April 20, 2013 7:11:51 PM
Nathan Gregory - firstname.lastname@example.org
A clearer picture could emerge about the potential for a bus service in Columbus when city officials travel to Lawrence, Ind., next week to meet with representatives from Lawrence Transit System, city director of federal programs Travis Jones said Friday.
The Columbus City Council passed a resolution in support of a transit system and authorized Jones, mayor Robert Smith, city attorney Jeff Turnage and Ward 1 Councilman Gene Taylor to go on what Jones called a fact-finding mission regarding the feasibility of a transit system for the Friendly City. They will be in Lawrence Tuesday and Wednesday to speak with city leaders about the effectiveness of the operation there and iron out details on how it would operate in Columbus.
More specifically, Jones said he would meet with grant personnel in Indiana who work with Lawrence Transit to see what grants the company has available to them and to see if those same grants can be acquired in Mississippi.
In past council meetings, Dorothy Dowdell, Lawrence Transit System Director of Columbus Operations, said the system would be provided at no cost to the city but asked for in-kind services and assistance in obtaining grants. Jones initially presented the bus system idea to the council in August. The council voted unanimously to allow transit owner Cliff Redden to send three buses to the city. A previous Dispatch article reported that in November, Jones sent an email on Redden's behalf saying the service had partnered with the city and was seeking private donations. Turnage said the company would be operating independently and no such partnership existed. Another previous report stated that Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box said the delay since the board's approval to have the buses sent was due to logistical difficulties.
The bus company started running routes in the Indianapolis suburb of Lawrence last May. If Columbus officials finalize a deal to bring the service to the city, it would be Lawrence Transit's first operation away from its home base.
Meeting face to face
The trip will be Columbus officials' first face-to-face meeting with Redden, who has not come to Columbus. Jones said discussions about possible routes, pick-up locations and transit hours would be discussed during the trip.
"We're wanting to see how they run the bus line, what it entails, what personnel is involved and if that is going to be something that Columbus wants or can handle or will fit with our need. We're going to meet with city officials as well. We'll ask questions to find out how the bus line is working, what people think of it (and if) it (is) serving the day-to-day needs of the people," Jones said. "We're going to ask all the questions we can ask to make sure this is something we want to bring to Columbus that's going to serve us. If it's not going to serve the purpose we're looking for, quite naturally, we're going to be hesitant."
Jones said he had previously met with the Mississippi Department of Transportation and explored a grant possibility, which he said was similar to one approved for Starkville and Mississippi State University. Last year, MDOT approved $2 million in federal funding for Starkville/MSU Area Rapid Transit. The grant covers 80 percent of funds needed to purchase shelters and buses and 50 percent of the cost of the three shuttle routes. The city of Starkville will match the remaining 20 percent and 50 percent. The service is scheduled to begin this fall.
"With this particular grant, you can manage it in several ways. We would just be looking at it to see what would be the best fit for Columbus," Jones said. "(MDOT has) explained the grant to us but we have not made any decision on which one of those options we would want."
Jones said specifics on routes, pick-up locations, hours and the possible amount of job opportunities the transit system could create are not yet set in stone and will be explored further during the trip. Also to be discussed are where the company would store their buses and who it could partner with for vehicle maintenance.
"The routes have been discussed somewhat, but I don't think they're finalized. I've discussed them with some of the councilmen but that is more or less being handled by Lawrence Transit themselves," Jones said. "They're waiting until they have a clearer picture of the entire route system before that is released. I have not seen the routes myself."
Jones said if the city agrees to have the bus service operate in Columbus, the company would first deliver four buses and add up to six more depending on the system's success. Dowdell previously said the transit could create anywhere from 75 to 100 jobs from the onset with more possible future openings. Those would include drivers, cleaners and terminal workers. Lawrence Transit would offer a paid pick-up service as well as fixed bus routes.
Jones said a concern of the city is that Lawrence Transit has all the materials it needs to provide the best service possible to the city if a deal is reached.
"(Lawrence Transit representatives) are consulting with the councilmen of each ward. Mrs. Dowdell has been and will be supplied with maps of all the wards to assist her with making those decisions," Jones said. "There's still ongoing discussion on hours, operations per day, pickup points (and) routes. Those questions will be asked."
Smith said during Tuesday's meeting that the trip will be an opportunity for the city to reach a conclusion on whether or not the service will be conducive to the city's needs.
"My concern is that we either need to go ahead and put this to rest or ... move forward with it," he said.
Airfare and lodging for the trip will cost $3,120, with an undetermined amount budgeted for meals. Those expenses will be taken out of the city's travel budget. Box, the only councilman who voted against sending four city officials on the trip, said while he supported the transit system, he didn't think that amount was necessary for negotiations between the two parties to take place. Ward 5 Councilman Kabir Karriem disagreed, saying there needed to be strong city representation on the trip.
"The resolution we passed is not binding. It just says we're in support of a transit system," Karriem said. "I think it's incumbent upon us to go if we want to put a bus system here in the city of Columbus to see how Lawrence Transit is working."
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.