Meridian Star

December 22, 2013

OUR OPINION: Meridian needs public transportation

Special to The Star
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     Earlier this month, Meridian Mayor Percy Bland and officials with the Mississippi Department of Transportation conducted public forums to discuss the possibility of reinstating some form of public transportation within the city.

    We hope they can work something out. After nearly four decades of service, in March 2012 the Meridian Public Transit System, which ran a public bus service in the city, shut down its operation.

    Then MTS President Bo Hawkins said at the time that the city's contributions to the bus service had declined each year for three years running, which reduced the amount of transportation funding grants the public transit system received.

    The result, Hawkins said at the time, was that there was insufficient funds to continue running the public bus system.

    As Bland said in one of the public forums, "We are the fifth largest city in the state and we don't have public transportation. How are we going to be a city of the 21st Century without public transportation?"

    We agree.

    "From 1995 through 2012, public transportation ridership (nationwide) increased by 34 percent — a growth rate higher than the 17 percent increase in U.S. population and higher than the 22 percent growth in the use of the nation’s highways over the same period," according to the American Public Transportation Association.

    Shirley Wilson, director of the Public Transit Division of MDOT, said at one of the public forums that, "The needs across the state, and in fact across the nation, for public transportation has not decreased over time but rather increased."

    Not everyone can drive. Some elderly and disabled people need a means to get to and from doctors appointments, while others depend on public transportation to meet their shopping needs.

    According to figures provided at the public forums, 53 percent of those who ride buses in a 15-county area of east Mississippi have some form of disability, while more than 15 percent are elderly. Another 23 percent are from the general public.

    Some people rely on public transportation to get to and from work.

    And those who think public transportation only benefits the disadvantaged are wrong.

    Not only does a proportionally higher percentage of college students utilize public transportation, but so do some members of the military.

    In a statement released in 2012 by the Public Affairs Office of NAS Meridian following the shutdown of the city buses, base officials said at the time that more than 500 students with Naval Technical Training Center Meridian and Marine Aviation Training Support Squadron One made use of the city bus system to visit and shop in Meridian.

    "NTTC Meridian and MATTS-1 accommodates a transient population of 18-24 year old entry level Sailors and Marines annually who rely upon alternative means of transportation. The majority of these arrive at NTTC Meridian from boot camp without any vehicles," according to the statement.

    In addition, one of the things companies and organization look at when choosing a convention location, such as one at the MSU Riley Center, is the availability of transportation to and from area hotels.

    Probably one of the most common complaints against public transportation is that empty buses are often seen on city streets with few riders. Many cities have successfully adopted flexible bus schedules, where a bus service operates like a taxicab for the same cost as a fixed-route service.

    Other cities use smaller buses that are cheaper to run and carry fewer passengers. We hope that careful consideration will be given to all available options.

    Richie McAlister, an administrative assistant to Bland, told The Meridian Star at one of the public forums that the city is in talks with a company that could offer a regional bus system that would serve several cities.

    Wilson said the amount of time it would take to get a new public transportation system up and running would depend on local officials.

    "It could be next year or longer," Wilson said. "But we are determined to get this done as quickly as possible in order to serve the public."

    We hope efforts to reinstate a public bus system in Meridian are successful. Public transportation helps link residents to jobs, health care, shopping and entertainment and pumps more local dollars back into the economy.

    Public transportation also enhances the quality of life for some city residents; and that is something we should all support.