November 1, 2013 10:03:57 AM
Nathan Gregory - [email protected]
Columbus Mayor Robert Smith received a letter from Lawrence Transit System on Thursday stating that the private bus service could begin providing service to the city "within 30 days."
The letter came from the Indiana-based company's legal advisor Mike Hardy. Smith said he will let councilmen decide Tuesday night during their meeting whether they want to give the private, not-for-profit bus service provider that extension or cancel the city's contract with the company.
The council first agreed to allow Lawrence Transit to bring three buses to Columbus in September 2012. In April, Smith, city attorney Jeff Turnage, councilman Gene Taylor and director of federal programs Travis Jones met with LTS owner Cliff Redden in Indiana to discuss a contract and see how the company operated its service there. Since then, the company has encountered hurdles that have kept buses from rolling in Columbus, said Dorothy Dowdell, the LTS coordinator for Columbus operations.
In July, the council agreed to cancel its contract with LTS if buses weren't running by Aug. 9. That was before a miscommunication between the council and Dowdell regarding proposed bus stops and shelters in Columbus' historic district. The Columbus Historic Preservation Commission subsequently voted to table Dowdell's request to have stops and shelters at the corners Main and Fifth streets, citing a potential traffic hazard in a congested downtown area and the need for the appearance of shelters to reflect the area's historic character.
The latest problem, Dowdell said, came as a result of the U.S. government shutdown early last month. The shutdown affected the process because mandates regarding a grant LTS is planning to apply for through the Mississippi Department of Transportation changed. LTS initially asked the city to assist in locating federal and local grants, she said.
"As time went on, we were OK without them assisting us," Dowdell said. "After the shutdown, the mandates changed. Then we asked them again something that was there that we never used, just assist with the grants to make this happen. I realize it's been a long time, but to be fair, (think about) all the different things that Lawrence Transit went through as well."
Hardy stated in his letter that LTS was working with Columbus to "confirm the availability of grants." Dowdell said LTS has done so with MDOT, saying that the anticipated grant would come through MDOT's Rural General Public Transportation Program. The funds become available in March. Until then, LTS would run in Columbus on funding from its already established Indiana operation.
"There are funds in that grant," she said. "We can't apply until December and the grant pays off in March. We're willing to go ahead and start the service. We just wanted to know if we have the city's support."
Smith said if the council votes to allow the extension, shelters need to be in place and the buses need to be in Columbus within the 30-day time frame or the contract will be canceled.
"I'm at the point where I'm ready to draw the line on this issue concerning Lawrence Transit and talk to some other people that have some interest in it," Smith said. "I don't have a problem with 30 days, but in 30 days if the shelters haven't been installed and the buses are not here, the contract is null and void."
Councilmen Charlie Box, Kabir Karriem and Bill Gavin each gave three different responses when contacted about the extension request. Box said he would vote in favor of allowing 30 more days, echoing a comment he provided in a previous Dispatch article that he saw LTS as "a business that wants to come to Columbus." Karriem, who has said that he wouldn't vote favorably on an item regarding LTS, said he would need to review the information at hand over the weekend before determining how he would vote.
Gavin, an instructor at East Mississippi Community College's Mayhew campus, said he would vote against an extension request. Gavin said he met last year with Jones about having LTS provide a Columbus-EMCC route.
"That would help our schools, help our students, help the city, help the bus line. That was a win-win situation," Gavin said. "That was a year ago. We were told then service would be up and running at the first of the year. Here we are a year later and we're not a bit closer to getting those buses here. To me, they have not lived up to their promise. There comes a point where you've got to say enough is enough, and for me, that time is here."
He added that the council has gone "above and beyond" to try to get the service running in Columbus.
"(LTS has) made promise after promise after promise and we've seen absolutely zero start-up on it," he said. "We've put the (bus stop) signs up and done everything they've asked us to do. There comes a time when you have to cut your losses and pull the plug. They've had ample time to do what they needed to do to get that bus service here."
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.