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Bus shelters and signs began going up last week in Helena-West Helena in preparation for the start-up of CitiLink – a new fixed-route bus service for residents of the east Arkansas town.

The service, scheduled to begin Feb. 5, will run two 13-passenger vans on two routes, each with 33 stops throughout the city, said Margaret Staub, executive director of Mid-Delta Community Services Inc., the nonprofit organization that will manage the new transit system.

“We have so many low-income and elderly [residents] who don’t have access to transportation and don’t have cars,” Staub said. “The need is there, and we are going to give it our best shot.”

Passengers will pay $1 a ride for transportation citywide to work, school, job training, health-care and social-service agencies, shopping centers, recreational facilities and church, Dejuan Locke, the transit director for Mid-Delta, said.

The buses will run from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. She said one route will make a clockwise loop of the city and the other will go counter-clockwise.

Mid-Delta chose the bus stops – a total of 66 throughout Helena-West Helena – through a survey of the agency’s existing customers. The nonprofit operates other transportation programs in a four-county area encompassing Phillips, Lee, Monroe and Prairie counties.

CitiLink stops will include Phillips Community College, Helena Regional Medical Center, retail centers in old Helena and old West Helena, grocery stores and residential areas, Locke said. (Helena and West Helena merged to become one city of roughly 13,680, effective Jan. 1, 2006.)

“Everyone here is really excited about it and can’t wait for it to start,” she said. “All I can do is hope people will be there to ride it. … It is like tossing a coin: You wait and see and hope.”

Kristi Jordan, manager of First Step Apartments in Helena-West Helena, said residents of the federally subsidized complex will use the service. The nearest convenience store is a two-mile walk from the apartments, and a grocery store is even farther, she said.

First Step, with support from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, houses people with mental disabilities.

“[Most residents] are at the mercy of somebody else to take them where they need to go,” Jordan said, adding that only four of 22 residents had access to a vehicle.

A planned stop in front of the apartments will be convenient for residents and will help businesses in the area, such as a dialysis center next door, Jordan said.

“It will be great,” she said of the new bus service. “Any time most [apartment residents] go anywhere, they have to call a taxi. That costs them no less than $5.50 to go. This will be a great plus for them.”

The service also will benefit owners of retail establishments, Helena-West Helena Mayor James Valley said.

“One, it gets people from their home to the retail shop and, two, it gets them there with more money in their pocket that they can spend to buy the things they need,” Valley said. “I think it is an excellent idea.”

The idea for the transportation service came from the Delta Bridge Project, a community-based initiative aimed at revitalizing Phillips County. Delta Bridge was created in partnership with Southern Bancorp, an Arkadelphia-based development enterprise, and the Walton Family Foundation, a charitable organization.

In Phillips County, 21 percent of households lacked access to a vehicle, compared with 8.1 percent of households statewide, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

Lack of reliable transportation and a high poverty rate – 32.7 percent of households in Phillips County have incomes below the federal poverty level – made a citywide transportation service a high priority for Delta Bridge project members, said Ben Steinberg, president of Southern Financial Partners, which is an affiliate of Southern Bancorp.

“There are neighborhoods in Helena-West Helena where up to 70 percent of families do not own a private vehicle,” Steinberg said. “Shopping, going to the doctor, going to community college, going to a person’s job becomes really difficult.”

Some people often rely on taxis, which are expensive, to get from point A to point B, he said.

“We think we can provide a much more efficient alternative,” Steinberg said. “It would be more regular and cheaper.”

Mid-Delta, he said, was the ideal agency to oversee the new service because it already manages other transportation efforts in the Phillips County.

In this, its start-up year, funding for the bus system has come from a $116,000 grant from the Delta Bridge Project, a $15,000 grant from the local Helena Health Foundation, and $25,000 in Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department grant money, Staub said.

An additional $77,000 in anticipated fares will augment funding during the first year, Staub said, adding that the service will need to generate at least that much annually to continue operating after the first year.

Mid-Delta will continue to operate its other transportation services, including a dial-a-ride program in Helena-West Helena.

That service allows citizens to arrange for pickup and transportation to a specific location with at least 24 hours’ notice.

Other agency programs include fixed-route services that transport people in the four counties to jobs or health-care centers as far away as Little Rock.

The difference with CitiLink is that it will be the first highly concentrated route in a rural community, Staub said.

Fourteen public transit systems operate in Arkansas, including about six or seven rural transit systems, said Ann Gilbert, executive director of the Arkansas Transit Association, a nonprofit advocacy group for transportation agencies.

Though many of the rural systems are demand-and-response, in which people call to arrange for a ride, some fixedroute programs operate as well, Gilbert said.

Eureka Springs, for example, runs a downtown trolley system.