Optimism high as NRoute buses start rolling|[6/26/06]

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 26, 2006

Just before 6 this morning, Maxine Davenport adjusted her hat, cranked her Ford E-450 bus and brought mass transit back to Vicksburg.

&#8220Good morning,” she said over the radio system as she pulled out of the Walnut Towers parking garage on the first day of NRoute.

Plenty of people around town – in cars and on foot – looked on as the 20-seat handicapped-accessible bus, one of seven beginning routes today, rolled through town, but nobody had set foot on it before 7:30. By mid-morning 19 fare-paying customers had boarded.

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Davenport said she believes the passenger counts will improve on the system, which has cost nearly $1 million, mostly in public funding, to get rolling.

&#8220Everybody’s walking for exercise this morning, but nobody’s catching the bus,” she said as she turned up Clay Street. &#8220I think that it’s just with it being the first day.”

After two weeks of training, the former school bus driver for the Vicksburg Warren School District was all smiles as she carefully drove her three routes across the downtown area.

&#8220I’m excited,” she said. &#8220I’m glad.”

Davenport is one of seven bus drivers for the system. She said she is looking forward to learning the names of her customers and giving them a safe and comfortable ride during the 20-minute routes she will drive Monday through Friday.

&#8220I’m sure there will be regulars,” she said. &#8220It won’t take them any time to learn your name.”

Davenport’s first route began at China and Monroe streets. Her second route began at Walnut and Jackson streets and her third at Spring and South streets. All three begin and end at the hub, which is the downtown station at Walnut and South streets, with nine stops in between. Other routes go out to River Region Medical Center, Pemberton Square mall and Wal-Mart SuperCenter, and North Washington Street.

A bus that focuses on tourist attractions – decorated with scenes from the Vicksburg National Military Park, the Old Court House Museum, antebellum homes and other sites painted on the side – will also run daily routes.

The bus system will begin every weekday at 6 a.m. and will run continuous routes until 5:20, 5:40 and 6 p.m.

Each route begins at the downtown station at South and Walnut streets and will make between eight and 10 circuits. The buses run on hour intervals with routes ranging from 20- to 40-minutes. City officials have said adjustments will be made to routes and schedules to meet demand. Bus stop shelters are also expected to be up within 90 days. Some signs noting where the buses stop have already been put in place.

It has been more than a decade before Vicksburg has had a public transportation system in service. The city’s last effort, a system of downtown trolleys 11 years ago, cost about $120,000 and did not catch on. In its history, the city has been served by horse-drawn carts, electric trolleys and conventional buses. That last system shut down in the 1960s.

Davenport said just from hearing from people around town, the system is a good idea for Vicksburg.

&#8220I think it will help a lot of senior citizens and some people don’t have a car,” she said. &#8220They may need a ride to the store or work – it’ll help out. It’s a good environment for somebody – somebody is happy out there.”

NRoute buses were bought from Starcraft Bus of Birmingham, Ala., with a $488,000 federal grant. The Board of Mayor and Aldermen added $181,550 into the bus fund and authorized spending $237,790 to get the system running. The remaining $250,000 went into the general fund to be apportioned for other projects.

Local businesses also contributed to the project and will continue to help fund it by buying ads inside the buses. No ads will be displayed on the outside of the buses.

Fare will be $1.50 each way for regular routes, 75 cents for riders 60 and older and $3 for those who want to arrange to be picked up off a scheduled route. The revenue is projected to cover about 10 percent of the operating cost.