By Brian Livingston
Meridian Mayor Percy Bland said the city offered public transportation for four decades before Meridian officials stopped the city's bus service in February of 2012.
"We are the fifth largest city in the state and we don't have public transportation?" said Bland while addressing citizens in the conference room of Union Station Tuesday. "How are we going to be a city of the 21st Century without public transportation? There are too many people here who are in need of the service."
Three sessions held at the train station Tuesday sponsored by the City of Meridian, EZTAG, and the Mississippi Department of Transportation were to inform, educate, and elicit feedback from citizens on the immediate and long term needs of public transportation. The forums, titled "Community Transit on the Move" were part of an overall state and federal initiative to provide public transportation services.
According to information provided by MDOT officials, Lauderdale County and Meridian is part of the east-central region of public transportation areas that includes 16 counties. In all there are six regions across the state.
"The needs across the state, and in fact across the nation for access to public transportation, has not decreased over time but rather increased," said Shirley Wilson, director of the Public Transit Division of MDOT. "We are here today to provide information to the public and hopefully get some ideas from them on what their needs are."
The east-central region that includes Lauderdale County is under the designation of EZTAG. Wilson said county representatives from Lauderdale, Webster, Clay, Choctaw, Okibbeha, Lowndes, Noxube, Winston, Leake, Neshoba, Kemper, Scott, Newton, Clarke, Jasper, and Smith counties, along with representatives with MDOT and transit providers make up EZTAG. It is their goal to provide an efficient and economical public transit system.
Bland said the city has an obligation to provide public transportation to the general public. A diverse group of riders used the city bus system to commute to jobs, shop and visit the doctor, Bland said, including enlistees at NAS Meridian and college students at MSU-Meridian and Meridian Community College.
"We are trying to get a plan together with the help of the citizens," Bland said. "Once we do that, we can submit the plan to MDOT and go on from there."
Bland said the city has already been provided a study that tells officials where the most need for public transit exists.
According to MDOT officials, in July 2012, President Barak Obama signed into law a two-year transportation authorization which provides $10.6 billion in FY 2013 and FY 2014 for public transportation.
In the EZTAG region, a study concluded that 53 percent of the people who used public transportation did so because of a disability, while another 23 percent of the riders were from the general public. Upwards of 15 percent of the riders in the study were elderly.
"Public transportation is a critical issue with me," Bland said.
According to Richie McAlister, an administrative assistant under Bland, the city is in talks with a company which could offer a regional approach that would include several area cities.
As to the time frame a new transportation system could be in place and serving the populace, Wilson said that is up to the local representatives.
"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."