TUPELO • A sweeping overhaul of Tupelo’s public transportation service takes cheap, on-demand bus service citywide, but voices are mixed as to whether new transit offerings bring local government into direct competition with private taxi companies.
One owner of a local taxi company claims the changes to Tupelo’s bus system unfairly target his company.
Malcomb Driskill, a Saltillo alderman and owner of Yellow Cab of North MS in Tupelo, said he feels like the city is competing against him with his own tax dollars. Tupelo Transit charges $2 for a bus ticket, while Driskill says he has to charge a higher fee to make a profit.
The Tupelo City Council voted on June 18 to eliminate its fixed-route public transit system and allow all city residents to request bus pickup from their homes if they call the transportation office 48 hours in advance.
Driskill called this a “city-run taxi service.”
“We have a hometown business here that we’ve spent our money on, and I don’t think it’s fair for Tupelo to try and put us out of business,” he said.
When discussions about public transportation began years ago, Driskill said he approached city officials and offered to partner with the city on a voucher system where the city would pay the company a certain amount for citizens to be transported.
“If (the city) really wanted to help the citizens out in Tupelo, we would open them an account up,” he said. “And, the people that qualified that needed help, we could charge the city, and we could pick them up with the $2 and deliver them the same place and save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Mayor Jason Shelton said he doesn’t want to discredit any of Driskill’s claims, but said he had “many meetings” with Driskill about the possibility of a voucher program. However, Shelton said there wasn’t enough interest from the City Council.
“There are cities that do vouchers, and that’s something that we kind of floated a few years ago, and we didn’t get much support for it,” he said.
Shelton dismissed the claim that the new changes will compete with taxi companies. He said most of the time when people need a taxi, they need a taxi right away and won’t have the time to call 48 hours in advance.
“That is why we opted for the program that you have to have the 48-hour notice because it’s not much of a competition with private services as on-demand would be,” Shelton said. “I would personally oppose anything I thought was an unfair competition with private enterprises.”
Shelton maintains the transportation program has been a success for the city and wants to renew the program at the end of September, when the initial funding runs out. He said he defined success of the program by “ridership and a lack of problems.”
“We’ve had zero problems with the entire system, either the on-demand or the fixed route,” he said.
All of the council members voted for the change except for Ward 6 Councilman Mike Bryan, who was absent for the vote.
Previously, Bryan told the Daily Journal he opposed any form of public transportation other than having a service for disabled citizens. Bryan said he is concerned public transit will compete with taxi companies.
“We are not a year-round tourist destination,” Bryan previously said. “We’re not a big city like New York, Chicago, Chattanooga or a big city that has public transportation. We’re just not big enough. We’re not a college town where kids and people are catching the bus, either. That’s why we’re not laid out for (public transportation).”
Driskill conceded that public transportation hasn’t hurt his business a lot because most of it comes from the county and other areas, like Saltillo or Pontotoc, but he does believe some business has been lost.
“If (the city) did open it up to where they transported people from Pontotoc to Tupelo, that would probably hurt us. As far as staying in the city of Tupelo, it’s not going to make or break us,” Driskill said. “It will break the city, but it’s not going to break us.”
Jeff Jones, owner of Top Cab taxi service, has a different opinion than Driskill. He says he thinks the public transportation system won’t be successful but said public transportation hasn’t hurt his business at all.
Jones said he doesn’t think the city will ever take competition away from cab companies because taxi services “have such a toehold” on transportation in the town.
“I haven’t seen any difference in our call volume at all,” Jones said. “(The city) isn’t offering the same service. Even though they’re going door-to-door, they still can’t offer the same service.”
Jones said his company is different because his company is able to meet people somewhere to pick them up in a short amount of time, and people don’t have to call 48 hours in advance to notify them if they want to go somewhere.
“When you order a cab with us, you’ve got a cab that’ll be at your house in about five to 10 minutes.”
Jones said the changes aren’t going to have any impact on his business and public transportation is his “least worry.”
“I don’t see where it could hurt us at all,” he said. “Even with their on-demand, it still isn’t truly on demand. It’s a scheduled run.”
Jim Casey, a local resident and long-time proponent of public transportation, said he’s disappointed that people weren’t using the fixed-route system, but is glad the city tried to meet a need in the community.
He said he conducted a lot of research that showed people needed public transportation but doesn’t think the people who needed it took advantage of it.
“I feel that the public transportation mentality hasn’t been developed yet,” Casey said. “I feel good that we gave it a shot. I’m really pleased that we’re able to adjust the plan and fill some of the needs.”
Angela Northington has been using the on-demand option ever since public transportation was introduced to the city. She said she isn’t able to walk long distances and doesn’t own a car, so she mostly relies on friends and public transportation to travel places.
“The bus takes me to restaurants, and it drops me off,” Northington said. “Some days, I get it to take me to pay bills and stuff. After that, I come home.”
She said she wishes there would be even more transportation options, but she understands if people have their own vehicles to drive. She’s come to enjoy the system and would “hate for the city” to do away it.