Going Nowhere

By ANTHONY WARREN,

Funds, no interest discourage pursuing metro transit system

Madison County residents who’d like to hop a bus to their downtown Jackson office each morning rather than fight traffic shouldn’t hold their breaths.

The prospects of a metro transit system being implemented in the tri-county area are bleak at best, at least for the time being.

Unlike the current transit system in Jackson, which provides services specifically in the capital city, a metro transit system would serve the tri-county region.

In other words, a person in Eastover could catch the bus to the Malco Grandview in Madison, while a person in Dinsmor could hitch a ride to a law office downtown.

While many local leaders agree the area would benefit from such a system, most say there simply isn’t enough support to put one in place.

“Everybody still wants to have a car and come and go as they please,” said Mike Monk, director of the Central Mississippi Planning and Development District (CMPDD). “Compared to places like Birmingham, where you can’t get around as well, transit is a more viable option.”

 Ridgeland Mayor Gene McGee said a metro transit system could help the environment, but wondered how many people would use it and how it would be paid for. 

“It would require a rather large investment, I would think,” he said.

Jackson Chief Administrative Officer Robert Blaine supports the idea and said there have been some talks about creating a line running from Jackson to the Nissan plant in Canton.

However, before any additional expansions could be made, he said local leaders from across the tri-county area would have to come together to work out details.

“Of course, we’re interested,” Blaine said. “But it would take additional talks with our bedroom communities.”

 

In 2000, CMPDD announced plans to create a regional system, complete with three hubs that would connect various county transit systems to JATRAN, as well as a Lakeland Drive loop that would serve the area between the University of Mississippi Medical Center and Airport Road.

The Sun reported on the plans at the time. CMPDD recommendations also included expanding rural county services to the general public.

Hinds, Madison and Rankin counties all provide transit, but the services are solely available to the elderly and disabled. 

Further study of the plans, though, showed they wouldn’t be economically feasible.

“I don’t know if the numbers ever worked,” Rhoads said. “It goes back to demand. To have empty buses going out there every other hour … everything hinges on supply and demand.”

Monk said the numbers still aren’t there, citing JATRAN’s declining ridership.

JATRAN use has fallen off significantly since 2014, as evidenced by the service’s declining revenues.

In 2014, JATRAN provided more than 635,000 rides through its fixed-transit service.

In an August 2018 presentation to the Jackson City Council, planning officials said JATRAN now averages around 400,000 rides a year, not counting the 47,000 para-transit rides.

Revenues mirror the decline. In 2014, the service brought in $615,000 in ridership fees, nearly twice the $347,576 brought in 2017, and estimated it would bring in around $350,000 in ride-related  revenues in 2018.

Meanwhile, the system has a multimillion-dollar budget. For fiscal year 2018, the city set JATRAN’s budget at nearly $6.4 million.

To help cover operation costs, the system is funded in large part by a substantial grant from the Federal Transit Administration.

 

Other factors have also contributed to a drop in use, including the cheap cost of gas, the growing popularity of ride-share apps like Uber and Lyft and the availability of public parking.

Jackson has about 6,000 metered stalls across the city, as well as daily parking rates, all under $20.

Monk said JATRAN had a much higher ridership rate in the 1970s and 1980s, when more businesses were located downtown making parking harder to find.

At the time the city had “park and go lots,” where commuters coming in to Jackson could park their vehicles and catch a bus going downtown.

“There was pretty good ridership. I remember people having to stand in the aisles because it would be full,” Monk said.

Parking became more available as some corporate offices left or closed, making riding a bus a less attractive option.

“Parking became more available, it wasn’t as expensive and that led to fewer people using (transit),” he said. “Buses got older, ridership dropped and dependability issues occurred.”

 

Nationally, use of public transit has also slipped. According to a March 2018 article found at Streetblog USA, 31 of 35 major U.S. markets reported declines in ridership between 2016 and 2017.

Exceptions to the rule include Seattle, Wash., Phoenix-Mesa, Ariz., Houston, Texas, and New Orleans, La. Growth in those cities came about in large part because of major reinvestments in the transit systems there.

According to Streetblog, Phoenix voters approved a $31 million ballot initiative to fund transit upgrades in 2015, while Seattle has expanded its service by 13 percent since 2014.

Among smaller markets, investments made by the city of Shreveport have also staved off declining ridership.

In response to commuters’ complaints, the city of 192,000 made numerous system-wide changes, including adjusting bus schedules, adding new buses and adding commuter comfort elements, such as bathrooms, at transit hubs, according to a June 2018 report from KTBS news. 

As a result, ridership for the system picked up for the first time in six years, with about 46,000 more people riding buses in March, April and May 2018 than the same period the year before.

Jackson, too, is making efforts to upgrade its fleet. Last year, the city received a $1.5 million federal grant to purchase several new buses, according to an August 2018 report from WAPT. According to the story, the funds would pay for three or four “energy efficient buses,” which will be added to the fleet in 2020.

 

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