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VOL. 129 | NO. 114 | Thursday, June 12, 2014

Trolley Hiatus Comes at Critical Time for MATA

By Bill Dries

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The decision by the Memphis Area Transit Authority to temporarily stop all trolley service comes at a time of broader change for the city’s mass transit system.

The trolleys that went into service on the Main Street Mall in the early 1990s were vintage street cars from Portugal and Australia that were restored. Some of them are 100 years old.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The Main Street Trolley line that opened in the early 1990s and brought trolleys back in service for the first time in decades is getting its first comprehensive maintenance since the opening 22 years ago.

The maintenance is part of the Main to Main Intermodal Project that includes other improvements to Main Street from Uptown to South Main as well as Broadway Avenue in West Memphis, Ark.

The issue that forced the transit authority to shut down the trolleys was also maintenance of the fleet of 15 trolleys.

MATA President Tom Fox said he made the decision after experts from the American Public Transportation Association recommended in a preliminary report a complete overhaul of the existing “heritage” trolleys, the replacement of them with new heritage trolleys or replacing them with more modern looking streetcars.

In any case, the existing trolley cars cannot continue, at least without a comprehensive rebuilding.

The experts reviewed the trolleys, some in use since the lined opened for service in 1992, following a fire on a trolley car in April, the second in six months on the Madison Avenue line.

“The review of the trolley system makes it clear that an overhaul or replacement of the current vehicles is inevitable and there is no reason to delay,” Fox said. “The report indicated that the system and basic physical infrastructure is strong, but the vehicles themselves have merely reached the natural end of their safe and efficient use without renovation.”

Fox estimated it will take three to six months for the transit authority to make a decision that involves the cost of each option. That’s about the soonest fully renovated trolley cars could be back in service probably in some limited way.

In the interim, the transit authority will run new hybrid electric shuttle buses along reconfigured trolley routes.

“This is not an easy decision. The trolleys have become icons. But it is the right decision,” Fox said.

He estimated restoring existing trolleys in service would be the least expensive option for the transit authority with going to more modern looking streetcars the most expensive.

The trolleys that went into service on the Main Street Mall in the early 1990s were vintage street cars from Portugal and Australia that were restored. Some of them are 100 years old.

Whatever decision the transit authority makes, it is a pivotal moment for a trolley system that has seen service adjustments in recent years designed to make the trolleys a more viable form of timely transportation for Memphians as well as tourists.

Tourists are able to enjoy the leisurely pace of the trolleys. But Memphians and others trying to get somewhere at a specific time were vocal in their complaints about the service.

Since the changes, MATA has logged increased ridership – approximately 1.3 million riders in the last 12 months, according to the transit authority.

Meanwhile, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s administration is undertaking a national search for the transit authority’s permanent leadership. Fox, who had been deputy general manager, took the top job following the retirement earlier this year of long-time MATA president and general manager William Hudson.

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