Bus drivers optimistic despite Day 1 emptiness|[6/28/06]

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Describing their first day on the job as both &#8220smooth” and &#8220empty,” drivers on the city’s NRoute transit system remained optimistic.

&#8220For the first day, it’s pretty good,” said Olevia Hodges-Palmer, one of seven drivers hired by the City of Vicksburg to pilot six 20-seat, wheelchair-accessible Ford E-450 buses on seven routes. &#8220It’ll be better tomorrow.”

The roughly $730,000 system had 60 riders Monday, said Evelyn Bumpers, hired as director here based on experience with public transportation in Meridian.

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&#8220We haven’t had any problems at this point,” she said near the end of Monday’s debut. &#8220Drivers are getting used to the routes and people are getting used to riding them.”

The first week is free to all riders. Beginning next week, regular fares – $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 – are projected to cover about 10 percent of the operating cost. Subsidies from local funds, state and federal grants and numerous large private contributions by businesses hoping the buses will bring more employees and customers with them are expected to cover the remaining 90 percent.

&#8220I think word of mouth will do a lot; people telling people,” said driver Shirley Love, who picked up 13 &#8220very polite” passengers on an 8 a.m.-4 p.m. shift that included stops at River Region Medical Center and Wal-Mart SuperCenter. Most of those people were grocery shopping, she said, though she also picked up two Hurricane Katrina refugees from New Orleans and one rider looking to apply for a job at Cracker Barrel at Vicksburg Factory Outlets.

&#8220He had to transfer from another bus” that didn’t go by the outlet mall, Love said, and wound up riding nearly two complete routes around the city – which he still considered better than a $10 cab fare.

&#8220He didn’t mind,” she said. &#8220He said he liked the cool” of the bus’s air conditioning.

Two hours and two trips around town into the new job, driver Wayne Sykes hadn’t been as fortunate: he hadn’t picked up any riders on two largely downtown routes named for Clay Street – Clay Street North and Clay Street South – or a trip through Marcus Bottom before circling back around to the system’s downtown hub, at the parking garage on South Street.

&#8220It’s just empty right now,” he said, adding that he did have one person on the street wave him down before deciding to continue walking north to the Kings neighborhood.

&#8220I think it’s just a matter of people figuring out the schedule,” said Love. &#8220A lot of them wanted printouts of the schedule.”

NRoute has been advertised in local media, and Mayor Laurence Leyens said this morning he wanted cards listing routes and pickup times in local stores.

It was more than a decade between Monday’s routes and Vicksburg’s last effort at public transportation, a system of downtown trolleys 11 years ago, which 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 bus system shut down in the 1960s.

The most recent decision investing about $733,000 so far has followed a 2002 Chamber of Commerce study that pointed to the economic benefits of a system that helped get more people to work and inside local stores. The study estimated nearly 10 percent of Warren County residents, and more than 16 percent of people 65 and over, had no vehicle available to them. The numbers were higher in certain census tracts with double-digit unemployment rates.

Seventy-two percent of 523 residents surveyed in the study said they would use public transportation at least once a month, mostly to get to grocery stores, work, pharmacies and doctors’ offices.

Leyens has said the funds exist to keep the system going for three years. Love, who continues to run a cleaning business she’s owned for 20 years in addition to her driving duties, said she expects to be at her &#8220second” job for at least that long.

&#8220I plan on doing this for a while,” she said.