 buses are expected to arrive this fall as part of the first fleet for the Starkville-MSU Rapid Area Transit system. The university previously received a $2.4 million federal grant to fund operating costs and purchases and will continue seeking annual installments for future costs.
"This convenient, timely transit operation between key areas of campus and the city will meet an ever-growing need for improved public transportation in our community and definitely enhance the quality of life for students and Starkville residents," MSU President Mark Keenum said in October when officials announced the award.
Three routes are planned for the system: a historic downtown route, a city circular route and one connecting neighborhoods near the Starkville Sportsplex to the university. The routes were designed, Harris said, with the goal of providing access to shopping, banking, city services, health care, public housing, recreation and high-density residential areas.
Bus shelters will be constructed at various stopping points along each route, Harris said, and the system will be free to all passengers. GPS systems currently in use with campus routes will be in place to let passengers know where buses are on a route, how long it will take to get to their location and the vehicle's occupancy load.
The historic downtown route will feature a trolley bus with wooden benches and brass fittings, Harris said. The route will temporarily start near Giles Hall until a future parking structure is built behind campus' YMCA building. Construction on that facility, he said, is still almost two years away.
Two buses will service the city circular route, which will take passengers to various commercial and health care facilities across Starkville. Due to the size of the route and its number of stops, one bus will run the route in a clockwise fashion while the other runs counterclockwise.
The Sportsplex route has been up and running since last fall. It connects Lynn Lane neighborhoods with a hub at Montgomery Hall on the MSU campus, which is the terminus for the school's campus transit system. This route averages 150-160 passengers per day, Harris said.
All three routes have coordinated drop-off locations which will grant passengers access to other routes, including campus-specific routes. Harris said MSU's shuttle system averages about 4,500 passengers per day.
The downtown and city circular routes will run 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Saturday, while the Sportsplex route will run during the same hours but not on Saturday.
"We want to be efficient, economical, dependable, safe and environmentally friendly," he said.
By providing comprehensive point-to-point public transit, Harris said the SMART system will relieve local traffic congestion and preserve many campus green spaces. He also cited the climate of instability associated with fluctuating gas prices as another reason public transportation should find success in Starkville.
"We need to get people out of those single-occupant vehicles. If 20 or 30 people ride the bus, that's 20 or 30 fewer cars on the highway," Harris said. "Campus parking lots are bursting at the seams. We can build more parking lots ... but is that the best use of the land on campus? Paving over our green spaces is not what we want to do."
The ability to alleviate city-to-campus traffic in a significant manner is important, Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman said, but the SMART system could also help provide residents without automobiles a way to work during the week. One of the most common barriers to long-term employment is the lack of viable transportation, he said.
SMART routes will link residents to various commercial and industrial areas throughout Starkville.
"That's where the real economic development opportunities are," Wiseman said. "If you're in a community that has no mass transit, then not having a viable personal vehicle can mean the difference between getting to work and not getting to work."
The transit system is also expected to bring more shoppers to downtown retail areas. Recently, the city began enforcing two-hour downtown parking standards after business owners complained about parking issues.
"With parking at a premium, free transportation from campus to downtown and back provides access to dining, shopping and activities while preserving some existing parking," Greater Starkville Development Partnership CEO Jennifer Gregory said.
Future grant funding for the mass transit system isn't guaranteed, but both Wiseman and Harris said they believe MSU should continue receiving operating awards. Harris said MSU must continue to meet criteria, such as increasing ridership and working collaboratively with the city, to ensure grant eligibility.
"I don't think we'll miss those criteria," he said.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch