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Rural Transit Options Sought in Miss. Despite ‘Welfare on Wheels’ Criticism

September 30, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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One Mississippi community is using stimulus money to bring mass transit to rural areas around the clock. Special correspondent Miles O'Brien of has our "Blueprint America" series report.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next: a story about how federal stimulus dollars are helping build a new transportation system in rural Mississippi. It’s another in our Blueprint America series, a collaboration with WNET.org in New York City. The reporter is special correspondent Miles O’Brien.

KENNY WATSON, transit driver: Unit one, going to be 10-80 leaving the center.

MILES O’BRIEN: It’s 6:00 a.m. in Natchez, Mississippi, a small city of about 20,000 people right along the Mississippi River.

MAN: Good morning, Kenny.

KENNY WATSON: Morning. Turning right back, Charles. How you doing?

MILES O’BRIEN: Before the day is over, Natchez Transit driver Kenny Watson (ph) will have driven more than 300 country miles and picked up about 25 passengers.

KENNY WATSON: People look for that transit system like they look for the sun to come up.

MILES O’BRIEN: There are small door-to-door public services like this throughout rural America.

KENNY WATSON: How you doing, Willie?

MAN: All right.

MILES O’BRIEN: They transport people who can’t drive or don’t have access to a car. Around here, that’s about 10 percent of the population.

ROBERT ADAMS, transit rider: This is my main source of transportation, and I thank the lord for it.

MILES O’BRIEN: Robert Adams takes the bus every morning to his job as a customer service manager at the local Wal-Mart.

ROBERT ADAMS: We have a lot of people here, really, they can’t do anything, and they need that bus. They need to get to the doctor. They need to get to the store to buy food, buy clothing, however they’re going to do it. They need that bus.

MILES O’BRIEN: A ride costs as little as $2. It comes when you call it.

ROBERT ADAMS: Hello. Would you please kindly send a transit bus to such and such an address? OK. Boom. Wait 10 minutes, 15 minutes. Beep, beep. There it is. You on it. You gone.

SABRENA BARTLEY, director, Natchez Transit: I do not have to tell you how important that transportation is in the community.

MILES O’BRIEN: Sabrena Bartley has been at the helm of Natchez Transit for nearly a decade.

SABRENA BARTLEY: We want to expand services to underserved rural areas.

MILES O’BRIEN: She has been holding meetings to let people know that she recently got $4 million in stimulus dollars from Washington to transform her call-a-ride service into a much larger regional mass transit system.

With stagnating wages and rising energy costs, Bartley says the need for affordable and reliable transportation in rural America is growing.

SABRENA BARTLEY: We have just got to have some transportation options in rural America, just like we do in the big cities. We have got to have that.

MILES O’BRIEN: You think big, don’t you?

SABRENA BARTLEY: Yes, indeed. I am a visionary thinker.

The first thing that is going to happen is that this building is going to come down, and we will build a new facility from the ground up.

MILES O’BRIEN: The new building will cost $2.5 million. A centralized call center will coordinate buses rumbling through 13 rural counties, buses that, for the first time, will operate 24 hours a day and have set routes and timetables.

But not everyone buys the idea.

CARL ROGEL, car dealer: Everything looks good to go here. Natchez car dealer Carl Rogel thinks people would be better off buying cars.

CARL ROGEL: I just don’t see the value in it. I think it’s just an example, a microcosm of how, although the stimulus may be a good idea, the waste. This $4 million doesn’t need to be spent on the bus system here.

MILES O’BRIEN: He says a bus system will never catch on out here in the country.

CARL ROGEL: A bus system in this area is never going to be profitable. So, not only are we spending the initial $4 million of the stimulus money; you know, someone is going to have to support that system, and that someone is going to be the taxpayer.

MILES O’BRIEN: The editorial board at The Natchez Democrat is also skeptical. They did some math and warned that, at about $20 a ride, taxpayers may not be getting the most bang for their buck.

CHARLES CARR, director of transit services, Mississippi Department of Transportation: This is one of those things about the stimulus money. We have got to dot every I. and cross every T.

MILES O’BRIEN: Charles Carr is the director of transit services for the Mississippi Department of Transportation. He helped secure the stimulus grant and says the new transit program will be subsidized, but no more than any other public system.

I have seen some of the critics on the Web say, you know, it’s welfare on wheels, essentially. How do you respond to that?

CHARLES CARR: Well, we can’t necessarily respond directly to that and wipe that opinion away, because any form of subsidy, in the minds of certain people, is always going to be interpreted as a welfare mentality.

But is that same welfare mentality that has supported Amtrak for years, that supports the airlines? Do — do most folks understand that highway construction is supported by subsidy?

MILES O’BRIEN: Bartley thinks the money will come back into the community. She predicts the stimulus package will create 40 short-term and 25 full-time jobs, and perhaps attract others.

SABRENA BARTLEY: If you’re going to attract some industries, one of the things people want to know, well, how are my employees going to get to my job site? Transportation is that link.

MILES O’BRIEN: And since low-wage workers on average spend at least 40 percent of their income on car, gas and maintenance, she says they could save money taking the bus. Peggy Polk is a cook at a local diner.

So, if you didn’t have this service, what would you do?

PEGGY POLK, transit rider: Oh, my goodness. If I didn’t have it, what would I do? I would probably have to get a used car, and probably have trouble with it, and end up not going to work half the time, because you know how dependable used cars are.

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes, exactly.

To make this new venture a success, Natchez Transit is counting on hundreds more people to choose to leave their cars behind and start taking buses.

SABRENA BARTLEY: Are we going to change that overnight? No. But how — we change it by one person at a time providing excellent service and by someone deciding, this is an option, and I am going to try this option.

MILES O’BRIEN: For now, Rogel remains unconvinced.

CARL ROGEL: I think, after we see this experiment — and that’s what it really is, an experiment — we will see a lot of waste, a lot of buses sitting around, and a lot of expense.

MILES O’BRIEN: So far, this stimulus project has created five new jobs in Natchez. For driver Kenny Watson, whose part-time employment just became full-time, the investment is already paying off.

JEFFREY BROWN: This week, the NewsHour announced that Miles O’Brien, the reporter on that story, will join us as our science correspondent. And we’re very happy to welcome him aboard.