By NATHAN GREGORY
After more than a year of cooperative efforts between university, city and county leaders and a successful grant application, it’s official: Starkville will have its own public transportation system beginning next year.
The Mississippi Department of Transportation approved $2 million in federal funding for a three-route transit connecting the city of Starkville to the Mississippi State University campus, MSU President Mark Keenum announced Tuesday. The free public transportation system, entitled Starkville/MSU Area Rapid Transit, will allow for residents to access grocery and retail stores, housing, medical facilities and the campus.
Approximately $800,000 of the $2 million will be used to pay for transit operations, including drivers as well as fuel and maintenance costs. The remaining portion will supply up to 12 buses for the routes.
North Mississippi Transportation Commissioner Mike Tagert said the public transportation system will afford many opportunities for Starkville residents.
“I think will transform the way we live in Starkville. This is the kind of improvement that is the symbol of a thriving community versus one that is simply existing,” Tagert said. “There’s not a better and greater example of economic development, transportation and a community that cares about its citizenship than a reliable and meaningful public transportation system. We believe that all these different resources are at our disposal and we are to use those when it’s appropriate.”
MSU Parking Services Director Mike Harris said it will take six to eight months for the buses to arrive for service.
“We also have shelters that we’ve got to install in the city,” Harris said. “There are few other logistical things we need to work out.”
Harris said he expects full implementation of the system to take effect next fall.
“I think we’re going to be on that timeline to make sure that happens,” Harris said.
The three routes will consist of city circular, city-campus and Starkville Sportsplex connectors. The city-campus route would begin at the campus bookstore and go down University Drive, making stops in the Cotton District and by the old electric building before continuing downtown, turning down Washington Street to Lampkin Street and connecting back to Main Street through Jackson Street on the way back to campus.
The city circular route would be served by two buses and would circle the city, stopping at medical facilities and lower-income neighborhoods. It would go down Highway 182 to Stark Road and come back down Highway 12, stopping at businesses on the way.
The Sportsplex route, which would also be served by two buses, would pick up passengers at the Sportsplex and take them along Lynn Lane, South Montgomery Street, over to Blackjack Road and to the university.
Harris said all the buses will be accessible to the disabled.
Keenum said he believes SMART will have a hand in reducing campus traffic.
“We’re a growing a university. The community at large is growing and expanding, and this hopefully will cut down on congestion, not only on campus but in the city,” Keenum said. “I think that reliability and the dependability, and of course the affordability is something that I think will be very popular for this community at large. This is an outstanding example … of how having this dialogue, open communication and commitment to working with one another can lead to very positive things in the community.”
Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman said discussion of this plan initially arose from an informal discussion during a meeting between community leadership.
“The announcement that we’ve just heard today far exceeds anything that I expected at the outset of that discussion. I think that is a testament to how ideas that seem big at the start can become even bigger when we pursue them,” Wiseman said. “I think this is a wonderful opportunity to be emboldened by a tangible sign of success. What is possible when each of us is driven not only but our own institutional missions but in the shared possibility of what we can do when we work together as a team. We hope this is the first of many community transformations that can be brought about simply by all being willing to set aside some time and have an active dialogue about our future.”
MDOT, the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors, the city of Starkville and Greater Starkville Development Partnership are tasked with implementing the program once the buses are received.