The Starkville-Mississippi State University Rapid Area Transit (SMART) has formally expanded its footprint in Starkville after experimenting with new public routes and stops this year, and plans are in the works to link local riders to the Golden Triangle Regional Airport, Columbus and West Point in the future.
After it was announced SMART would split its primary city-circular route — the Boardtown Route — into two connected routes, the MSU-run transit system added additional access locations: the Salvation Army’s Airport Road location, Louisville Street’s Dirt Cheap shopping area and Emerson Family School, which is located near city limits on Louisville Street, in the south and Garrard and Reed road locations in the north.
The university also expanded its Highway 12 route, which connects Montgomery Hall to the city’s primary retail corridor from The Mill development to the 911 shopping center near Wal-Mart, and the Old Main Express route now also will extend from downtown to the Greensboro-Overstreet area and provide a stop at Patriots Park next to Green Oaks.
“We have a real demand from city residents for some type of mass transit,” said Jeremiah Dumas, the university’s parking, transit and sustainability director. “The real challenge we face as we grow over the next several years is how to meet that increased demand. Right now in the summer, we’re seeing people relying on SMART more and more. These changes this year are wholesale responses to feedback and where we see people wanting service.”
Dumas confirmed SMART buses have already begun picking up riders at the new locations and the department is now shifting focus toward its regional goal of connecting the Golden Triangle — Columbus, Starkville and West Point — to the area’s regional airport and local industries.
“This partnership with (the Mississippi Department of Transportation) will allow us to link residents with jobs — Yokohama (Tire Corporation), Steel Dynamics, PACCAR (Engine Company) and others — as well as an even bigger transportation hub, the Golden Triangle Regional Airport,” he said. “Mike (Hainsey, GTRA’s executive director) and the folks at the airport have been fantastic partners. This is something we’re hearing requests from all over about and one we’ll try to accomplish as quickly as possible.”
Dumas did not say when SMART could begin servicing GTRA and other Golden Triangle cities, but the effort is included in MSU’s Fiscal Year 2016 funding proposal.
The system’s funding
SMART, which is free for all riders, operates under a rural mass transit program provided by the federal government and administered through MDOT. Twenty percent of capital improvement costs — buses and shelters, for example — are covered by MSU, Dumas told aldermen during a February report, while operations and maintenance are split 50-50 between grant funding and local matches.
MSU’s most recent funding request is for $3.2 million, Dumas said this winter while outlining the grant program to the city.
In-kind services, such as maintenance and upkeep of bus shelters, are provided by the city.
The combined city-campus transit system transported almost 800,000 riders from Jan. 1, 2014, to the end of January, Dumas said. Of that total, the city-specific routes — the former Boardtown loop, Old Main Express and Sportsplex route — carried about 140,000 people.
Since officials view the former Boardtown route as transporting a high percentage of residents, not students, Dumas said he was encouraged to see average daily ridership almost double from spring to fall in 2014.
“The number was growing through the semester,” he said to aldermen in February while outlining SMART’s upcoming grant proposal.
The mass transit system will now utilize five city routes — Boardtown North, Boardtown South, Highway 12, Sportsplex and Old Main Express — that connect to on-campus, student-heavy routes.
The new Boardtown stops also provide access to key Starkville points: the Salvation Army stop is located near the local Medicaid office; the Dirt Cheap drop-off location provides a central point between Starkville High School and the Middle Court shopping center; and the Garrard Road location can service housing clusters and a nearby Dollar General.
“These are places with real demand,” Dumas said, “and those are the areas we want to serve.”
Since its unveiling, officials have heralded the public transit link between the city and its primary economic engine as a significant and progressive tool.
Last week, Vice Mayor Roy A. Perkins emphasized the importance of SMART and encouraged residents across the city to take advantage of the free service.
Four city-specific routes — Boardtown North, Boardtown South, Highway 12 and Old Main Express — operate 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, while the campus-linking Sportsplex Express’ operates on the same time schedule but from Monday through Friday.
Riders can use SMART’s website — transit.msstate.edu — to see route maps, bus locations and their estimated arrival times.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch