Students and faculty members ride the Starkville-Mississippi State University Area Rapid Transit system bus on the Mississippi State University campus Friday. More than 2 million have ridden SMART buses since Jan. 1, 2014, with 22 percent of those riding routes in the community. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
February 24, 2017 11:19:03 AM
The Starkville-Mississippi State University Area Rapid Transit system could add connections to Golden Triangle industrial sites outside of Oktibbeha County in the future, as Jeremiah Dumas, MSU's parking services and transit director, confirmed his organization is actively discussing a carpool option with government agencies and private sector providers.
Connecting the Oktibbeha County-based mass transit system has long been a goal for Dumas, who first spoke of the potential links in 2015.
Dumas described the discussions as "active" and said potential links will hub into SMART's Starkville system, which provide local access to campus, local stores, housing complexes, health care sectors and some government buildings.
"We're working through (the Mississippi Department of Transportation) and the private sector right now, and what it will be is a carpool situation where we can provide service and assistance that gives options for people coming and going from longer distances," he said. "Selfishly, (the university also has) people on campus that come from longer ways. We want a system that helps both ways and has a direct impact on traffic. Our whole approach to this system is trying to bring various modes of transportation to the table, which help reduce traffic congestion and parking issues, and provides a service to the community as a whole."
MSU is in the process of submitting an approximately $3 million grant application to the federal government for operating the free transit system next fiscal year. MSU's parking services provides about $1 million in matching funds for SMART, Dumas said, while the city contributes to the program through bus shelter construction and maintenance.
Besides expanding SMART's footprint in the Golden Triangle, Dumas said future investments include adding new stop locations along heavily traveled city routes; improving the system's efficiency through route modifications and turn decreases; installing new shelters and benches; and increasing customer service capabilities with additional GPS-tracked buses and a smartphone app.
"The long-term goal is we want to serve the areas we serve to the best of our capabilities. We're hitting the right spots, but I think there are still efficiencies we can reach," he said. "When you look at efficient urban systems, they're not meandering around town like some of our long routes are. We've had to keep some of these routes because we can't split it up in other ways to hit the same locations."
Since 2014, SMART buses have transported 2.1 million riders to various on-campus locations and off-campus drop-offs. Of 2016's 750,000 total ridership, 165,000 riders -- or about 22 percent -- utilized city routes.
SMART's first excursion out of Oktibbeha County -- a route connecting Starkville to the Golden Triangle Regional Airport -- carried 1,300 riders last year.
Of almost 300 riders recently surveyed, a combined 61 percent said they utilized the bus system for transportation to jobs, shopping locations and health care providers, while almost 40 percent said they were carless.
On average, the riders surveyed utilized the system about five days per week.
The university learned the hard way how many Starkville residents rely on the SMART system, Dumas said.
In the mass transit system's infancy, MSU paused bus routes during the Christmas-New Year's academic holidays in December. That pause, Dumas said, left riders dependent on SMART buses with no transportation.
SMART now remains active with only brief shutdowns during the holiday season.
"It was a large burden on our riders. Imagine having your access to work or a doctor's office cut off like that," Dumas said. "It's encouraging to know the community is relying on it, but we had to learn the hard way."
For 59-year-old resident Robert Cooper, SMART is a lifeline providing access to parts of the community seemingly too far away to reach by foot.
"I ride this thing every day, including the weekends," he said Thursday after he took a front seat on a Boardtown North loop bus parked in front of Vowell's Market Place. "Without it, I'd be doing a lot more walking."
Cooper said he enjoys certain location-specific stops -- the grocery store stop, for example, provides a direct link for sustenance -- but he uses SMART buses to shorten walks "back and forth in town."
At the Reed Road stop in north Starkville, Cooper bid farewell to bus driver Troy Halbert, said he'd be back for a ride Friday and continued his journey toward Martin Luther King Jr. Drive on foot.
"Giving people access to all of these places around town -- it's the best thing going in Starkville," Halbert said as he continued ferrying passengers across town.
Starkville-Mississippi State University Area Rapid Transit system stats
■ 2.1 million riders since Jan. 1, 2014.
■ 750,000 total riders in 2016, which includes city and campus routes.
■ Approximately 165,000 riders used city routes last year.
■ 150-250 paratransit trips per year
■ 1,300 riders to GTRA last year.
■ Average surveyed rider uses SMART 4.72 days per week
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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