Supervisors back regional transit commission|[01/26/07]

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 26, 2007

With a $35,000 investment of county funds already in Vicksburg’s NRoute minibus system, Warren County supervisors expressed support for a transit commission to run it – with a firm understanding of such a commission’s finances and oversight.

The board heard from City Planner Wayne Mansfield on the issue, one that city officials set as a goal for NRoute, which debuted six months ago.

&#8220This is something the mayor and aldermen want soon,” Mansfield said.

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City officials created a new department, headed by Evelyn Bumpers, to operate the system, but want to spin it out from under their direct oversight.

Mansfield told the board a commission with members appointed by both government entities was a workable model, along the lines of the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau or the Warren County Port Commission.

&#8220That’s the direction we’re going in,” he said, adding it would &#8220take politics out” of decisions made regarding the bus system.

Bumpers, hired from Meridian, has previously indicated commission members have been identified but have yet to assemble.

A transit commission would be able to borrow money through issuing bonds, Mansfield indicated, but only with the city or county government as the sponsor agency.

Supervisors were wary of committing too soon to the idea, or seeking local and private legislation to spell out its composition immediately.

&#8220If they handle money, who will they be obligated to? That’s the question that needs to be answered,” District 5 Supervisor and Board President Richard George said.

Mansfield said more discussions have been held with officials in neighboring communities, most notably Port Gibson and Yazoo City, about regionalizing public transportation once a commission gets established.

&#8220There have been conversations,” he said, referencing U.S. Census Bureau estimates of about 5,500 people who live in other counties but commute to work daily in Warren County.

A shorter-range goal for the system’s six, 20-seat buses is to increase stops, most likely along U.S. 61 South, Mansfield said.

Supervisors, for their part, said the expansion of the system would likely bring escalated costs.

For riders who pay full price, fares are $1.50 each way. A 25-cent fee is charged for each transfer between buses. Senior citizens pay 75 cents with no transfer fee.

Fares are projected to cover about 10 percent of operating costs, with the the remainder coming from public sources.

A $488,000 federal grant through the Mississippi Department of Transportation paid startup costs, including purchase of the buses.

NRoute has served 9,170 riders since it began June 26, 2006. The busiest month was August, with 1,925 riders, coinciding with record-high gasoline prices here and nationwide that month.

In other business, supervisors approved a joint resolution between the city and county supporting higher cell phone surcharges to pay for 911 dispatch services.

If granted, local government could hike the fee up to $3 per cell phone from the current $1 per line.

Opposition is expected from anti-tax forces in the Legislature, including Gov. Haley Barbour.