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October 1st, 2010
PBS NEWSHOUR
Profiles from the Recession
[VIDEO] Riding The Bus In Natchez, Miss.

In an economic recession that has isolated countless Americans, rural residents without a way to get around may be the most isolated of all.

We don’t think much about public transportation in rural areas — out in the country, owning a car is pretty much a given. But those who can’t afford one can’t go anywhere — not even to the doctor’s office or the grocery store — without some form of public transit. Of the billions of highway and transit dollars in federal stimulus money, a small amount is going to help those with no access to transportation other than their own two feet.

The mostly-rural state of Mississippi has been awarded nearly $2.5 billion in overall recovery dollars from Washington, more than $17 million of which is going to build up rural public transit. Natchez, a small Mississippi River town in Adams County, has a plan in place which uses $4 million in stimulus to change rural transportation not just for the state but for all of small town America.

More than 10 percent of the county’s 30,000 residents don’t have access to a car — a number consistent across rural America. Some in Natchez call investment in bus service yet another example of stimulus waste — considering that 90 percent of people do own cars. But others see Natchez’s new public bus service as an example for the rest of the country.

In a report from Blueprint America on PBS NewsHour, special correspondent Miles O’Brien reports from Natchez:

In Adams County, hard times have more or less been constant since the 1980s when the local oil boom went to oil bust throughout the county. In the time since, other industries like lumber have seen a decline, too. The recession has only made things worse. Today, over a third of the population lives in poverty.

Started as a bus service for seniors in the 1980s, Natchez Transit has expanded to help long-struggling residents get to school, work, the store and medical care. We sat down with some of these transit-dependent riders and their bus driver to learn what transportation access means out in the country:

The problems and needs of people in poor, rural America are not new. Still, the recession and the resulting stimulus have given new attention to these areas of the country. Charles Carr, Transit Director for the Mississippi Department of Transportation, believes the time is now to readdress how transportation policy is implemented in rural Mississippi and the rest of the country:

Producers Cameron Hickey and Tom McNamara, editor David Kreger and special correspondent Miles O’Brien for Blueprint America

  • Stephanie

    Thanks for the wonderful coverage on rural Mississippi mass transit. What a wonderful idea and a great way to help people get to jobs and services. A win-win for businesses and consumers. I wish them all the success. And thanks for your excellent reporting!

  • bill

    “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?”

    Truer words have never been said on this subject — I’ve never heard it explained so plainly.

  • Abe O

    Sure, the stimulus is having an impact here, but that seems to be more a rarity than common occurrence. This is a profile in stimulus dumb-luck. The government is lucky that Natchez was able to put the money to good use — I see people in need in this story, and stimulus will help them.

  • Highway robbery

    Highway robbery, I’ll say it again. So what if the road I drive on is as subsidized as the bus — more people drive. You said it yourself, 90 percent.

  • Christopher Drinkut

    And what an interesting development that might be. Hmm.

  • Lisa Welch

    Talk about not sustainable…

  • ross d

    I never considered a bus operating in rural areas.

  • Andrew

    Natchez is providing a vital service connecting lower income people to jobs.

    Notable in the story is the opposition – the car salesman. Any stimulus used to steer people away from buying his cars naturally to him is a bad use of money, because he perceives it as taking away potential customers. That could be, but given the spread out rural nature of the area, he shouldn’t feel threatened, since many others that can afford cars will still want to buy them.

    Also notable is the transportation official’s statement that EVERY form of transportation in this country is subsidized, including the publicly funded roads that we drive our private vehicles on. In fact, highway transportation receives massive government subsidy, primarily through the gas taxes we pay at the pump. It dwarfs the subsidy for trains and bus mass transit.

  • Sarah SD

    I’m from a rural state, and a rural city. Growing up, I noticed buses like the one’s running in Natchez. It is needed, but… expansion? People in need in rural America need help. But those that don’t, they live there for the long drives, for the open country. Still, I think this coordinated plan they are talking about will save the tax payers money and hopefully give more people access that don’t already have it.

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