Is Natchez primed for mass transit?

Published 12:06 am Sunday, May 30, 2010

NATCHEZ — New Yorkers and Natchezians share much in common — larger than life personalities, a love for the arts, and believe it or not, hospitality. Could mass transit be the next commonality?

Mass transit is a term seldom associated with Natchez. In fact, mass transit is not part of most Natchezians’ daily vocabulary. But Sabrena Bartley, executive director of the city’s Department of Adult Services and Public Transportation, uses the term almost every day.

Bartley manages a fleet of 30 vehicles and 23 employees — both part of the Natchez Transit System. The system started off as a one-vehicle fleet in 1981, serving a small segment of the elderly and disabled population.

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Today, Natchez Transit has an operating budget of $1.2 million, which is comprised of matching grant funds from the Mississippi Department of Transportation’s Public Transit Division and fare revenues, Bartley said. Fares range from $1 to $2 for a one-way trip, depending on distance.

The City of Natchez provides matching funds to Natchez Transit, as does Adams County. The Natchez-Adams County Council on Aging also contributes to the program.

This fiscal year, federal funds account for $715,223 of the transit budget. State funds account for $144,000.

The City of Natchez provided $140,000 in matching funds while Adams County provided $28,000. Fare revenues account for $85,000, transfers from other funds account for $78,000 and the Council on Aging accounts for $15,000.

Natchez Transit’s 16 drivers make approximately 60,000 trips annually throughout Adams County, as well as to Brookhaven, Jackson, Vicksburg and Jefferson County. Bartley said a citizen uses public transportation approximately every six minutes.

Of Natchez Transit’s 30 vehicles, 14 are on the road traveling within and outside Adams County. Bartley said the remaining 16 vehicles, which range from six-passenger vans to 36-passenger buses, either serve as back up vehicles or require maintenance.

“Natchez Transit operates a demand response route system, which means people call in and schedule rides,” Bartley said. “Ninety percent of our operation is demand response and 10 percent is fixed route, which is like a bus service.

“If the capacity is not there for our (demand response) routes, I’m not going to have all 30 vehicles out. Gas is too high for that.”

The system employs three trip planners who schedule rides for passengers.

Bartley said the elderly and disabled each comprise approximately 850 trips each month while the general public averages approximately 4,000 trips each month. Passengers may request transportation to whatever destination within the service territory.

Bartley said approximately 900 trips are made to transport passengers to and from their workplace each month.

With 3,410 people in Adams County who have no access to personal transportation according to 2000 census figures, Bartley said the transit system is essential to the community’s livelihood.

For Linda G. Holmes, Natchez Transit is part of her daily routine. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Holmes rides the buses for dialysis treatment. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, she rides for essential errands.

This past Thursday, transit driver Robert Johnson picked up Holmes at Fred’s on U.S. 61. Holmes’ next stop was her house on Franklin Street.

Holmes, who is wheelchair-bound, shared a sparsely populated 20-passenger bus with Walter Sanders Jr. and Betty Marsaw. Sanders was en route to his Prince Street house after a doctor’s appointment on Highland Boulevard, and Marsaw was en route to a social visit on Martin Luther King Jr. Street.

“Thank God for the transit,” Marsaw said. “I’m on here every day.”

“Yeah, because I don’t what I would do without it,” Holmes said. “It takes me to dialysis, it takes me to get food and other things I need to shop for.”

“I’m getting to that stage I might need it more,” Sanders said. “It’s a lifesaver.”

“I ride it about every three months or so. I go to doctor’s appointments, Walmart and the casino, but the casino’s a bad one to name.”

But with the praise came criticism.

“When they pick me up from dialysis, I wait a while,” Holmes said. “Sometimes I have to call back see what the hold up is.”

Marsaw then turned her attention to Johnson, who’s driven for Natchez Transit for 17 years.

“Robert, they got you busy today?” Marsaw asked.

“We’re kind of on the slow side,” Johnson said.

Johnson said on a good day, he drives 50 to 60 passengers to their desired locations. He said the first through the middle of the month are his peak times of travel.

“Sometimes we get overcrowded, but all the drivers pull together. We just pitch in, help each other out and make it work.”

Sparsely populated buses are often spotted traveling the streets of downtown Natchez, but MDOT Executive Director Larry L. “Butch” Brown said Natchez Transit’s need in rural areas is greater than the city’s need.

“The needs of the rural transit and the rides to work program is stronger in terms of need of usage than it is the downtown transit area,” Brown said. “Natchez has one of the best public transit facilities in our state. Of the state’s 82 counties, 60 offer a transit program, and Natchez has always ranked as one of the best.”

Bartley said she wants to continue Natchez Transit’s reputation as one of the state’s best systems, and she believes adopting a new regional transit concept will do just that.

In March, Brown announced the city will receive more than $2.5 million in state and federal funds to develop a regional intermodal transit facility.

MDOT and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will fund the construction of the 9,000-square-foot facility, which will be located on the site of the old AB Motor Company on North Shields Lane.

Bartley said the facility will broaden service areas to include Adams, Claiborne, Jefferson, Franklin, Lincoln, Copiah, Simpson, Jefferson Davis and Wilkinson counties.

The facility will include parking spaces for customers, a park and ride service, a modern transit vehicle maintenance facility and a regional transportation call center, along with parking space and storage for up to 28 transit vehicles.

Bartley said the facility will allow Natchez Transit to cutback its demand response service, and establish more fixed routes.

“We hope to be at 50 percent demand respond, 50 percent fixed route as we move into the new facility,” Bartley said.

Bartley said the facility will also allow the transit system to increase its hours of service. Currently, the hours of operation are from 4:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. Any weekend trips must be pre-scheduled.

According to a study ordered by NTS, Adams County is ranked second as most likely to operate a profitable transportation system in southwest Mississippi. Pike County ranked No. 1.

The ranking was based on several factors, including senior and disabled populations and poverty rankings. In Adams County, 9,656 people — 30.5 percent of the population — live in poverty, according to the study. Only Pike County has a higher poverty ranking.

In addition, 7,052 make up Adams County’s disabled population while 5,345 people make up the county’s senior population. Of those seniors, 16.6 percent live in poverty.

Coupled with the number of people without personal transportation, Bartley said the need for regional transit is apparent.

The facility will employ approximately 40 people upon completion, and provide passengers up-to-the-minute information about local and regional transportation schedules.

Passengers will also be able to travel to destinations within southwest Mississippi for either work or leisure, which could spell an economic boost for the area, Bartley said.

More importantly, Bartley said the facility will provide access to education, training and employment opportunities, and passengers will be able move with more ease between their homes and desired locations.

“We are moving to a community mass transit provider concept that’s user-friendly, uses state-of-the-art technology and meets the needs of people in the region in a wonderful way,” Bartley said.

“I don’t want people to not have a job because they can’t get to their job, and this facility will help relieve us of that,” Bartley said.

“We can’t think narrow-mindedly and say, ‘This is my little area.’ We have to work together as a region to make life better for people as a whole.”