The Starkville-Mississippi State University Area Rapid Transit (SMART) system could soon add a line linking local residents enrolled in East Mississippi Community College workforce training programs to the junior college’s Mayhew campus, said Jeremiah Dumas, MSU’s director of parking, transit and sustainability.
After expanding its Starkville footprint with additional local stops and adding a line connecting hotels to the Golden Triangle Regional Airport, Dumas said his department will shift its focus to maintaining local growth and reaching out further into the tri-county area.
Dumas and other officials have routinely said linking Starkville to Golden Triangle manufacturing bases in Clay and Lowndes counties and increasing access to other area educational opportunities have been primary long-term goals of SMART.
Representatives from EMCC and MSU are having strategic discussions about connecting the two entities, Dumas said, and SMART officials are exploring van pool options that can connect Starkville to various job sites.
“Those are both likely on the horizon,” he said. “(EMCC has) come to the table and is willing to work with us. There’s a real need when you look at the participants in workforce training programs, especially the ones utilizing SNAP benefits with the training. A lot of those people are in the demographic without transportation options, and SMART is here to meet those needs.”
Dumas did not give a timeline on when the new routes could be added, but SMART’s next grant application is expected to reserve additional funds toward future shelter construction.
SMART, which is funded through a federal rural mass transit grant administered by the Mississippi Department of Transportation, expanded MSU’s on-campus shuttle system to service strategic stops throughout Starkville and link the city to the university.
It is free for all riders.
The bulk of SMART buses service students on campus, but Dumas said local, non-student ridership has increased each year since the mass transit system was launched in 2014.
The university suspended three of its campus routes for the summer, but the lines that service Starkville and connect to the university — both Boardtown loops, Highway 12 Express, Sportsplex Express, and Old Main Express — remain active.
A reduction in students riding the buses means the percentage of those not affiliated with the university taking advantage of SMART increases, Dumas said.
“I haven’t seen the numbers in the last few weeks, but we know anecdotally that we’re seeing the same amount of ridership from the community (as before the summer break),” he said. “That’s the hallmark we look for to make sure it’s an effective system.”
Last year marked the first time SMART continued city operations between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, a time when the university typically suspends bus operations for the holidays.
In that week, Dumas said, SMART provided rides to 1,800 people.
“That was pure city ridership,” he said.
SMART’s GTRA route has also found success since it launched in January. The route, which started with pick-ups at Walmart and The Mill at MSU, was modified in February so guests at hotels along Highway 12 could call ahead to MSU’s transit team and request a ride from their place of lodging.
“We’re receiving great feedback from the hotels,” Dumas said. “It’s a service people appreciate, because everyone expects to have transportation options when they arrive at an airport.”
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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