Transportation On Campus and Off

Mississippi State University, located on 4,200 acres in the eastern part of north-central Mississippi, was established in 1878 and enrolls more than 18,000 students.

With no local transportation system in the city of Starkville, the university transit system provides all transportation for moving students and faculty around. At present, the system has 16 buses but, according to Director Mike Harris, they will have 20 by the fall of 2010.

"We run Monday through Friday, 7:30 to 5:30 on six routes on campus carrying 6,000 to 6,500 riders a day," Harris says. "And then we have what we call the night route, which runs Thursday, Friday night and Saturday night." As he explains, the night routes are connectors between the university community and the city so the students have an opportunity to go downtown to restaurants and shopping. There's also a Saturday shuttle to provide students the opportunity for getting around town.

"We're an all-encompassed university system, we really don't do anything as far as out in the community, so to speak," says Harris. "We're just kind of our own little entity."

A really unique aspect about the system is that they don't charge student fees for transportation. "Most universities, the majority of universities, charge a transit fee to the student body," Harris explains. "It's done several ways. A lot of times it's done per student hour that you take, or sometimes it's a flat rate of 15, 20 or 30 dollars per semester per student.

"In the essence, that's how they fund their transit systems." He continues, "We're very different in that respect, that there is no cost to the student as far as a fee or anything. It's all pretty open and I think that's pretty unique to what we do."

With tough economic times, it?s not that fees haven't been contemplated. It's been talked about for several years, but as Harris says, fees are not exactly smiled upon when you're trying to get fees through the university system. "We try to give the student as much of an economical advantage as we can to come here as opposed to maybe going somewhere else." He adds, "I don't think that it would be something that we would do in the near future, but then again, economics always dictate that in some way, shape or form."

Originally Harris came in as a transportation coordinator and his job was to basically coordinate a reservation system for the shuttles and oversee the shuttle operations on campus. "I used to run a fleet of vehicles in a company in a plant and we had a fleet of rental vehicles, vehicles we rented out, and they ran to various places in the counties and the state and operating." He explains, "When the transportation coordinator position came open here at the university, I applied for it and was fortunate enough to get it."

Charter Service on Campus
MSU also has a bus system for moving teams and groups across the state, region, and in essence, across the country. Everett Kennard, director transportation services, explains, "What you have to understand about our little operation here is that we are a charter company within the university. Any department that uses this bus pays us for the use of that bus.

"You call my department and tell us what you want and where you're going and we give you a quote. We're like a travel agent," Kennard says. "We provide one of our units for you or we will get you an outside company. We have a tremendous relationship with bus companies all over this country."

In 1993 MSU bought a bus for providing team and group transportation services. As Kennard explains, Ed Buckner "stuck his neck out" and bought a 1979 bus. "He made one trip, it broke down and his neck was on the chopping block.

"He called me, I was a local farmer. He called me because he knew I had some experience with large equipment. He was kind of in a bind — he was needing some help and he asked me if I would make a couple of trips for him until he could find somebody."

Kennard says, "I laugh and tell everybody 20-something years later, he never found someone."

"I was farming at the time, in the dairy business milking cows, which is a very demanding occupation," Kennard says. Buckner asked if he wanted to go full time. "I told him I would try it and so I did and I've been here ever since.

"The farming economy took an about turn; it was great to have a second income for my family and so it's just grown from there." Kennard says that being a people person is part of why he has enjoyed being in transportation. "I interact with people, I do what they want to do. I am a Mississippi State alumnus, I have been there for all my life, that's my school, that's my heart, that's my family.

"Our goal is to save the university 12 to 20 percent on their travel and to give them better service than they can get in the area." He adds, "You're got to have every piece of travel at that school. Sixty percent of what we do is athletics and 39 percent are class field trips; you?re got to have that to make this thing go."

Eventually the '79 bus was sold and they now have four units. Last year they had an idea they wanted to try, and that was to fulfill a lot of requests from some of his groups for a sleeper bus. Kennard explains they took one bus and converted it into a unit that's decked out with surround sound, flat screens, leather couches, dinette tables and all of it folds up into 24 bunks for sleeping in.

Tough Economic Times
When asked what their biggest challenge is, without hesitation, the answer for both was "budget."

Harris says, "No question, it's always about the budget.

"The way our budget situation is, we have no student fee that supports the transportation system on campus." He explains further, "Shuttle services is a subsidiary of parking management so what we do is we rent our shuttles out by the hour to various departments and organizations off campus and that generates approximately two-thirds off our budget." The shuttles are rented out for football games and for various events. He says the other third of the budget is supplemented through their parking operations.

To generate revenue Harris explains they have internal advertising on the shuttles. "We try to expand our advertising options out there so that can generate us additional funds for the revenue stream.

"Of course we've expanded our fleets so that we have more vehicles to rent and the rentals have certainly increased. Every year they've increased because it?s such an economical thing to do for a fraternity or a sorority or an organization on campus having an event." He adds, "I think expanding our rental program has probably been key to offsetting some of the cost and the advertising aspect of it has helped as well."

Kennard agrees on the budget woes. "Our university has undergone two huge budget cuts. The good thing is, I think we're important more now than ever because we can save this school travel money.

"We've got a philosophy here and we've always built on this, we're going to save this university money and we're going to do a better job than anywhere else."

Expanding for the Future
Looking to the future, Harris sees potential in providing expanded transportation services for the students. Working with the city to do some expanded routes to help students get to campus, alleviating parking issues, is something he would like to see. "I think that would go along with a lot of the sustainability things we?re trying to implement, and of course carpooling and those types of things, it's all a part of that as well." Harris adds, "I think the future's going to bring some expansion on our part into the community."