NRoute ridership on rise,

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 25, 2008

On a sunny Thursday afternoon, Kevin Liggis and his mother, Daisey, step onto an NRoute bus on East Avenue near their home and head downtown. They are regular riders, and they greet bus driver Maxine Davenport by name.

“I ride pretty often, probably three days a week,” said Kevin Liggis. “Not every day, because I’ve only got so much money.”

Still, at $1.50 per trip, NRoute is a cheaper mode of transportation for Liggis than taking a taxi or filling up his car with gas, closing in on $4 a gallon.

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Liggis is one of few riders in Vicksburg for whom public transportation is an option and not a necessity, Davenport said.

“Most of them don’t have any other transportation,” she said. “It’s either the bus or a taxi.”

Rising gas prices are cited as one of the main reasons public transportation is becoming increasingly popular nationwide, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Last year ridership rose by 2.1 percent, compared with annual increases in years past of about 1 percent, said APTA Director of Communications Mantill Williams.

“That’s the biggest jump we’ve seen in about 50 years,” he said. “Gas prices are undoubtedly having a big impact on those numbers.”

While gas prices may not have as big of an impact locally as they do in urban areas across the country, the number of people using public transportation in Vicksburg is nonetheless on the rise.

“Ridership is continuing to climb, and we are getting new clients daily,” said NRoute Executive Director Evelyn Bumpers. “We have surpassed our expectations. We initially looked at maybe being at 50,000 to 60,000 passengers in our first five years, and we’re already there in less than three years.”

NRoute drove its first passengers on June 26, 2006. A federal grant of nearly $1 million was used to purchase six diesel minibuses and several covered bus stops for use on seven routes.

Operated as a department of the City of Vicksburg at its outset, NRoute became an independent utility in February 2007. The fivemember transit commission is operating on a $600,000 budget this fiscal year, which Bumpers said it has not had to alter due to gas prices or cost increases. In fact, Bumpers noted the service is expanding, and she continues to look for new services to offer customers.

Last week NRoute purchased three additional minibuses to add to its fleet, and it added two additional routes last May.

“We’re also looking into becoming charter-certified to lease out some services, which would help with overall revenue,” she said. “There’s a portion of transportation service for the Warren-Yazoo Mental Health Service and MIDDWest Industries we could pick up.”

Operational costs associated with providing a public transportation system are rising even more steadily than ridership. The average price of a gallon of diesel is about $4.40 over the past month, compared to about $2.73 a year ago. However, Bumpers said subsidies from the Mississippi Department of Transportation have kept the NRoute Transit Commission from having to alter budgets or consider hiking fares.

“It looks as if the transit commission is taking the big hit, but it’s not,” she said. “If our spending was all out of our own budget, it could be a major issue.”

Fifty percent of NRoute operating costs